Cyrus Kar’s zeal for 15 seconds of film cost him 55 days in prison in Iraq.
For three years, the 44-year-old history buff and business teacher had been working on a documentary about Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who freed the Jews from Babylon and wrote the first charters of human rights. Kar had filmed in Iran and Central Asia. Iraq, the site of ancient Babylonia, was to be last. He hoped by then that hostilities would ease.
When the fighting dragged on longer than he anticipated, Kar went into Iraq anyway. And on a day when he spotted a bridge that looked like a modern version of one Cyrus had reportedly crossed on his journey to Babylon, Kar couldn’t pass it up.
He never got there. Instead, Kar, his Iranian cameraman and an Iraqi cab driver he had hired that morning in May were stopped at a checkpoint about 90 minutes north of Baghdad.
That stop, he said in lengthy interviews in Los Angeles, 10 days after he was freed by U.S. authorities, began a “nightmare journey.”
Based on the discovery of washing-machine timers -- often used by insurgents to detonate roadside bombs -- in the trunk of that cab, Kar was accused of being of a terrorist “that the president will hear about.”
Blindfolded, shackled and handcuffed, he was shuttled -- in Humvees and helicopters -- to four prisons. His American captors posed him against his will with the alleged bomb components and kept him in solitary confinement in the same prison where Saddam Hussein and stalwarts of his regime are being held.
Kar said that during his captivity, he was pushed against a wall by an American soldier and had a hearing in which he was denied a lawyer, key witnesses and documents, but was informed that he had passed a lie detector test.
Less than a month after he was detained, FBI officials told relatives in Los Angeles that he had been cleared. But it would take almost another month, after his story had appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and after the American Civil Liberties Union had sued in federal court, before he would be released.
Kar, a slightly built man who was born in Iran, grew up in the U.S. and holds dual citizenship, says the ordeal shook his faith in the government of his adopted country.
“I was under the impression that we had gone to liberate a society from a brutal fascist dictator, and I was all for it,” he said. “The fact that I was abandoned by my own government was the hardest part of my incarceration.”
Kar’s story, based on seven hours of interviews in Los Angeles, offers a window into the experience of being a captive of the U.S. military in Iraq. The version he recounted here is more critical than the version he gave reporters in Baghdad on the day he was released.
Much of what he describes was verified independently by The Times through interviews and documents.
U.S. officials have cleared Kar. The Pentagon acknowledged last week that his imprisonment “was difficult for Mr. Kar and his family, but it was essential to conduct a thorough and complete investigation
The Pentagon noted that the presence of timers, which have been used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have killed and wounded 42 U.S. soldiers and 45 Iraqis since January, justified Kar’s detention.
“Clearly, the presence of these potential IED components offered a strong basis for apprehension and detention,” Lt. Col. John A. Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail response to questions about the case.
“While it is understandable why someone who is ultimately found not to pose a threat would be frustrated by their detention, a very serious, deliberate and methodical process is followed,” the statement said.
But Kar said U.S. officials knew early in the process that he was not connected to the timers or terrorism. He expressed serious doubts that he would have been freed but for attention from the media and help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum and his colleagues.
History as a Hobby
Kar has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from San Jose State and a master’s degree in technology management from Pepperdine. He has worked in Silicon Valley and taught graduate business courses online through the University of Phoenix. But on his resume, where some people might list sports as hobby, he lists “history.” His apartment is filled with documentary videotapes and history books.
He became fascinated with Cyrus the Great after a visit to Tehran, where his divorced mother still lives, three years ago. Kar’s namesake, he learned, had conquered Babylonia, then ruled it by a strict written code of human rights that later influenced Thomas Jefferson. Cyrus the Great’s life seemed to represent the two cultures Kar held dearest.
Kar decided to do a documentary. The project became his passion. For three years, he researched and filmed in the United States, Turkey, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, while teaching part time and living in a modest Los Feliz apartment.
Kar felt it was essential to film in Iraq.
“We told him it was crazy to go,” said Philippe Diaz, founder of Cinema Libre Studio, who has consulted with Kar on the documentary. “But he was so passionate about the movie that our warnings never resonated with him. It didn’t matter to him that it was dangerous. When you are in love, you are ready to walk on fire, and he was in love with his project.”
