London/Prague, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Five British nationals who were detained for almost two and a half years at Guantanamo Bay are now free, after first being questioned by British police.
"He wants the U.S. authorities to answer for the injustice which he has suffered. He has been detained as an innocent person for a period of over two years. He's been treated in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner."
Meanwhile, 23 Afghans and three Pakistani nationals who were also freed from Guantanamo after more than two years in prison have returned home. A spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross yesterday said the Afghan men are staying in the Red Cross compound in Kabul, awaiting return to their home villages.
U.S. officials say the decision to transfer or release a detainee from the Guantanamo prison is based on whether the person is considered to be of continuing intelligence value and whether he is believed to still pose a terrorist threat. About 120 detainees from Guantanamo have been released. More than 600 remain in the prison.
The former prisoners are now speaking with the press about their experiences. The British detainees claim they were brutalized by prison guards and were subjected to drugging, solitary confinement, and lengthy interrogations. The former Afghan prisoners, in interviews with RFE/RL Afghan Service correspondent Hamid Mohmand, are more circumspect in their comments.
Haji Mohammad Khan is a businessman from Kandahar. He says he was first captured by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the powerful northern Afghan militia commander whose forces helped the U.S. oust the Taliban regime in late 2001. He says Dostum later turned him over to U.S. forces.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Khan says he still feels like he is in detention and says he might be willing to speak more openly when he is back home in Kandahar. Khan did speak of the pressures he says he felt while in custody.
"There was unlimited violence against me. I was under pressure -- mentally, physically, religiously -- in all aspects," he said.
Mohammad is from Helmand Province. He said he was captured while trying to find his brother -- a member of the Taliban -- in Konduz Province in 2001. He says he was also picked up by members of Dostum's militia and handed over to U.S. forces.
Mohammad says that, before being released from Guantanamo, he signed papers obligating him not to say or do anything against American interests.
"There are Americans everywhere here in Afghanistan. In Cuba, we were threatened many times not to say anything that is against America's interests," Mohammad said.
Haji Mohammad Wazir is an old farmer from Helmand Province. He was held for one year at Camp Delta. Wazir was asked if he was mistreated during his imprisonment.
"No, there was no violence. It was just the usual interrogation," he said.
He said that his interrogator was fair to him and told him that the U.S. may have committed a mistake in detaining him. He was told that he would be released soon.
Wazir says the prisoners at Camp Delta were kept in separate cells and that, at the beginning, there was no contact allowed between them. Later, when he was transferred to another facility within the Guantanamo compound, he says prisoners were allowed to communicate with one another but were still kept separated.
As for the five British detainees, they say they had traveled to Afghanistan from Pakistan to help with humanitarian work, that they were first held in prisoner camps in Afghanistan, and then moved to the U.S. camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Thirty-seven-year-old Jamal Udeen is from the British city of Manchester. In interviews with the British press, he claims to have been chained to the floor during 12-hour interrogations. He also says he was administered an unknown drug.
Udeen's British lawyer, Robert Lizar, says his client wants answers and an apology from the U.S. for his detention.
"He wants the U.S. authorities to answer for the injustice which he has suffered. He has been detained as an innocent person for a period of over two years. He's been treated in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner," Lizar said.
Tareq Dergoul from East London claims to have been interrogated at gunpoint and beaten by U.S. forces while at Guantanamo. The other three detainees -- Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, all from the town of Tipton -- told "The Observer" newspaper they underwent some 200 interrogations and spent three months in solitary confinement.
The U.S. Defense Department has dismissed as "lies" accusations of beatings and maltreatment of prisoners at Camp Delta. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also has denied that the detainees at Guantanamo were treated inhumanely.
Barry Hugel is a spokesman for British National Council for Civil Liberties.
"It is always very hard to say with absolute authority. I suspect the great majority of people in Britain will be more inclined to believe the detainees than to believe the Secretary of State [Colin Powell]. But, of course, I don't know. I have not been in Guantanamo. If what they are saying is true -- and I see no reason to disbelieve it -- it's all a rather disturbing and a rather shocking story," Hugel said.
William Rees-Mogg is former editor in chief of "The Times" daily. He tells RFE/RL that a more balanced view of both claims should be taken.
"The experience of being a prisoner under those conditions would be a very unpleasant one. I think that that leads to two conclusions. One is that, yes, they could legitimately complain about the conditions, about the circumstances. The other is that it would be only natural for exaggeration to enter into those complaints, and that no outsider can possibly tell," Rees-Mogg said.
Rees-Mogg says Powell himself may not be aware of the details of the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo.
"If you are the secretary of state, you ask members of your staff to tell you what had happened, and they present it to you in the light that is as favorable to the United States policy as possible. And you then present it to the world in a light that is as favorable to United States policy as possible. By the time you've got several layers, in fact, of people making it as good as possible, it's got a little way from what it was like for the people concerned," Rees-Mogg said.
Hugel of the British National Council for Civil Liberties believes all the allegations need to be investigated.
"We have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever with people who wish to destroy life and create mayhem. We are as strongly antiterrorist as [U.S. President George W.] Bush and Colin Powell. But what we do believe is that, in the battle against terrorism, we cannot win if we abandon those values which we believe to be right and which we believe are worth defending," Hugel said.
(Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)