Afghan writers sent to Gitmo for satire

We always knew the Pentagon had no sense of humor, but this really proves it. This case, reported in Newsday Oct. 31, is truly Orwellian on multiple levels: it reads like a dark political satire, and it concerns two Afghan intellectuals who appear to have been detained at Guantanamo for three years precisely for writing dark political satire!

The young scholars Badr Zaman Badr (who holds a master’s degree in English literature) and his brother Abdurrahim Muslim Dost fled into exile in Pakistan with the Soviet occupation of their country in 1980s and joined a Mujahedeen faction, the Jamiat-i-Dawatul—although they just worked as propagandists, and did not return to Afghanistan to fight. Dost became editor of the faction’s magazine. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the brothers split with Jamiat, partly over its embrace of the extremist Wahhabi sect. Dost wrote lampoons against the group’s leader, a cleric named Sami Ullah, portraying him as a corrupt pawn of Pakistan’s secret police, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). In November 2001, as the US was attacking Afghanistan, party leaders warned the brothers they would be imprisoned if they didn’t stop their criticisms. Sure enough, ten days later they were arrested by the ISI and dragged off to grimy prison cells. Although it was never clear what charge they were being held on, one midnight in February 2002 they were taken to Peshawar airport and turned over to the US military.

Pushed face-down on the tarmac, they were hooded and restrained. “They chained our feet,” Badr said. “Dogs were barking at us. They pulled a sack down over my head. It was very difficult to breathe …” Then they were put on a plane and flown to Bagram prison in Afghanistan. In May they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay and held in separate cells at the special interrogation facility, Camp Delta. In months of harsh questioning and ritual humiliation, it became clear that ISI had fingered them to the Americans as dangerous al-Qaeda supporters who had threatened the life of President Clinton!

For months, they were relentlessly grilled them over a satirical article Dost had written in 1998, when the Clinton administration offered a $5-million reward for Osama bin Laden. Dost responded that Afghans put up 5 million Afghanis—equivalent to $113—for the arrest of Bill Clinton.

“It was a lampoon…of the poor Afghan economy” under the Taliban, Badr recalled. The article carefully instructed Afghans how to identify Clinton if they stumbled upon him. “It said he was clean-shaven, had light-colored eyes and he had been seen involved in a scandal with Monica Lewinsky,” Badr said.

The interrogators, some flown down from Washington, didn’t get the joke, he said. “Again and again, they were asking questions about this article. We had to explain that this was a satire.” He paused. “It was really pathetic.”

Finally, nearly three years after they were taken into US custody, the Pentagon determined the men were no threat and released them to Afghanistan. The brothers had been designated “enemy combatants,” although they insist they never saw a battlefield. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico, declared this summer that “there was no mistake” in the brothers’ detention because it “was directly related to their combat activities [or support] as determined by an appropriate Department of Defense official.” US officials declined to provide further details, but we note there is plenty of wiggle room in that “[or support]” construction.

The Pentagon admits the US legal standard of innocent until proven guilty does not apply in the Pentagon’s network of “enemy combatant” detainment centers. “You cannot equate it to a justice system,” said Army Col. Samuel Rob, who was serving this summer as the chief lawyer for US forces in Afghanistan. (Rather an understatement, eh?) But he added that innocent victims of the system are “a small percentage, I’d say.” And he also resorted to the incredibly cheap and predictable shot of invoking 9-11: “What if this is a truly bad individual, the next World Trade Center bomber, and you let him go? What do you say to the families?”

Newsday correspondent James Rupert (and hats off to him) isn’t allowed to editorialize like this, but we can: What do you say to the families of two innocent writers who had three years of their lives stolen from them, Col. Rob?

See our last post on the new American gulag.