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Friday, Jan. 12, 2007

Guantanamo ex-inmates detail ordeal, plug movie

Staff writer

On Jan. 11, 2002, the United States began sending terrorist suspects to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba. Hundreds were sent from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, but not one has been convicted of a crime -- including former detainees Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul.

News photo
Former guantanamo detainees Ruhal Ahmed (left) and Shafiq Rasul speak about their experiences during an interview Thursday in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

For more than two years, the British nationals were held at Guantanamo for allegedly engaging in terrorist activities. Despite their pleas of innocence, they claim they were repeatedly tortured, both physically and mentally, by their military captors.

"Being tortured (while) knowing you haven't done anything wrong -- that (was) the most difficult thing," Rasul, 29, said in an interview Thursday with The Japan Times.

Rasul, who is of Pakistani descent, and 25-year-old Ahmed, who is of Bangladeshi descent, were in Tokyo to promote "The Road to Guantanamo," a docudrama based on their experience in the controversial prison. The film will start showing in Japan at the end of the month.

The film portrays the two as ordinary men whose lives change drastically after attending a friend's wedding in Pakistan in September 2001.

During the trip in Pakistan, the two decided to go to Afghanistan the next month to provide humanitarian assistance and see the situation for themselves, they claimed. They later ended up in an area where the Taliban was based and were forced to move along with them.

After leaving the Taliban in what they called the chaos created by the U.S. invasion, Ahmed and Rasul were detained by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and finally wound up in the arms of the U.S. military.

Although they thought help had finally arrived, they were instead sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, where they were held at the detention facility known as Camp X-Ray.

They said were locked up in outdoor chain-link cages for months with one bucket for excrement and another filled with "yellowish" water they were supposed to drink.

"It made me feel like an animal," Ahmed said. "(The U.S. military) dehumanized us."

The men said they were tortured daily, beaten, terrorized and even threatened with sodomy by U.S. military officials.

Ahmed and Rasul said some of the detainees tried to hang themselves with bedsheets. Two they knew succeeded and were among three who hanged themselves in June 2006.

"Not having any contact with the outside world, you just start losing hope in living," Rasul recalled. "And you think that the easy way out of this is to try and kill yourself."

One major source of strength, they said, was religion. Before they were detained, Ahmed and Rasul were Muslims in name only, they said. That changed at Guantanamo.

"One of the things religion teaches us is to have patience and we had to build that patience inside us" in Guantanamo, Rasul said. "That helped us get through the situation."

On March, 7, 2004, they were released and sent back to Britain. To this day, however, Ahmed and Rasul said the U.S. government has given them no reason for their detention nor their release, or even an apology for robbing them of two years of their lives.

But Rasul said he does not bear a grudge against the U.S. government. Hatred "doesn't achieve anything," Rasul said. "What we've done is more constructive. We made a film, we made people aware, and we've changed a lot of people's opinions and I think that had more of an impact."

Since their release, the two men have been engaged in international activities to stop the "illegal detentions" and get the U.S. government to close Guantanamo. They said they are especially concerned about the welfare of the other detainees at Guantanamo who became like family to them.

See related stories:
The Road to Guantanamo: In the wrong place at the wrong time
Rookie director digs for the truth

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