A Briton who spent two years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused his American captors of subjecting him and other inmates to a catalog of brutality: beatings, forced injections, sleep deprivation and shackling in painful positions.
Jamal Harith, 37, described how he endured a beating in which a guard jumped up and down on his legs when he resisted an injection of an unknown drug, one of 10 such injections that left him feeling woozy and disoriented. He said interrogators forced him to spend long periods in painful positions on his knees or bound in chains that cut into his skin. On some days, according to his account, guards chained him to the floor for up to 15 hours in an interrogation room with cold air blowing in, forcing him to urinate on himself.
Harith said he witnessed dozens of beatings inflicted by a team of guards known as the Extreme Reaction Force. A guard with a video camera often taped the incidents, he said. Inmates suffered broken arms and legs, and bloodied and swollen faces, he said.
Harith’s account of conditions at Guantanamo echoed some of the reports of abuse at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spoke with The Times last week in one of his first interviews with a U.S. newspaper.
Harith’s detailed description of captivity in the secretive facility is difficult to confirm. But he said the evidence of wrongdoing in Iraq -- depicted in now-infamous photographs -- makes it harder to dismiss allegations that similar misconduct by U.S. prison guards occurs at Guantanamo.
“It’s just like what was happening in Iraq. They’d say the same thing: ‘Oh, yeah, really,’ ” Harith said.
“But the fact that you’ve seen pictures, then you can believe it, relate to it. All I can say is I have spoken to the people this has happened to. I have seen the effects. I have seen people beat up -- the swollen faces, the limping back or being dragged back. I’ve seen the effects of it. I cannot produce pictures. All I can say is what happened.”
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller supervised the prison in Guantanamo before he was sent in March to run U.S. detention facilities in Iraq. Critics have suggested that Miller declared it was time to “Gitmo-ize” Abu Ghraib by introducing the kind of aggressive techniques used to interrogate suspects in Guantanamo. Miller denies this.
Harith insisted that he was wrongly jailed at the prison where suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held. He was among five British detainees sent back in March to Britain. Authorities there released them, saying they did not pose a security threat.
When the British press reported the former detainees’ accounts of abuse at Guantanamo, U.S. officials asserted that conditions were consistent with the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners.
On Monday, the Pentagon said the five former detainees were not credible.
“Credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. personnel would be investigated and, as appropriate, reported to proper authorities,” a Pentagon spokeswoman said. “The allegations being made by these individuals are untrue and not credible.”
Harith and the other four Britons were released after lengthy negotiations between U.S. and British leaders. The U.S. has been widely criticized in Europe for allowing detainees to be held indefinitely at Guantanamo, where four other British nationals remain imprisoned.
Harith’s recent treatment by U.S. and British authorities seemed to bolster his credibility. He is the only one of the five former inmates who was not held for questioning by British anti-terrorism police after his return.
The U.S. Embassy in London responded to questions from a British newspaper in March with a letter alleging that four of the men had trained with Al Qaeda and fought alongside the Taliban or supported extremism. But none of the accusations appeared to involve Harith.
Harith does not deny reports that British newspapers paid him and the others for interviews. Harith did not ask for payment for his interview with the Los Angeles Times. The lawyer for another former Guantanamo detainee canceled an interview after a request for payment was rejected.
Harith denies any ties to Islamic extremists and declares that those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks should be executed.
“I think they should be taken up publicly and their life should be taken, simple, I have no qualms about that,” he said.
Harith told his story as he lounged at a picnic table in Alexandra Park in Moss Side, the multiethnic area where he grew up in this industrial city in northern England. The tall, rangy man smiled shyly at neighbors who treated him like a celebrity, calling encouragement and shaking his hand. He spoke in a restrained, deliberate tone, a soft chuckle intruding even when he recalled traumatic events.
Harith, who was born into a family of Jamaican immigrants, said he converted to Islam in 1992. Between computer jobs, he traveled in Asia and Africa. From 1993 to 1996, he studied Arabic in Sudan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism, that at the time provided bases for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But he said that he had never heard of the terrorist network until after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Harith said he traveled to Pakistan in October 2001 despite the upheaval in the region from Al Qaeda’s assault on the United States. “I travel anyway,” he said. “I’m a traveler.”
Although a number of radical Muslims journeyed to Afghanistan during that time to defend Bin Laden’s base against an anticipated U.S. strike, Harith asserted that he had no intention of entering Afghanistan.
He said he hired a truck driver to take him to Iran. But they were hijacked near the border and forced into Afghanistan, where his British passport caused the Taliban to jail him on suspicion of spying, he said.
After the fall of the Taliban, Harith spent time in a Red Cross shelter and communicated with British diplomats in Kabul, the Afghan capital, about getting home, he said. But he ended up in custody at a U.S. military base in Kandahar on Jan. 24, 2002.
“As far as I’m concerned, I was kidnapped,” he said. “Rushed into the Kandahar base. First I was beaten, stripped naked, interrogated naked, and after a week or two weeks in that concentration camp, I was sent to Cuba.”
According to Harith, U.S. and British interrogators in Afghanistan assured him that he would not be detained for long in Guantanamo because his record seemed clean. But the welcome from U.S. Marines as he arrived, shackled and blindfolded, sent a different message, he said.
“They go around barking like dogs and all that, saying, ‘You are now in the hands of the U.S. Marine Corps,’ ” he said. “And then, bam! And then if you move, or you look up, whatever, make a noise, you get beat.... They just go around elbowing, punching, kicking everyone.”
Harith said he spent the first five months in Camp X-Ray, then was moved to Camp Delta. He says he underwent about 50 interrogations. He describes his cell as “a cage” in a block shared with 40 other inmates.
Harith said inmates told him about interrogations during which women in civilian clothes subjected them to sexual humiliation that, like the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, seemed calculated to embarrass observant Muslims.
“They said a female was brought in,” Harith said. “Some of them were young guys from Saudi [Arabia], Yemen. They were young guys, they had women playing with their genitals. Other guys, they were pushing their breasts in their faces. They said they did it especially during [the holy month of] Ramadan.”
Harith acknowledged he has no firsthand experience to corroborate those allegations.
Other inmates endured more harrowing ordeals than his, especially those locked in isolation cells for months, said Harith, who added that he spent only brief stints in isolation.
“It’s like the ‘Alien’ film: ‘In “Iso” nobody can hear you scream,’ ” he said. “On many occasions I heard people being beat.... I got it easy compared to what other people got. If there is such a thing as easy, that is.”
An Australian inmate named Mamdouh Habib suffered the effects of forced sleep deprivation, according to Harith’s account.
“He was very weak, could hardly walk. I [saw] him fall unconscious. Blood was coming out of his nose, out of his ears.”
The British government has said it will inquire into Harith’s allegations. But Harith said he remained bitter because he had complained to British diplomats who visited him at Guantanamo, and was told they could do nothing about it.
Today, Harith savors his time with his family and walks in the park. He said he got a surprisingly warm homecoming in a part of Britain with little tolerance for anyone said to be linked to Islamic extremism.
“All these people I don’t know just come up to me,” he said. “You’d think it’d be just Muslims. The majority that have come up are non-Muslims. They’ve been hugging me, saying, ‘I’ve been praying for you. You’ve survived this long. Keep it up.’ ”
Rotella was recently on assignment in Britain. Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.