In the fall of 2001, in the midst of the US war in Afghanistan, Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul traveled from their native Tipton, England, to attend a wedding in Pakistan. Once in the region they decided to extend their trip, eager to learn more about their Muslim roots and to offer help in the humanitarian crisis across the border in Afghanistan. On November 28, 2001, the men–who would come to be known internationally as the Tipton Three–were picked up by bounty hunters of the Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.
With some 200 other suspected terrorists, the men were packed in shipping containers in the presence of US forces, according to a report issued by the Center for Constitutional Rights. They were shipped to Sherbegan prison, a former Taliban fortress, before being placed formally in US custody. Near suffocation, Iqbal passed out and awoke gasping for air at the small holes Dostum’s guards had created by firing machine guns at the containers. One of the bullets had hit Iqbal in the arm, giving him a wound that soon became infected for lack of medical care. Ahmed says that all three men suffered “cold, dehydration, hunger…uncertainty,” as well as dysentery and other injuries. During the brutal eighteen-hour transport, only twenty of the 200 captives survived.
The story of the Tipton Three–their detention, transport, torture and release–is no more or less outstanding than that of any others who have been swept up in the “war on terror,” disappearing into what Vice President Dick Cheney has referred to as the “dark side” of the intelligence world. What is remarkable about these men is that we know their story, and it is one of the clearest failures of the Administration’s use of extra-legal methods to detain and prosecute suspected terrorists: They were wrongly held and never tried.
Before being designated “unlawful combatants,” Rasul, Ahmed and Iqbal were working-class kids scraping by in Tipton, a poor neighborhood in the Midlands area of England with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. All three attended one of the worst secondary schools in England. By the time Iqbal was 16, he had dropped out to take a job in a factory–Ahmed soon joined him. Raised in nonfundamentalist Pakistani households, the three were as much British as they were Muslim; they played soccer in the park and rap on their stereos. As Eric Lewis, one of their lawyers puts it, “They are just kids. Guys in Nikes and backward baseball caps who happen to be Muslims.”
While the men were held at Sherbegan prison, the International Committee of the Red Cross told them that British Embassy officials would be coming to see them shortly and that everything would be cleared up. However, when the British arrived, the men were chastised for being jihadis and told that if they were sent home, they would be charged and placed in Belmarsh, one of Britain’s most notorious maximum-security prisons. But the men were never charged with anything, and instead of being sent to Belmarsh, they were held at a US-operated detention center in Kandahar, where they were repeatedly beaten, interrogated at gunpoint and told that their families back in England had been thrown out on the street.
In Kandahar the men were subjected to cavity searches, which they say were meant to “degrade and humiliate” them. In various interviews after their release, Rasul said, “I could hear dogs barking nearby and soldiers shouting, ‘Get ’em, boy’…. I was taken…for a so-called cavity search…told to bend over and then felt something shoved up my anus. I don’t know what it was, but it was very painful.” After being held in Kandahar for two weeks, Iqbal and Ahmed were masked, goggled and shackled, and led onto a large cargo plane with other detainees, where they were told they would be taking a short journey (Rasul would follow one month later). Twenty-two hours later they arrived in Cuba.
The kind of humiliation Rasul describes in Kandahar was only an introduction to what the men would come to experience regularly over the course of their two-and-a-half year detention at Guantánamo Bay. They lived in constant fear of being killed and said that the guards told them “nobody knows you’re here, all they know is that you’re missing, and we could kill you at any moment and no one would know.” In the report Iqbal recalls one guard screaming, “You killed my family in the towers, and now it’s time to get you back.” Almost immediately after they arrived, interrogators began hounding them to admit to being in a videotape with Osama bin Laden that was made in Afghanistan in 2000. The men describe interrogation sessions that went on for fourteen hours during which they were forced to sit in a chair with their hands and feet shackled to a bolt in the floor, while strobe lights and loud music played in a room frigid from air-conditioning. The men were routinely beaten, deprived of sleep, kept in isolation for months at a time and told that the others had confessed. After existing under such conditions for months, all three men finally admitted that they had, in fact, been in the video with bin Laden.