In the spring of 2005, Kar went to Tehran, hooked up with cameraman Farshid Faraji and set out by bus for Iraq.
They entered at Khanaqin and spent a week in the area near Erbil -- Kurdish territory that is considered relatively safe. The second week of May they went to Baghdad, where they spent one day doing research and another filming the remains of the ancient Median Wall, erected by King Nebuchadnezzar hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.
They had one brief run-in with Iraqi police, but their real problems began May 17, as they drove out of Baghdad planning to shoot 15 seconds or so of film on the bridge that reminded Kar of one described by the ancient historian Herodotus. They set out despite a warning by an official at the Ministry of Culture that the road was unsafe.
‘A Serious Nightmare’
Kar didn’t like the taxi driver they got at the central depot, near the Iraqi Museum, the hiring spot for long-haul cabs. “He didn’t look trustworthy, but we didn’t have a choice,” he said.
They set off, chatting briefly with the driver, who they learned was a Sunni. “The driver kept asking me if we were American,” Kar said. Being cautious, he responded that they were Iranian.
When they got to a checkpoint after 5 p.m., the driver turned on them. Speaking rapidly to the guards in Arabic, a language neither Kar nor his Farsi-speaking cameraman understood, he motioned toward his passengers. Kar understood only the words “Iranian” and “film.” Abruptly, the car was pulled over, and soldiers looked at passports, visas, permits.
Everything seemed in order until someone popped the trunk and pulled out brown plastic garbage bags. Karr said he hadn’t seen inside the trunk because they had carried only a small movie camera, Kar’s dog-eared copy of Herodotus and cue cards for the narration they planned to do on the bridge.
At an Iraqi police station, officers lined up his things -- including the camera and microphones -- like exhibits. Kar’s map, showing all of his carefully marked ancient sites, was placed on the wall. On the floor, the police placed about three dozen mechanical devices. Kar thought they looked like water heater gauges.
“This shows how dense I was,” he said. “I still couldn’t make the connection that there was anything dangerous about those gauges.”
After an hour of interrogation, Kar asked to speak to a member of the U.S. Embassy. He was told that Army officials were already on their way. Two U.S. soldiers soon strode in, and Kar relaxed.
“I think to myself: ‘The cavalry is here, this ordeal is over, and we’ll be on our merry way,’ ” Karr said. “Little did I know that this was the beginning of a serious nightmare.”
‘An Enemy Combatant’
The American soldiers did not ask him a question. Kar said he repeatedly asked to speak with a representative from the U.S. Embassy. “I was totally ignored,” he said. They were formally turned over to U.S. officials.
All three were held in a large outdoor “cage,” where each was given a bottle of water.
“I’m a U.S. citizen, I served in the armed forces. Is this how you treat one of your own?” he said he asked the soldier who locked him up.
“Everything’s for a reason, man,” the soldier, in fatigues and flak jacket, told him.
Six or seven hours later, Kar said, “I felt a tap on the shoulder.” He got up and was taken to an interrogation room. His blindfold was removed; he was photographed again. Kar was angry and frustrated.
“What are you doing here?” one soldier who appeared to be in charge asked.
“What took you seven hours to ask me that question?” Kar demanded.
“I’m asking the questions,” the soldier admonished.
“I’m a filmmaker,” Kar answered.
The man in charge asked the others to leave.
“I’m going to ask you one more time: What are you doing here?” the soldier said. “I gave you a chance to tell the truth.”
“And I took it,” Kar retorted.
When the other soldiers returned, Kar said, the tone of the encounter turned from skeptical to hostile.
“One guy kept saying, ‘You’re going to be in big trouble.... You’re going to be famous in the highest levels of government, from the secretary of defense up to the president. You’re an enemy combatant. You’re an American terrorist.... You’re the next John Walker Lindh.’ ”
He was referring to the Marin County man who was captured in Afghanistan and pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban and carrying explosives. He is serving 20 years in federal prison.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Kar said the soldiers told him the washing-machine timers in the cab were commonly used as IED components.
