Episode at Guantanamo Leaves Family at a Loss
Washington Post | March 11, 2007
Faiza Saleh Ambah
MEDINA, Saudi Arabia -- Mishal al-Harbi's brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes on the evening of Jan. 16, 2003, while he was in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As a result, he cannot stand, his speech is slurred, and he has a twitch that periodically causes his head to shake and his legs to jerk.
U.S. authorities say Mishal's brain was damaged when he tried to hang himself at Guantanamo. But his brother Fahd says a beating by prison guards cut off the flow of oxygen, leaving Mishal unable to walk or talk properly. Fahd said his brother needs intensive physical therapy and costly medicine to control his seizures and hallucinations -- side effects of the injury -- and he wants the U.S. government to help pay for them.
Mishal's family says it is seeking not only financial compensation but also concrete answers from the U.S. government -- either an admission that Mishal was injured by guards or proof that he tried to kill himself. But given the intense secrecy surrounding the detainees at Guantanamo, finding out exactly what occurred that day in 2003 appears almost impossible.
"He was just like the rest of his brothers before he left," said Mishal's mother, Hamida Owayid, her head covered with a blue scarf and her feet decorated with henna. "What did the Americans do to him?"
The military prison at Guantanamo opened in January 2002 to house suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters rounded up during the U.S. war to topple the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mishal was captured in late 2001 and transferred to Guantanamo a few months later.
Despite widening allegations of detainee abuse, the Pentagon has refused to allow independent monitors and human rights groups into Guantanamo. The International Committee of the Red Cross and, more recently, a few lawyers have been given minimal access, but the Red Cross is not allowed to speak publicly about conditions there.
Because he also has memory lapses, Mishal said, he is not sure how he was injured. But former detainees -- about 400 men have been released from the facility, and nearly 400 remain -- have reported regular beatings, and Fahd said he believes his brother was attacked by guards.
Mishal's devotion to Islam would have prevented him from attempting suicide, Fahd said. "With the strength of his faith, which took him all the way to Afghanistan, it's impossible that he tried to kill himself. He knows that you spend eternity in hell if you do that."
Fahd, 32, has watched over his younger brother since their father died when they were children. Perhaps if he had been more vigilant, he said, Mishal might not have ended up in Afghanistan in 2001. But as a government employee supporting their mother, two younger brothers and a sister with Down syndrome, Fahd was consumed with work and out of town for months at a time.
Mishal dropped out of school when he was 14 and began working odd jobs to help support the family. When he had saved enough money, he bought a used truck and picked up passengers at the airport, his mother said.
In his free time, Mishal played soccer, listened to pop music and sneaked cigarettes, Fahd said.
Then, suddenly, Mishal stopped smoking, a habit that ultra-devout Muslims consider a sin, and replaced his music cassettes with taped Koranic verses and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, Fahd said. About a year later, around June 2001, he disappeared from the family home in Medina, Saudi Arabia. He called a month later, saying he was in Afghanistan and asking for forgiveness from his mother and brother for traveling without telling them.
"I thought he was becoming more devout. There's nothing wrong with that," Fahd said, sitting in the family's house on the outskirts of the city. "I didn't expect him to end up in Afghanistan. He wasn't even old enough to travel without my consent." Saudi law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from applying for a passport without a guardian's permission.
When the United States started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, Mishal called his family and said that he was trying to find a way home but that the borders had been closed. He said all Arab men were being arrested and handed over to the Americans.
Fahd did not hear from his brother again for six months, when the Red Cross delivered a letter from Guantanamo Bay.
Mishal said he had been detained in late 2001 near Mazar-e Sharif in north-central Afghanistan, along with other Arabs fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, led by a secular U.S. ally, Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum.
Mishal was transferred to Guantanamo in early 2002 and was injured less than a year later.
According to interviews with half a dozen men released from Guantanamo Bay, soldiers at the camp quickly saw how important the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was to the detainees and used it as punishment and reward.
Former detainees said guards would disrespect the Koran when they were unruly or did not cooperate during interrogations. Recently released FBI transcripts indicate that persistent allegations of abuse, including guards kicking Korans against a wall and an interrogator squatting over one, were brought to the attention of the authorities in 2002.
"Word of the Koran's desecration quickly spread around the camp, and the brothers were all very agitated," said Saad al-Azmi, a former detainee from Kuwait.
Some of the detainees started refusing to hand over the Koran during searches and went on hunger strikes to protest its mistreatment, Azmi said. They also cursed and screamed at the guards, he said. According to Pentagon transcripts, Mishal once spit at a guard.
It was during this fraught period that Mishal was injured, several days after being transferred to isolation block India, said Hammad Ali, a former detainee from Sudan who was in the same isolation block at the time.
Ali said that one night around evening prayer time, a guard commander walked into India block and ordered lights out. He also demanded that the guards close the small openings through which the prisoners received their food and that gave them a view from their cells.
Soon afterward, another prisoner, Hammad al-Turkistani, Koran in hand, shuffled into the block accompanied by guards, Ali said.
Prisoners are not allowed to keep their Korans in the isolation blocks, and the routine procedure was for the Muslim chaplain or the Muslim librarian to come and take them, Ali said. Muslims believe it is a desecration for non-Muslims to touch their holy book.
The guards unshackled Turkistani, left him in a cell and walked off with his Koran. Turkistani started screaming: "The Koran! The Koran! The MP's took my Koran," Ali recalled.
For half an hour, the detainees banged on their cell doors in protest and shouted, "Allahu akbar," which means God is great. Then riot guards entered the block, Ali said.
The guards started beating prisoners in their individual cells, according to an account given to the Gulf Daily News last year by Abdullah al-Nuaimi, a former detainee from Bahrain who was also in India block at the time. A short while later, Nuaimi recalled, one of the guards shouted, "Turn on the lights!"
Then Mishal was carried out of his cell, Nuaimi said. Later that evening, guards confiscated all the blankets from India block. Ali said that when he asked why, he was told that the prisoner in cell No. 17 had tried to hang himself with one.
The next day, Mishal's cell was sealed off, Ali said. Several days later, men wearing overalls, goggles and hair bonnets, and one of them carrying what looked like a ruler, went into the cell to investigate, Ali and other inmates recalled.
Fahd said a doctor from the Red Cross office in Geneva told him later that his brother had tried to hang himself and was in a coma, being kept alive on artificial respirators.
Mishal was unconscious for three months and spent an additional eight months hospitalized at Guantanamo. He was released into Saudi custody in July 2005, Fahd said, and sent home nine months later.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the family guest room, his frayed black leather wheelchair to his left, Mishal said he remembers that after the desecration of the Koran, a guard entered his cell. "He was carrying a shield. He pushed me with it. I don't remember anything else," he said, speaking with a heavy tongue.
His head jerking back and forth several times, Mishal said he had gone to Afghanistan "for jihad, for the sake of God."
Fahd said the time his brother spent at Guantanamo may have irrevocably damaged his future.
"All the men who were released from Guantanamo, they are now leading a normal life," he said. "But Mishal can't walk, get himself a glass of water or go to the bathroom by himself. I just want him to go back the way he was before Guantanamo."