From the gates of hell

As a Pakistani prisoner prepares to return home after spending two decades in Guantanamo Bay, questions abound as to what kind of life awaits him

From the gates of hell

The US has recently decided to release a Pakistani citizen, Saifullah Paracha, a high-security prisoner from the Guantanamo Bay prison. He was arrested for allegedly having ties with Al Qaeda never charged with a crime. Paracha and two others were cleared in a meeting of the Prisoners Review Board.

Paracha is set to return to Pakistan from Guantanamo Bay after 20 years. Questions abound as to what kind of life awaits him in Pakistan. Will things go back to normal for him, and will he be allowed to resume his business? Paracha, who lived in the US and had properties there too, was a wealthy Pakistani businessman. US authorities had alleged that Paracha had been a “facilitator” to Al Qaeda and had helped two of the conspirators. Paracha has always denied any kind of involvement.

Incarceration at Guantanamo Bay carries a huge stigma. For people who have spent time in prison, it is difficult to find jobs and to assimilate into society. Entrepreneurial ventures are even tougher to pursue given that it is difficult to inspire confidence and trust, and the individuals are heavily surveilled by law enforcement agencies. Their CNICs, phones, bank accounts and nearly all activities are monitored by the LEAs. At the societal level as well, there are many challenges. The stigmas attached to such incarceration often mean that relatives either get distant or abandon them completely. Their mobility is also extremely diminished, and in many cases, they are left stranded in Pakistan with few prospects of a return to normal life.

Qari Mohammad Saad Madani, for instance, spent eight years in Guantanamo Bay. Upon returning, he found that his life had been uprooted completely.

“My relatives don’t contact me as they are afraid of some hidden powers. They don’t visit me and I cannot visit them,” he says.

“I have been denied jobs wherever I have applied. The government of Pakistan, too, has not provided me with any financial assistance – even medical assistance. My financial situation is terrible.

Madani has filed cases in UK and US courts seeking compensation. He laments that he has spent days of his youth in a 4 x 6-foot (1.8 m) iron cell where he was tortured severely. There is no space for him in Pakistan now, he says.

As he recalls the story of his arrest, his expression hardens and tears roll down his cheeks. Madani was arrested by the Jakarta police in a pre-dawn raid at his house on January 9, 2002. He was confident about getting a quick release, thinking that initial questioning would be enough to make the authorities realise that they had the wrong man.

At the time, the 24-year-old Pakistani was known best for recitation of the Holy Quran for which he had won many trophies and gold medals in international competitions. He had never in the wildest of his dreams imagined that he would be spending the next eight years of his life in Guantanamo Bay.

He barely made it out alive, on a stretcher, badly wounded and abused, paralysed from the waist down, deaf in one ear, and with a life-threatening bone disease needing immediate cure. Released and repatriated on September 8, 2008, his torment was far from over as the local administration and intelligence agencies kept him in separate detentions for many months, debriefing and investigating him for the same reasons the US officials did.

Looking back, he claims he was the only one out of thousands of Guantanamo Bay prisoners who was released without making any deal or compromise with the US administration. He was exonerated by a US federal court after prosecutors were unable to prove any charges against him including links with Al Qaeda or the Taliban or the 9/11 attacks. He later filed a law suit against the US, British, Egyptian and Indonesian authorities for illegal detention and torture. The cases are still pending.

Born in Lahore on October 17, 1977 to Qari Mohammad Iqbal Madani, a scholar of Arabic and employed as a lecturer at Medina University, Qari Saad Iqbal Madani emigrated to Saudia Arabia with family at the age of 4. He learnt the Holy Quran by heart at the age of 8, participated in several Qirat competitions globally and won prizes. In 1992, the family moved to Jakarta where his father was posted at a Saudi educational institute. His father died of a cardiac arrest in April 2001 during a visit to Pakistan. Saad returned to Indonesia in November 2001 in search of employment and was arrested two months later.

For many years after his release and repatriation to Pakistan, Saad struggled to resume normal life as police kept a round-the-clock watch on him. Broke and unable to pay for his medical treatment, he had to suffer a series of problems, as relatives and neighbours avoided meeting or helping him for fear of police persecution. It took a few years for him to be able to get on to his feet, marry and start a new life under the constant watch of law enforcing agencies. He says he still has frequent nightmares.

“You happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalls the words of a top US official interrogating him at Guantanamo Bay.

“That was when asked why I was arrested when the US has no evidence against me. When I asked, why am I still here and being tortured then, the reply was, ‘Your innocence is bad for the US’,” he recalls.

Now 44, he still looks back and wonders what went wrong.

“My life has been torn apart. It will never be the same man again. Nothing can compensate for the ugly scars on my body and soul, those missing eight years, the worst imaginable torture that even beasts can’t take, the lost relatives and aching, shaky limbs, impaired hearing and sight,” he laments.

Heartbroken by the lack of justice in the world, he says, he “prays to God to compensate him best in the Hereafter”.

He has very little hope of winning the case against Washington. Initially, some cases were admitted and allowed, but later all the remaining appeals were stayed under the US Military Commissions Act of 2006 holding that Guantanamo captives were no longer entitled to access the US civil justice system. A ray of hope came when the US Supreme Court ruled on June 12, 2008 in Boumediene v Bush, that Military Commissions Act could not remove the right of Guantanamo captives to access the US Federal Court system. US judges began considering all previous Guantanamo captives’ habeas petitions as eligible to consider if the evidence presented could substantiate the allegations that the prisoners were “enemy combatants”.