“But they’re not ours,” Karr said.
“You expect us to believe that?” the interrogator responded.
“Why don’t you just ask the taxi driver?” Kar said he insisted.
“You expect him to admit that?”
Kar said he pleaded with the soldiers to either free him or bring a decision-maker who had the authority to release him.
When Kar was removed, the cab driver was brought in.
After the driver was questioned, one of the American interrogators told Kar, “Hey, Cyrus, just wanted to let you know we talked to the cab driver and he admitted the gauges were his.” Kar was then taken back to his cage. He thought he was being held until dawn because it wasn’t safe to travel at night.
The next morning, the sun hit hard. It was mid-May. Official reports said it was 100 degrees in Baghdad on May 18, but Kar said he was told it had reached 130 at the prison. Kar said he, Faraji and the cab driver inched their way into a sliver of disappearing shade until, he said, they were “plastered” against a wall and the shade vanished.
About 4 p.m., a soldier took pity on them and moved them into an adjoining cage with shade. When guards came for the three a few minutes later, Kar thought he was being freed. Instead, handcuffs were put back on and his feet were shackled.
He said they were taken to a room where everything from the taxi -- their belongings and the timers -- was spread out on a table, like exhibits. The three men were told to kneel in front of the items so they could be photographed, he said.
The soldiers began making references to the prison torture scandal at Abu Ghraib. “We used to strip you guys and line you up like pyramids,” he recalled one soldier saying.
“Don’t even joke like that, man,” he recalled another officer saying.
Kar said he demanded to know why they were doing this to him and his cameraman when they knew the timers weren’t theirs.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said the officer told him. “I put it in our report that the driver admitted they weren’t yours.”
Now the handcuffs went back on, he said, and he and Faraji were fitted with another blindfold. They were loaded into separate Humvees. The driver stayed behind. He was incarcerated at Abu Ghraib and still faces criminal charges.
Kar was seriously concerned, thinking for the first time that “we were entering a system that wasn’t going to be easy to get out of.”
About three hours later, he said, they reached Tikrit, only to be told that he could not stay there because he was an American citizen. Still shackled and blindfolded, he said, he and his cameraman were put on a helicopter and flown half an hour to what he later was told was Abu Ghraib. They were lined up against a wall.
Military patrolmen began yelling at him: “You’re here to kill Americans? You’re a . . . terrorist!” When he shouted back, he was told to “shut . . . up!”
When he apparently didn’t follow orders fast enough, he said, a soldier smashed his face into a cinder block wall. “At this point, we’re almost catatonic,” he said.
“I broke down. I was just trying to survive to get to wherever I was going,” he said.
Soon, officials decided that Kar could not be kept at Abu Ghraib, either. He was driven in another Humvee to Camp Cropper, a U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport.
When he arrived, Kar said, he was “pleasantly surprised” to find no one screaming or swearing at him. “I appreciated it so much, just appreciated that no one was shoving me or pushing me.”
Nearly two days after his ordeal had begun, Kar was allowed to take a shower. He virtually passed out, he said, only to wake up in solitary confinement in an air-conditioned jail cell. He was fingerprinted, photographed again and his mouth swabbed for DNA. Kar was issued a baby-blue jumpsuit and allowed to keep only his own “skivvies and boots,” minus the laces. He filled out a written request to see a U.S. Embassy officer and asked for a copy of the Geneva Convention.
The Convention, printed out from the Internet and placed in a binder, was given to him, along with a Bible. Kar was put back into solitary confinement, a windowless cell with only a small opening for a food tray.
Four days later, a guard told him the FBI had arrived.
A Question on Voting
Kar was taken to be interviewed by two FBI officers, whom he identified as “Donna Peterson” and a man named “Robert.”
“They put out a page of rights on a desk -- a right to an attorney, a right not to talk to them,” Kar said.
“I said, ‘Do you have an attorney here?’ ”
Kar said he asked what would happen if he exercised his right to remain silent.
The last person who had done that, an agent said, was “still locked up in Afghanistan two years later.”
Kar started explaining why he came to Iraq. “I’m a filmmaker. We’re doing a documentary about an ancient Persian conqueror.”
