Zie Ul Shah, a Pakistani accused of being a driver for Afghanistan’s former Taliban rulers, said he hated the Americans who imprisoned him at Guantanamo Bay — but softened his views after seeing photographs of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“In the beginning I did not like Americans at all,” Shah told members of his tribunal, according to transcripts of detainee hearings released Monday.
“I had never seen Americans. In the beginning when I came here the interrogations were tough and I started hating them more, but then ... someone showed me pictures from 9/11. Then I realized they have a right to be angry. My hate towards Americans was gone,” he said.
The 2,733 pages of previously classified transcripts were the second batch of Guantanamo Bay detainee hearings released by the Pentagon in response to a lawsuit by The Associated Press. They identified more of the prisoners who have been secretly held without charges for up to four years while the U.S. military determines how dangerous they may be.
In the latest documents, men accused of helping terrorist groups or Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime pleaded for freedom while U.S. military officers often painstakingly tried to find holes in their stories. Most of the men, including Shah, said they were innocent and would pose no threat if set free.
“My conscience is clear,” said Algerian detainee Mohamed Nechla, who was accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia. “If I left this place my only concern would be bread on the table for my wife and children.”
Over 700 prisoners through Guantanamo
Some 715 prisoners have passed through the cells of the U.S. military base since it began receiving men captured in the U.S. war on terror more than four years ago. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said 490 of them are now held at the base, which hugs the arid southeastern shores of Cuba.
Whitman told reporters at the Pentagon that authorities have gained a wealth of knowledge by interrogating detainees, who are held in cellblocks behind barbed wire.
“We’ve learned about al-Qaida’s pursuit of WMDs,” Whitman said, referring to weapons of mass destruction. “We’ve learned about their methods of recruitment, location of recruitment centers. We’ve learned about their skill sets, their terrorist skill sets, both general and specialized operative training.”
A reading of some of the documents released Monday showed no such stark admissions, although any records of interrogations and the classified portions of the hearings were not included in the transcripts. The hearings — called Administrative Review Boards — were held to determine whether detainees still posed threats to the United States.
Human rights group Amnesty International, a frequent critic of U.S. policies in its war on terror, said the transcripts would most likely reveal information that was insignificant or had been previously released.
“Nevertheless, Amnesty International welcomes today’s actions, as even the seemingly minor details in these documents may help shed light on the secrecy surrounding the detainees’ cases,” said Eric Olson, the group’s acting director of government relations.
Detainees deemed 'enemy combatants'
Each of the detainees who faced such a review hearing was previously determined by other Guantanamo Bay panels — Combatant Status Review Tribunals — to be an “enemy combatant,” meaning they fought against the U.S. or its allies or provided support to the Taliban, al-Qaida or “associated forces.”
Shah said he felt his testimony at the earlier tribunal had been ignored.
“Should I consider (you all) the same or should I expect justice?” he asked.
The presiding U.S. military officer assured Shah all the evidence would be considered fairly:
“Well, I hope that you would believe that we would do you justice after we review all the information,” said the officer, whose name was censored from the transcript for security reasons.
The detainees often pleaded with the military review panels, seeking not only freedom but also money or help finding a job back home.
“In case of my release, I would like to say that I am a poor man and don’t have enough money to start a business, but I will accept any jobs from the Americans or the current government of Afghanistan,” said Abdullah Mujahid, an Afghan.
As in the previous release of transcripts, the names were scattered throughout the documents and many detainees were not identified. There was no indication whether any had been released.
Some detainees said they had hazy memories as they gave curt replies to the U.S. military officers presiding over the tribunal. One unidentified Yemeni said he did not recall when he was captured in Pakistan, saying it was more than four years ago.
“Was it cold?” asked the presiding officer, trying to determine if not the date, then the season.
“The weather was medium. It was not hot but it was not cold,” responded the detainee.
Insisted they had no ties to al-Qaida
Many detainees repeatedly denied having links to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida or the Taliban, insisting they were simply caught up in the war zone. Some were accused of being low-level members of the Taliban, who imposed strict Islamic rule from 1996 to 2001.
“I don’t know bin Laden and I don’t know anyone else,” said an Afghan detainee named Gano Nasorllah Hussain. “I am a butcher and I have a shop in my village.”
In response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the AP, the Defense Department released some 5,000 pages of transcripts March 3.
Most of those pages were from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. If a detainee is determined by the panel to be an “enemy combatant,” they fall under a classification that human rights groups complain is vague and confers fewer legal protections than prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.