Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cuba Libre

Tipton is a small town in the Black Country. It was once part of Staffordshire but was swallowed up in the conurbation of the West Midlands and is now part of the metropolitan borough of Sandwell. Tipton was a mining town, top heavy with the industrialisation of the 19th century. The coal and iron that fuelled that economy are gone, and the factories have closed. It is now one of the poorest boroughs in England. Sandwell is a British National Party stronghold and the far-right group hold three local council seats. Racism is simmering against Tipton's large mostly-Asian migrant community. Shafiq Rasul, Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal were from this community. They were boyhood friends who were to become known as the “Tipton Three.” The three men spent two years in US custody in Guantanamo Bay. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has now told the astonishing story of the three men in a new film called “The Road to Guantanamo”. The film was released in Australian cinemas on 17 November.

The trio were ordinary young men of no political affiliations. They played for a Sunday league football team in Tipton. They were Muslims but not fundamentalist. But they were no angels either. Iqbal and Ahmed had criminal convictions for a gang assault on a 16-year-old. In September 2001 the trio men travelled to Pakistan. Iqbal travelled there because his parents had arranged for him to marry a woman from Faisalabad. Ahmed was to be best man; Rasul hoped to do a computer course after the wedding. When they got to Pakistan, the country was in an uproar of support for Bin Laden. The US had commenced its attack on Taliban Afghanistan. In a mosque in Karachi the men heard an imam saying they should help the Afghan people in whatever way they could. With time on their hands before the wedding, they hopped on a bus and headed for the border.

When they got to Afghanistan they travelled first to Kandahar and then onto Kabul. As the US bombing got closer, the boys made the decision to go back to Pakistan. They tried to escape in a taxi which merely took them further in to the danger zone. They made it to the Northern Afghan town of Kunduz, when they were stopped and arrested by General Dostum’s Northern Alliance forces on the outskirts of the city. They were among 35,000 prisoners taken to Sheberghan Prison, near Mazar-i-Sharif. But before going into prisoner, they were first crammed into suffocating containers for two days. Soldiers shot bullet holes into the containers which gave them air but also killed many of the victims inside.

On release from the container, they entered the prison itself. They were crammed into cells where they took 4-hour shifts to lie down and sleep. They were held there for a month in nauseating conditions. Only 4,000 of the original 35,000 were still alive. Then they were transferred to US Special Forces at their airbase in Kandahar. The Red Cross saw the men and promised to contact the British Embassy in Pakistan. But two days later they were handed over to the Americans. They were beaten, trussed and loaded on a plane which flew them to the US detention centre at Kandahar. The interrogations started. They were questioned on their knees, in chains, always at gunpoint. Often they were kicked or beaten.

In January 2002, the three men were sent to Guantanamo. The events of 9/11 allowed the Bush administration make a broad-scale attack on the Geneva conventions. The Cuban base was to be the gulag where they could interrogate the “unlawful combatants” beyond the glare of international law. The flight from Afghanistan took 22 hours. Prisoners were dressed in earmuffs, goggles and surgical masks. They were chained to the floor with no backrests and had to urinate and defecate where they stood.

They were sent to the new Camp X-Ray. Most of the men had no idea where they were. Rasul told the Guardian “All I knew was that I was somewhere with intense heat. An American voice shouted: "I am Sergeant so-and-so, US Marine Corps, you are arriving at your final destination.’" In the early days, the detention conditions were extreme. Detainees were forbidden to talk and fed tiny portions of food which they had to eat in ten minutes. Brutality was commonplace. The list of rules was long and difficult to follow. Infractions were punished by Guantanamo's riot squad, the Extreme Reaction Force. A soldier with a riot shield would slam the prisoner to the floor and pin him down while others beat him.

After a few weeks, things began to improve. Inmates got a copy of the Koran, a prayer mat, blankets and towels. Talking was still prohibited. In mid 2002 the prisoners were moved from the open cages at Camp X-ray to the pre-fabricated cellblocks of Camp Delta. The new favoured punishment was solitary confinement. Ahmed was given isolation for writing 'Have a nice day' on a polystyrene cup. The military deemed this 'malicious damage to US government property'. From the beginning of 2003, interviews with MI5, the FBI, the CIA and US military intelligence became increasingly frequent. The methods used were always the same. Prisoners were shown photographs of themselves with al-Qaeda membership forms or be told their passports were found in a raid on an Afghan cave. The Americans claimed they could see the three men in a video of a meeting between Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta.

Rasul said he was initially scared of the interrogations, but changed his mind after a young interrogator asked him: "If I wanted to get hold of surface-to-air missiles in Tipton, where would I go?" "Towards the end the questions just seemed stupid," he said. Meanwhile the trio’s families had engaged lawyers in Britain and America soon after learning of their whereabouts in February 2002. The men had one important alibi. The fact that they were in trouble with the police mean that they could prove they were in England when they were supposed to be at Al Qaeda camps.

Eventually the British government interceded on their behalf. Despite their release, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw continued to cast doubt on their innocence. He said: "Because... the police and Crown Prosecution Service judged that there is insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution on evidence that is admissible in the British court, it doesn’t follow from there that therefore the original detention was unjustified.” They were released without charge in March 2004 after 25 months in captivity. Immediately prior to their release, the FBI tried to persuade the men to sign a form admitting links with terrorism. None of them did so.

Michael Winterbottom told the Independent why he made the film, “we'd heard about the Tipton Three, so we got in contact with their lawyer, to arrange a meeting. Luckily they were interested in telling us their story. What was fascinating about the way they described the experience was that two of them were teenagers when they left, and one of them was 21, and none of them were particularly religious or political before they left; even when they were talking about it with us, after the event. And when they described it, it was in a matter-of-fact way, like someone telling you about their holiday - the holiday from hell".

All three are now back in England but living in safehouses in the south. Tipton is too dangerous for them to return. Many people there still think they were guilty and racism is rife. Effigies of men in orange jump suits have been strung from lampposts. The pall of suspicion is not just confined to Tipton. Ruhal Ahmed was refused a visa when he tried to visit Australia in October to promote the film. The distributor, Palace Films, was bringing him to Australia for the launch. The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, said he was aware the Immigration Department had refused a visa to a British national "following a prejudicial security assessment by ASIO". Ahmed was bemused by the decision. "If I'm not a threat to my own country then I'm definitely not a threat to another country,” he said.

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