The agents then asked if he would permit them to search his apartment and his car in Los Angeles.
Take a lie detector test?
Kar said he told them he wanted to do “everything I could to help do your job to clear me as soon as possible.” He had only one request: to call his family to tell them he was all right.
“No, we can’t let you do that yet,” one of the agents said.
During the interrogation, Kar said, he was asked one question that startled him.
“Are you registered to vote in California?” he was asked.
He said he was.
“Who did you vote for?”
He hesitated. “For a split second, I realized what a political prisoner must feel like in a fascist state,” Kar said he thought to himself.
“I voted for Kerry,” Kar said he told the agents, and then proceeded to justify his vote. “But I believe in Bush’s foreign policy. I believed in bringing democracy to countries where ... bullies kept kicking people when they were down.”
“How come you’re so on top of politics?” he said one of the agents asked.
“Because as a voter you should be informed,” he said he told them. “I’m a teacher. I teach. At a university. I should know some things.”
Then they asked him his religion, Kar said. “I felt it was an invasion of my innermost beliefs, but by the same token I thought it might be one element that might help clear me.” Kar said he told the agents he was raised as a Presbyterian but now considers himself a Zoroastrian, “the religion of ancient Persia before they were invaded by Muslims in 640 A.D.”
Kar urged them to go to his hotel and examine the footage and digital photographs he’d taken. They never went.
The interview lasted about an hour, Kar said. When it ended, he said, both agents shook his hand.
“I walked out feeling they had a clear picture now,” he said. “At the end of the interview, they knew I wasn’t a terrorist.” Soon, he said, “I was no longer shackled when I went to the bathroom.... I just assumed I’d get out of there in a couple days after they had searched my apartment in Los Angeles.”
On May 23, in Los Angeles, six days after Kar had been detained, FBI agent John D. Wilson searched Kar’s apartment and took his desktop computer, a laptop, a hard drive, a thumb drive, travel documents, financial documents, receipts, a copy of his Iranian passport, a copy of his California driver’s license and other items, according to FBI records provided to The Times.
The next day Kar was visited by two young women from the International Committee of the Red Cross. “They fluttered in like a couple of angels,” Kar said.
One of the workers knew Kar’s sister, Anna, who works for the ICRC in Nairobi, Kenya. After Kar told her what had happened to him, the woman called his sister.
And “half an hour later, the FBI came to my cell and said, ‘Do you want to call your family?’ ” During that first call, Kar was relatively upbeat, said his aunt, Parvin Modarress, the sister of his mother, Mahin.
“He told us there had been a misunderstanding about his taxicab and he expected to be released soon.... When I asked him if I should change his plane reservation home [from Tehran], which was scheduled for one week later, a third voice came on the line and said that he could keep his reservation,” she said.
Kar had nearly memorized the Geneva accords. And although he could not see a newspaper, the guards started bringing him novels. “I probably read a book a day.” The two he remembered best, Kar said, were “The King of Torts” by John Grisham and Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw.”
Provided with pen and paper, Kar worked on the screenplay for his documentary.
Three times, he wrote letters to Lt. Col. Carol V. Haas, the commandant of Camp Cropper, including a request for a lawyer, and signed two of them “Cyrus Kar, prisoner # 174.”
The same day, unbeknownst to Karr, FBI agent Wilson returned to Kar’s family all the items that were seized from his apartment. Kar’s aunt and her daughter, Shahrzad Folger, said the agent told them Kar had passed a lie detector test and had been “cleared” of any possible charges.
Four weeks had passed since Kar was detained.
After a few days, Kar’s family called Wilson. He left a voicemail with Modarress, which they played for a reporter, saying Kar was “in custody. He’s fine. It’s just that we’re trying to get his release. Be patient.”
On June 17, they called the ACLU and sent a letter describing the situation. On June 20, the organization began making calls and drafting a lawsuit seeking Kar’s release.
By June 22, Kar said he didn’t have much hope and wrote his final letter to the prison commandant.
“Dear Colonel Haas: Since arriving in the U.S. in 1966 as an infant, I have found American people to be some of the most kind & just people of all the societies in which I’ve lived. It’s not right to generalize; there are good & bad people everywhere.