Were these confessions a victory for the US “war on terror,” perhaps even a sign of what can be gained by “taking the gloves off” with recalcitrant detainees, as defenders of US policy might suggest? Here were three suspected terrorists who, after months of grueling, expensive detention and interrogation, admitted to being linked with the world’s most dangerous man.
But as it turned out, the case was a perfect embodiment of everything wrong with the “war on terror.” The confessions extracted from all three detainees were false. At the time the video was made they were in Tipton–Rasul was working at an electronics store, and Ahmed and Iqbal were employed at the factory. When the men were released from Guantánamo into British custody in March 2004, the MI5 held the men, as it did not, understandably, want to release potential terrorists who had just confessed to a connection to Osama bin Laden. It was while in British custody that investigators were able to determine the impossibility of the Tipton Three’s guilt simply by examining the tape’s tracking date and matching it to police, employment and passport records. The MI5 disproved in days the false story that had taken interrogators at Guantánamo nearly three years to obtain. Of course even if their confessions were true, the evidence would not stand under British law. On December 8, Britain’s highest court ruled that evidence obtained through torture– even if it took place overseas–is not admissible in British courts.
False confessions are a frequent result of interrogations where torture is employed to extract information, says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. As Ahmed explains in the CCR report, he was ready to confess to anything as early as his detention in Afghanistan. “I was in a terrible state, I just said ‘OK’ to everything they said to me. I agreed with everything whether it was true or not. I just wanted to get out of there.” It is impossible to determine exactly how many detainees being held at Guantánamo and elsewhere have confessed to acts they did not commit when torture is employed during interrogations. Jen Nessel, a spokeswoman at CCR, explains that because more than half of the detainees at Guantánamo do not have any form of legal representation, there is no way to know who has confessed to what, nor does the US military consider itself obligated to charge detainees so long as they are held as “unlawful combatants.”
Along with Jamal al-Harith, a fourth British detainee who was similarly abused and released without charges after a prolonged detention, Iqbal, Ahmed and Rasul are currently awaiting a decision from a DC District judge in the civil suit Rasul v. Rumsfeld. Filed under the Alien Torts Statute, Rasul seeks $10 million in damages for each of the plaintiffs on account of torture and other human rights violations. As their attorney Lewis explains, they are “having difficulty getting back into their lives.” For one thing the Tipton Three no longer live in Tipton. “They’ve received countless threats,” says Lewis. “They’re followed by British intelligence. The last time I saw them, they were under surveillance.” All three suffer chronic pain in their backs and knees as a result of the “stress positions” they were held in for countless hours of interrogation, and Ahmed incurred irreversible damage to his eyes because he was unable to receive proper contact lenses and medical care. The lasting psychological effects of their detention are more difficult to gauge. “It has taken time,” says Lewis. “They’re very distrustful.” Their case has received extensive press attention in Britain but has passed largely unnoticed in the US media.
As Harith and the Tipton Three wait for a decision, the right to challenge detentions in federal courts is being threatened for the hundreds of Guantánamo detainees whose stories we don’t know. The Graham amendment, recently approved by the Senate, is being considered in a House-Senate conference committee. Ratner, who oversees all of the CCR’s 9/11-related cases, says one day “the President says you’ll have this hearing, Graham says no. One day there’s no Geneva Conventions, the next day you can be tortured.” In this context it is chilling to remember that, according to information US military intelligence gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross, an estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of those arrested in the “war on terror” as of February 2004 were done so mistakenly.
In the recent PBS Frontline documentary on Abu Ghraib, John Yoo, the former Justice Department attorney who authored some of the key memos greatly expanding the executive in early 2002, stated that Guantánamo is an ideal location to house prisoners because it is “this private place” where “you don’t want to have…the judiciary getting involved while the war is going on in the management of the prison system for the military.” If Guantánamo is ideal because it is beyond the reach of law, then Rasul v. Rumsfeld is, as attorney Lewis says, “about preserving an American ideal–the rule of law.”