Two ex-Guantanamo detainees meet their former guard
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 19 January 2010
They were known as the Tipton Three: a trio of young British Muslim men from the English town of Tipton who traveled in October 2001 to Pakistan for the wedding of one of them, Asif Iqbal. While waiting for the wedding arrangements to be finalized they crossed into Afghanistan where they were seized by the Northern Alliance and sold on to US forces. The Americans flew them to Cuba and incarcerated them for more than two years in Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
In March 2004 Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul [pictured below] were released without charge and flown home. On their return they made numerous allegations of torture in Guantanamo. The British film director Michael Winterbottom turned the story of the Tipton Three into the docudrama “The Road to Guantanamo”, screened on Channel 4 and released on DVD and in cinemas in 2006.
Now two of the men have appeared in an extraordinary 23-minute documentary film, in which they are reunited with a former guard from Guantanamo, Brandon Neely. The film was made for BBC-2 TV’s nightly current affairs program Newsnight and shown in two parts last week. The film was part of a special week of Newsnight programs marking the first anniversary of US President Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo within a year. In practice, Obama has found it impossible to keep his promise.
The 29-year-old Neely, who is from the Texan town of Huntsville, left Guantanamo to serve in Iraq in June 2002 and resigned from the military in 2005 to become a police officer. But he was haunted by the ill-treatment and torture he had witnessed at Guantanamo. Those in charge of the detention camp had said the detainees were “the world’s most dangerous men.”
But the more he saw detainees being released without charge, the more he came to think that the stories they had told him about how they came to be in Guantanamo – and which he had at the time disbelieved – were true. He began to speak out publicly against Guantanamo. Neely says: “I never thought in a million years that the US would lock up so many innocent people for no reason other than being Muslim and in the wrong location. It really frustrated me and I was really angry and needed to tell my story.”
In December 2008 he approached the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas (CSHRA) in order to contribute testimony to the Guantanamo Testimonials Project. As a further step he decided to try and make contact through Facebook with some of the former detainees. “I decided to type in the names and see if a profile came up and I came across Shafiq’s Facebook page.” Neely sent Shafiq an email saying he was “truly sorry” for the hell the detainees had been put through in Guantanamo, adding: “If there’s anything I can do to help just let me know. Take care.”
Shafiq says: “It was shocking and surprising to receive a message from one of the guards saying basically that what happened to us in Guantanamo was wrong.” He replied to the message, and he and Neely embarked on an email correspondence. When the BBC learned that the former guard and former detainees were in touch by email, they approached them to ask whether they would be willing to meet in person. When they agreed, the BBC flew Neely over to London for a meeting with Shafiq and Ruhal.
The initial awkwardness at the meeting was dispelled when Ruhal told Neely lightheartedly “you look different without a cap”, and Neely replied: “You look different not in jumpsuits.” Neely again apologized for the way Shafiq and Rasul had been treated at Guantanamo.
Shafiq said: I’m really happy for Brandon to come all the way here to say sorry to us. It means so much to us.” He told him: “I don’t hold you responsible for what happened to me. You were there to do a job and you had to do that job.”
During the time they were at Guantanamo, the guard and two detainees found they had much in common. Neely was surprised to find what good English Ruhal and some other detainees spoke. When he talked to Ruhal, it was “no different from sitting with a friend and talking about women or music.” He would ask Ruhal if he listened to rappers Eminem or Dr. Dre, and Ruhal would “do a little rap; it was just funny”.
He also remembers him talking about James Bond movies. The detainees were forbidden sweets or candy, and Ruhal recalls how Neely smuggled him some Skittles sweets, which was “the kindest thing he could have done for me.”
Neely’s departure from Guantanamo coincided with life getting even tougher for the Tipton Three. They were put in isolation and pressure was placed on them to try to get them to confess to being members of Al-Qaeda. They were played a grainy video which allegedly showed them at a speech given by Osama Bin Laden. They said they could prove they were in Britain at the time the video was shot, but it took months for proof to arrive.
Ruhal says that out of all the torture techniques, the playing of loud music was probably the worst. “It was extremely loud in a very small room like someone screaming down your ears for hour upon hour. You could have gone crazy.” He thought many times about taking his own life, but “I thought if I kill myself that means they’ve won.”
Neely felt particularly bad about an incident on the first day of processing detainees in Alpha Block when a handcuffed older detainee who had been told to kneel had suddenly jerked and not done as instructed. Neely had slammed his face into the concrete floor. Another detainee told him some days later that the reason the man had jerked when made to kneel was that he thought he was going to be executed because he’d had a family member who was executed in the same manner in his country. Neely says: “I really felt horrible.”
In the evening Neely and the two former detainees and their wives were filmed at an Indian restaurant. This was the first time Neely had tasted curry.
The Tipton Three have always adamantly denied that they crossed into Afghanistan for purposes of jihad. Ruhal says that after Asif’s father said it would take two or three weeks to arrange the wedding, the friends were touring around and decided to visit Afghanistan. The war started the day they arrived and they eventually ended up in Kunduz.
They admit that they went to a Taliban training camp in Kunduz, but say this was to find out what was happening. And they have also admitted handling an AK-47, but this was out of curiosity. Ruhal says: “At the end of the day if I was guilty of a crime, or if Shafiq was guilty of a crime, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. We were released without any charge. If we were really a threat to this world, America especially, there would have been no way we’d have been released.”