“When the Indonesian police arrested me, they did not give any reason despite my repeated asking, kept me handcuffed and blindfolded for two days. They only told me that I was wanted by the US and would soon be sent to Egypt. They kept asking about my links with Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I told them, I had never been to Afghanistan, or the US,” recalls Madani.

“My torture began two days later when Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents arrived to fly me to Cairo in a special plane. They beat the bones out of me while I was handcuffed and blindfolded. They kicked, punched and threw me against walls and floors until I became unconscious. When I regained consciousness, I found that I was bleeding from my head and left ear. I was unable to hear,” he says.

“Before taking me to Egypt, the CIA kept me at a British Island territory in Indian Ocean, Deigo Garcia, where the interrogation and torture continued. In Egypt, I was interrogated by intelligence agencies of many countries including the US, the UK, India, France, Australia, Canada and Italy. Prominent among my interrogators, was President Hosni Mobarak’s son Alaa Mubarak who was heading the country’s intelligence agency. I was locked in a 4 x 6-foot (1.8 m) iron cell, which was ‘like a grave’ where I could not even stand properly, sit up, or lie down. My hands were kept tied and I was blindfolded, badly tortured, given electric shocks that left me unconscious many times. I was denied food and medical aid. During the 92-day detention, I could not sleep or stand in the place. They kept asking me about my links with Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, the 9/11 incident and Richard Reid, the British man known as the shoe-bomber.

“They knew I was speaking the truth. I told them I was in Pakistan mourning my father’s death when 9/11 happened and learnt about it from the media. But keen on getting an affirmative reply, they kept torturing me,” he says.

As a result of the electric shocks to his head he developed a life-threatening bone infection, paralysing his limbs, but medical treatment was denied because interrogators accused him of being uncooperative. He was also “confined to the psychiatric wing for six months as punishment,” he adds.

“I learnt about my stay in Deigo Garcia after my release when the British Foreign Minister David Miliband rang and apologised for my illegal abduction and detention on British soil. After Egypt, I was sent to Bagram prison in Afghanistan, with a few hours of stay in Islamabad en route. During my one year stay in Bagram, the brutal torture continued without food and water, and a chance to say the prayers. I was kept with some Arab prisoners in Bagram. I also learnt about the Dr Aafia Siddiqi episode there. I met some noted prisoners like Moazzam Beg, in addition to Mulla Abdus Salam Zaeef, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan and Mulla Abdul Wakeel Mutawakkel, the former foreign minister.”

On April 13, 2003, Saad Madani was taken to Guantanamo Bay where he recalls meeting many noted prisoners from the Arab world, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world. He says that of the nearly 800 prisoners there, most were Arabs. 65 were Pakistanis.

“I learnt that the prisoners were sold to the US for huge sums of US dollars by the intelligence and law enforcing agencies of Muslim countries, and not a single prisoner was captured by the US agents”, he says.

Saad Madani spoke fluent Arabic, a satisfactory level of English and some other languages. They suspected him of being a criminal, and kept him among those suspected to be among top Al Qaeda operatives.

For his refusal to confess links with Osama and Taliban, he was thrown into many months of solitary confinement in a 6x4 iron cell with an open toilet. He was given “frequent flier status”, a term that meant the detainee was not allowed to sleep.

“Guards used to come after every quarter of an hour, beating me if I dozes off for a moment, abusing me, yelling and cursing at me. The torture soon beat what remained of the nerves out of me and I thought I was going to die soon. I lost control over myself. After several months, I attempted suicide by hanging. The special rapid squad rescued me as soon as I hung myself, but my woes did not end as they subjected me to more torture.”

He says prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were sexually molested and paraded naked before the entire assembly of guards. Fingers and other objects were thrust into their buttocks. Dogs were sometimes let loose on naked prisoners, causing them serious injuries. No medical treatment followed. They were not allowed to say prayers and were made to witness prison guards flushing Quran down toilets, putting papers containing abusive words into the Quran and soiling it with menstrual blood. This enraged the prisoners and they either began shouting, protesting or stopped cooperation with interrogators.

I was asked about my links with extremist groups in Pakistan.

“At times I was beaten up with iron rods, causing fractures and bleeding. I was paraded naked and put into small cages naked with the air conditioner turned on. I was made to lie down on ice blocks. The infection in my damaged ear reached very close to the brain. I was told by the doctors there I could have died. The doctors admitted that I was not treated as a patient as I was considered a terrorist and an enemy of the USA,” he adds.

“The Guantanamo Bay prison camp was nothing short of Hell. The torture meted out to prisoners was not suitable even for beasts,” he says.

“After desecration of the Holy Quran before me, I protested before Maj Gen Jay Hood who was in charge there. He was later nominated for a diplomatic assignment in Pakistan. Not getting any response, I began a hunger strike that took me close to death from malnutrition,” says Madani.

“The Americans realised early that they had no evidence against me. They often offered relief from torture and release only if I admitted to being an aide to Osama Bin Laden. A top official admitted that I was innocent, saying the CIA viewed my meetings with different Islamic leaders and groups in Pakistan and Indonesia suspicious enough to warrant my arrest. Indonesian law enforcement officials did it for a handsome sum of money,” he says.

During the final stages of his detention, Reprieve, a British legal support group, helped him pursue his case in court. He was also helped by Richard L Cys of Davis Wright Tremaine. The Red Cross and some other European welfare groups visited the prison camp, but did not provide practical help to prisoners, he says.

“The only thing the Red Cross did was convey messages and bring our letters to families, but months passed before a letter [would] arrive and they were badly censored,” he adds.

The writers are   The News staffers 

From the gates of hell