World, Life

Former Guantanamo inmate relates painful ordeal

In exclusive interview, Mawlawi Tarakhail sheds light on circumstances surrounding his 15-year stay at infamous US prison

Shadi Khan Saif   | 01.01.2020
Former Guantanamo inmate relates painful ordeal

KABUL, Afghanistan

Mawlawi Hamdullah Tarakhail was a young Afghan Mujahedeen veteran when U.S. forces captured him and sent him to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison.

One among thousands of alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan's capital held at the detention center, Tarakhail -- after spending more than 15 years in chains, undergoing physical persecution and psychological torture -- was recently freed at the age of 58.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, he shared what he went through during those years and his views of the way things are unfolding in his war-ravaged country, which is facing an unwavering Taliban insurgency amid the presence of thousands of foreign troops.

Anadolu Agency: Thank you for speaking to us. To start with, could you briefly tell us why, how, and when were you taken into custody?

Tarakhail: It was the early days since the fall of the Taliban [in 2001] and the arrival of the U.S. We expected them to help us rebuild our country, and as an Hezb-e-Islami [a Mujahedeen party backed by the U.S. in the war against the Soviets] Jehadi commander, I was simply monitoring the situation. Suddenly one night, the U.S. forces combined with the Northern Alliance forces [anti-Taliban militia] of the interim government in Kabul under Hamid Karzai raided my home and threw me into Bagram prison.

In Bagram, I faced atrocities beyond explanation. They [Americans] asked me a couple of questions, and they told me that you are a key figure of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami and wanted to attack U.S. forces. I told them I have no ties with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but yes, I am a Hezb-e-Islami leader, and this party has many members serving in the government. But they didn’t listen to me as they had plans to suppress all key Taliban and other experienced Mujahedeen figures.

For many months, we were in Bagram before being moved to Guantanamo Bay.

Q: Could you tell us what sort of atrocities you faced in Bagram? Any specific examples?

Tarakhail: There are many. One example I can share with you is that they [Americans] would completely undress us and put us in chains whenever we wanted to go to the toilet. They would shout in our ears, force us on the shoulders, and parade us naked to the shower. For us Muslims, this is disgraceful. The food was awful. In just four months, I lost 20 kg. In the holy month of Ramadan, only a half loaf of bread was served to us. When we moved to Guantanamo Bay, the food and services were much better, and each cell had a toilet. Things gradually improved.

Q: How was your prison term judged? What were you convicted of?

Tarakhail: In six months’ time, a tribunal would investigate and review our cases, interviews, and set the date for another hearing in the next six months. All of our communications with our families were under their surveillance.

They simply couldn’t prove that I committed a crime or legitimize my custody. But I kept being persecuted.

The punishments and persecutions were of a different sort, and when the inmates resisted, it caused more persecution and torture. We were away from home and family and had an unknown fate for years. I have faced many prisons, but being away from home and family is very painful. There were prisoners from some 40 Muslim countries with us.

Q: How many prisoners are still there?

Tarakhail: Some 40 to 50 prisoners are still left. There were thousands of them at the beginning. They [Americans] only provided for our needs when we raised our voices. I will give you one example: I had a copy of the Holy Quran. They forcefully wanted it back from me. They used force, and I made it clear to them that I would only hand it over to a person in line with our religious values. It was later resolved through the help of a translator and a high-ranking general. I remained careful to avoid more persecution.

In the beginning, there were some military officers who had lost family members in the 9/11 attacks, so some of them violated the prison rules and persecuted prisoners beyond the rules.

Q: How did you prove your innocence and get free eventually?

Tarakhail: I was told that there are no issues with me and I am innocent, but they said the U.S. felt threatened by me. I had no crime proven against me, but they insisted I was deemed dangerous and should be imprisoned.

I was told that if I wished to go back to Afghanistan, I would not be allowed because I seemed a threat.

Q: So does that mean they wanted to keep you in prison until you got old and might not be physically active?

Tarakhail: Most definitely. They deliberately made some people lose their mind, lose their ability to be active. They decided the same for me. I wasn’t convicted until my release.

I’ve faced many prisons, but the worst was our stay in the UAE. It was un-Islamic and against human rights. We were told in Guantanamo about transferring us to the UAE, and a rosy picture was painted for us for our six-month stay in the UAE, so we approved and agreed to this offer by the U.S. Foreign Ministry. But as soon as we landed in the UAE, the Americans freed our hands and handed us over to UAE officials. We were bundled into a car and our clothes were torn off. We were shocked because we expected to be treated as guests rather than prisoners. Later, we were moved to a UAE prison facility, and our clothes were again torn off to be replaced with different ones. We were given new clothes and forced into another cell. We were naked and handcuffed for even five-minute toilet breaks. This behavior continued for more than two months. When things got worse and prisoners started protesting, we were moved to another facility with toilets inside our room. We were kept in there for close to one-and-a-half years.

The U.S. had transferred prisoners to other countries, but the UAE treated us the worst. I urge the Afghan government to take action against the UAE and close its embassy in Kabul. Anyone seeking jihad should wage it elsewhere, in Yemen and Syria, but leave Afghanistan because the Afghans can handle it on their own.

I am ready to take legal action against the U.S. and the UAE at the international court. I was well-established in Afghanistan, but the imposed war and persecution inflicted heavy losses on us and the entire nation.

I want justice in international court.

Q: How do you see the changes in Afghanistan since your release, and the future of Afghanistan amid ongoing peace talks?

Tarakhail: Looking at the divisions among Afghan leaders and the lack of independence and authority in the country, I have no hope for peace in the future. The war is likely to go on. I have spent some 23 years in prison altogether, including in the Soviet era, but I want to bring positive change through people power. I urged the Taliban and the government to stop fighting. We are an oppressed nation. The democrats, communists, and pro-Islamic forces should unite and acknowledge that all of them have made mistakes over the past many years. All should now unite to serve the nation.

They all have made mistakes. These three factions should now seek forgiveness and seek pardon from Allah, and the government should remove its internal corruption to win the public’s trust.

The presence of the U.S. remains an issue. The Taliban are right to demand their exit.

The government is defending the U.S. staying. The government should instead ask the Americans to leave.

The U.S. has its own global agenda. Look at Yemen and the rest of the world. They are at war with China and Russia.

They are exploiting our weakness. I call upon the Americans not to turn Afghanistan into a battlefield against their enemies.

The Americans should face justice and pay us for the losses they have inflicted on us in the past 18 years.

Afghanistan is a weak country. We can’t fight with the world. We’ve been at war for 40 years. We need assistance to rebuild the country.

Q: The former Mujahedeen factions have long historical ties with the U.S. Is there a possibility for improved ties with the U.S. again?

Tarakhail: As an individual, I have been resisting and fighting since the Soviet invasion. I killed scores of Soviet fighters. I was with the mujahedeen at the first entry point in Kabul against the Soviets, but I’ve been made to suffer a lot. Still, I’m ready to forgive and forget. But the American leaders should acknowledge their mistakes and seek forgiveness from Afghanistan. We have no intention of rivalry with the U.S. Instead, we’re in need of them. They should seek pardon and repay us for the losses and damage they caused in Afghanistan.

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