“But as a whole it is a benevolent nation -- even the most ardent conservatives root for the underdog and are quick to acknowledge injustice. The disillusionment of this truth has been, by far, the hardest part of my incarceration. As an independent filmmaker, on his last dime & a shoestring budget, I am an underdog. And my imprisonment without evidence, the right to counsel or any due process is unjust.... Please provide me with an intelligence update and with counsel.”
Six days later, on June 28, Haas responded: “Forwarded your request to investigators.”
Kar made his final call to his Los Angeles relatives that day. “We told him that the FBI had cleared him,” Folger said. “He was shocked and frustrated by that information. It sounded as if they were telling him over there that they were waiting for him to be cleared here in the United States, while here in the U.S. they were telling us they were waiting for him to be cleared over there.”
Three days later, on Friday, July 1, Haas came to Kar’s cell and told him he would have a hearing on July 4 because “your status under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 12 August 1949 ... is in doubt.”
The written notice Haas gave Kar said he had the right to attend the hearing, present evidence, call witnesses and examine evidence, but that he could not have a lawyer.
He requested that the interrogators from the military and the FBI be called as witnesses, and that all their reports and notes be provided. He requested that his cameraman be brought as a witness. “I wanted to get him out of Abu Ghraib,” if only for a day, Karr said. He also asked for the results of his polygraph exam.
“This was the first time I realized a wheel was turning,” he said. “I had no idea why.”
On the morning of Independence Day, his hearing was convened. All the government witnesses, he was told, were “unavailable.”
All the reports were “classified.”
His polygraph exam showed “no deception.”
Then the sergeant brought out the picture of Kar with the washing-machine timers. “I said I recognized it,” he said. “They asked if I had a statement.”
Kar, pent up, launched a diatribe. “I said, ‘Your system is flawed. My imprisonment is based solely on stupidity. There is no escape valve at the first rungs of the ladder of this bureaucratic machine and it causes innocent people to be rounded up for no reason and incarcerated for no reason.
“ ‘Your people created something out of nothing by taking that picture,’ ” he said he told them. “I started cussing like a sailor. . . . I told them I felt betrayed by my own government, a government I served honorably in the Navy.”
Kar said the judges asked him a few questions, like “Where did you get in the taxicab?” The only other witness was his cameraman, Farshid Faraji.
After 15 minutes of deliberation, the panel declared him innocent, Kar said. “They said we have found you to be an innocent civilian.”
He was taken back to his cell.
On July 6, the day the ACLU filed for a writ of habeas corpus, and one day after the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times began making inquiries into the case, Kar got a two-page written decision from the Detainee Status Board at Camp Victory, which said he was an “Innocent Civilian ... who does not pose a threat to the security of coalition forces, or its mission, and should be immediately returned to his home or released.”
But Kar remained imprisoned. “I asked the commandant when I would get out. She said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Kar was released Sunday, July 10. Faraji was freed, too, and the men had a joyous reunion in Baghdad.
Kar wanted to resume work on the film. But his Los Angeles relatives implored him to come home, and a State Department official told him that by now his case had been heavily publicized on Al Jazeera. “It’s not safe for you.”
Kar said U.S. officials had damaged his passport. In addition, he said, $600 in cash, a digital camera containing 300 still photos, sunglasses and a cellphone had disappeared. Also lost were data from his Palm Pilot, including the names of dozens of people he planned to credit for help on the film.
He lost much of the footage shot in Iraq, but Kar still hopes to finish his project.
Kar said his primary goal is to educate people about Cyrus the Great and his contemporary relevance.
“When he went to Babylon and found people held against their will -- not just Jews, but POWs that had been rounded up -- it was just so strange to him, that he freed them,” he said.
“There are a lot of parallels between the American invasion and Cyrus’ invasion of Iraq. Both [Iraq and Babylon] were ruled at the time by a minority sect. Both [invading armies] were received as liberators when they came. Except that Cyrus managed to win the hearts and minds of the Babylonians, and, unfortunately, we have not been able to do that in this campaign.”