Thursday, June 19, 2008

"The King of the Prison"

Another excellent piece from McClatchy on the al Qaeda detainees. Some of these stories are so basic in their explanations--as in, we got the wrong guys and if you don't torture them right, they'll die. Today's installment is about a senior Taliban member who defied the US. Do you think this story might explain why we're going to have a hell of a time convincing people that we know what we're doing?
Pakistani intelligence officers dragged him [Abdul Salam Zaeef] out of his house in Islamabad in late December 2001 or January 2002 and took him to Peshawar. "Your Excellency, you are no longer Your Excellency," he recalled one of them saying.

The Pakistanis handed him over to U.S. troops, who he said threw a sack over his head and pushed him into a helicopter. The Americans flew him to a warship, where he was held for about a week in a small cell that reminded him of a dog kennel, he said.

"I was afraid about what would happen to me," Zaeef said in an interview in Kabul, wearing slightly crooked gold-rimmed glasses and speaking in a near-whisper. "I didn't know if it was a dream or not. I never imagined this would happen to me."

Yet from mid-2002 till September 2005 at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Zaeef became a leader again. He helped orchestrate hunger strikes and exploit the missteps of a U.S. detention system that often captured the wrong men, mistreated them, then incarcerated them indefinitely without legal recourse.

The insurgency he helped launch in Guantanamo capitalized on the Americans' ignorance of Islamic customs and a pattern of interrupting prayers, shaving off prisoners' beards and searching their copies of the Quran.

I don't have any sympathy for this notion that we needed to be one hundred percent perfect in our handling of these men. While some were innocent, many more were actual terrorists who had either killed Americans or had been caught in the act of trying to kill Americans. What Democrats need to emphasize is that we are every bit as capable of fighting and defeating these elements as anyone else. We need to emphasize that we are not going to go into this fight without respecting the rule of law--to do so means we'll allow the enemy a huge propaganda victory.

Zaeef behaved somewhat like Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan's Express:

When he arrived at Guantanamo in the spring or summer of 2002, Zaeef was exhausted from the harsh treatment he'd received at Kandahar and Bagram.

He slept as often as he could and was just another detainee, Internment Serial Number 306. He got up when the guards came, and shuffled off in his orange prison clothes and flip-flops to answer questions about the Taliban leadership.

"He was very weak, physically, when I saw him at Guantanamo," said Mohammed Saduq, an Afghan who'd commanded Zaeef during the fight against the Soviets. "It is very difficult to know the inside of a man, and it's hard to say how it affected him — going from an ambassador to being in a cage — but he told me in Guantanamo that he was suffering badly."

The rules at Guantanamo, Zaeef said, reminded him of Bagram. The men weren't supposed to talk in their cells. They were supposed to say "please" and "sir" when they addressed the guards. In Guantanamo, however, the guards weren't beating the men, he said, and prisoners could speak up.

"After a month, we decided we could not accept these extremist measures. We must react," Zaeef said. "So we began shouting to each other. The soldiers came and asked if we were talking to each other. We said, 'Yes, we are not dogs.' We began throwing water at them, spitting at them; we said, 'If you want to kill us, fine.' "

A high-ranking officer came and spoke to the detainees, Zaeef said. The rules were rescinded. It was a victory in a game of inches.

Zaeef used his position as a leader of the detainees to push for Geneva Convention rights. What was our official response to this man? We let him go.

In June 2005, detainees at Guantanamo staged their biggest hunger strike yet: As many as 100 men refused to eat.

Prison authorities gathered detainee leaders and discussed their demands. Zaeef represented Afghans and Pakistanis, joining detainee representatives from several other nations.

After consulting with detainees in the cellblocks, Zaeef and the other leaders produced a list of demands that included Geneva Convention rights, court trials, less time in isolation cells, better treatment from the guards and so on.

However, the meetings among the detainees broke down before negotiations with U.S. authorities could proceed, Zaeef said, because the detainees worried that the Americans were eavesdropping to find out who their cellblock leaders were.

Zaeef was released that September.

Was this man dangerous? was he a threat to the United States? The problem I have with what's being done in our name is that we seem to be letting a lot of these people go. Should they have been detained in the first place?

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