Tortured and Wrongly Held at Guantánamo for 14 Years, Abdul Zahir Now Has Freedom, but No Justice
by Adam Hudson, Truthout | Report –
Before Barack Obama left office, he released 10 detainees from Guantánamo to Oman. Among them was Abdul Zahir, a 45-year-old man from Afghanistan. Zahir was detained at Guantánamo for 14 years, even though the US government later admitted that he was wrongfully held. He was mistaken for another man who shared his nickname, Abdul Bari. Zahir’s story exemplifies the cruelty of Guantánamo and the policies of indefinite detention and torture, which will, in all likelihood, continue with Trump as president.
“I want to leave behind the bad things that happened to me while I have been imprisoned. I want to focus on the positive things ahead of me, seeing my family again, studying at university and perhaps being able to help others,” Zahir said, according a press release provided by his lawyers before he left Guantánamo. Zahir has three sons and speaks Arabic, Pashto and some Urdu, Farsi and English. Before his capture, he worked as a translator, shuttle driver and Arabic teacher.
US troops captured Zahir on July 11, 2002, during a raid in Afghanistan targeting another man named Abdul Bari — an alias also used by Zahir. The raid occurred at a compound in Hesarak village, which is a few miles east of Kabul and northeast of Gardez. Abdul Bari (not Zahir) allegedly helped produce and distribute chemical or biological weapons for al-Qaeda.
A day or two after the raid, US forces recovered “suspicious items,” according to a military intelligence assessment, including a white powder that they initially believed was a chemical or biological agent. However, on later examination, the substances turned out to be salt, sugar and petroleum jelly. When the Periodic Review Board determined, on July 11, 2016, that Abdul Zahir should be released, it also concluded that Zahir “was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation.”
Zahir was not the only Guantánamo detainee detained because of a mistaken identity. In fact, another Guantánamo detainee among those released to Oman — Yemeni Mustafa al Shamiri — was also mistaken for another man with a similar name.
Torture and Assault in Guantánamo
Like every Guantánamo detainee, Zahir was tortured. His military defense lawyer, US Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas told Truthout that after Zahir’s capture, US forces “gave him the treatment that they thought every Brown person, every Muslim person they captured deserved — they tortured him.”
Zahir was tortured by US forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, where he was transferred on October 27, 2002.
Thomas explained that Zahir suffered beatings, exposure to cold temperatures, cramped confinement, stress positions, hog-tying and sexual assault. “He would be kept in very small rooms with the air conditioning unit running full blast without proper clothing — so, a pair of shorts — and an iron bed,” Thomas said. Zahir “would be placed in interrogation rooms right under the air conditioner and they would make the room as cold as possible, with his hands tied to his waist, and then he would be tied into a fetal position on the floor in that very cold room.” In addition, Zahir “spent a year in a room that he called ‘a cage for animals.’ And in that room, he had to eat, sleep, exercise and shower all in the same place. Including elimination of waste.”
During the time he spent in that small room, a group of US troops would come into the room “wearing outfits meant to make him frightened” and “would spray a burning gas above his head,” while he was shirtless. Those troops would “drop him to the floor and two people would sit on his lower back and tie his hands and feet behind him,” a practice known as “hog-tying.” They would “then pick him up like a sheep and take him elsewhere where they would quickly immerse him in water that was flowing fast from a very big pipe.” After that, they would “take him back to where he was and drop him from about one meter onto the ground still tied.” Guards also grabbed and pulled his testicles “violently, until he fell unconscious.”
As a result of his torture, Zahir “suffered physically and emotionally.” He experienced major depressive episodes that led him to attempt suicide. Zahir protested his treatment on numerous occasions. In one instance, after he protested, a group of guards in riot gear (Forced Cell Extraction team) tackled Zahir and “damaged his spine so badly that they had to conduct surgery,” said Thomas. Since then, Zahir has had to walk with a walker and experiences internal organ issues.
Zahir’s torture was par for the course at Guantánamo. As documented by human rights groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, beatings, shackling, sexual assault and other forms of abuse have been standard practice at Guantánamo, particularly in its early years. During the 2013 hunger strike, striking prisoners were force-fed, which is also a form of torture. Torture violates international law, particularly the UN Convention Against Torture.
For years, defense lawyers tried to get Zahir released, or at least secure a fair trial. Vermont lawyer Robert Gensburg challenged Zahir’s confinement with a habeas corpus action but was unsuccessful. Zahir was then brought up for trial before a military commission, which is when fellow Vermont lawyer David Sleigh and military co-counsel Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas joined Zahir’s defense team.
In 2006, Zahir was charged with conspiracy, materially supporting terrorism and killing civilians in connection with a grenade attack that wounded Canadian journalist Kathleen Kenna. However, the military commission temporarily shut down, his case never went to trial, and charges were dismissed. According to Thomas, Zahir made numerous, contradictory statements under torture — statements that the US government tried to use against him — but there was no physical evidence tying him to the attack. Thomas also mentioned that part of the reason Zahir was held for so long is because the US government tortured him and did not want those details made public in a civilian court.
Reprinted with permission from Truthout