Some were baby-faced teenagers too young to grow facial hair. Others said they were snatched from their families and forced to work for Afghanistan’s Taliban.
The stories of the youngest detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, chart their journeys from childhood in the villages of Afghanistan to U.S. custody, according to military tribunal transcripts obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information lawsuit.
Guantanamo officials released three Afghan boys ages 13 to 15 last year, but the transcripts of the hearings to determine whether prisoners were correctly classified as “enemy combatants” verify they weren’t the only teenagers at the prison camp.
Although the U.S. government blacked out most ages from the documents, some remained, including the story of an 18-year-old who said he had been at Guantanamo for two years.
The teenager was accused of firing at U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He denied it and described how the Taliban had arrested him.
Tale of Taliban arrest
“My infant cousin was born. We had a party. We were playing the drums. We were having fun. When they came they broke the tapes, they broke the drums, they took me to jail, they beat me with a cable then they put salt in it — my wounds,” he told the tribunal.
In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime prohibited music and dancing, imposing a strict form of Islam. They also forced children into religious schools to study the Quran.
Another young prisoner accused of links to an al-Qaida explosives cell said the Taliban came to his village and forced people to work or undergo training.
“At that time I had no beard or facial hair. They told me I was too young to go to war,” the detainee testified. “They wanted to train me and then work with them.”
The Taliban sent him to a technical school where he received two days of training, but he said “When I returned home after the second day, my mother told me not to go back to the Taliban school because I had no father or older brothers.”
Captured by Americans
The prisoner said he hid from the Taliban each day so he didn’t have to go to school. The Taliban stopped looking for him after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but he was then captured by the Americans, who he claimed abused him.
“They put a knife to my throat, tied my hands and put sandbags on my arms,” he said. “At the airport in Khost I was walked around all night with the sandbags on my arms.”
He said he was interrogated at the U.S. base at Bagram “and punishment increased.”
“I was very young at that time, so whatever they said, I agreed to,” he said. “I never admitted to being an associate of an al-Qaida explosive cell leader and when I came to Cuba I gave them the true story.”
Shortly after the prison camp at Guantanamo opened in January 2002, human rights groups protested the capture and imprisonment of detainees under 18.
Younger detainees cleared out
Guantanamo is no longer holding anyone 18 or under, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Lounderman, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees the camp. It was unclear whether any 19-year-olds are held, or how many teenagers have been at Guantanamo.
Some 34 of about 550 prisoners have been ordered released since the tribunals ended in January. But the U.S. government doesn’t publicly provide reasons for freeing detainees so it’s unclear whether being forced to join the Taliban would have affected any cases.
The United States defines an enemy combatant as someone who was part of or supported the Taliban or the al-Qaida terror network. That classification provides fewer legal protections than prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions.
The tribunal transcripts appear to validate claims of forced Taliban recruitment.
One prisoner is asked to respond to an allegation he conscripted young men for the Taliban by grabbing them off the street. The man said after the Taliban lost 8,000 men in fighting in 1998, “they started forcing young men and boys into service.”
“They would go to each village and request 100 recruits from the tribal elders,” the prisoner said. “The tribal elders were forced to provide these young men, otherwise the village would be burned. All of the people in the village obeyed the tribal elders, and gave up their men as required to serve four months.”
Prisoners, young and old, alleged they were abused during interrogations to force confessions, according to some 3,900 pages of tribunal transcripts reviewed by AP.
Tribunal members are supposed to send abuse allegations to the Joint Task Force running the detention mission, which forwards them to U.S. Southern Command for investigation.
Lounderman, the spokesman at U.S. Southern Command, said Tuesday it wasn’t immediately clear how many abuse allegations had been tallied in the tribunals.
Fresh abuse charges
Fresh allegations of abuse in documents recently turned over to AP included:
A prisoner who claimed two U.S. teams of interrogators beat him.
“In Bagram, when the investigators were interrogating me, when I told them I went there to trade and I went there to study, they hit me they tortured me,” he testified. “They said, “you are a liar” and they kept hitting me and tortured me. ... They were torturing us with electricity and they made us walk on sharp objects. They hit us a lot, and because of the pain we just said anything.”
Another prisoner said he was refused medical treatment in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
'I did not want my leg cut off'
“I had metal sticking out of my leg and they would not clean the wound,” he said. “They would not give me treatment so I told them whatever they wanted to hear. They just wanted anything. Any information. I just told them anything — whatever they wanted to hear because I wanted them to treat my leg. I saw other people mere whose legs had to be cut off. I did not want my leg to be cut off.”
Another prisoner said he reported his alleged abuse to officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent group with access to the prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
“In Kandahar, they took all my clothes and the American soldiers hit me and kept me tied up in the rain for three hours,” he said. “My hands and feet were tied so tight that I couldn’t move my hands for a month and I couldn’t move my feet for two weeks.”
At Guantanamo, the prisoner claimed the abuse continued: “When I got off the airplane, the soldiers hit us. They had us shackled and had our eyes covered. They took off my clothes by the shower. The Red Cross asked them about my head wound. In the first month of detention in Cuba, the soldiers would hit me before bringing me to the interrogator.”