â€¨By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — When Mohammed Sagheer was released from Guantanamo in November 2002, it seemed as if the world couldn't get enough of him. He was the first Pakistani to be freed from the U.S. military prison in Cuba, and everyone wanted to know what it was like there.
Sagheer appeared on ABC's "World News Tonight," and reporters knocked on his door. The British Broadcasting Corp. quoted him saying: "I believe my ordeal might have been God's will."
A year later, he made headlines again when he sued the U.S. government in Pakistani courts for $10.4 million.
Now he's a forgotten man, living in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and working at a lumber shop.
Pakistani courts ruled in 2003 that they had no jurisdiction for a suit against the U.S. government. Sagheer's attorney filed an appeal, which appears never to have been heard.
Sitting in an Islamabad hotel room last summer, sweating from a long drive in the summer heat, Sagheer said he'd begun to think that he'd never be compensated for his time at Guantanamo.
When he came home in 2002, Sagheer said, he found out that he was responsible for 1.2 million rupees — almost $20,000 — in loans that his family had taken out to survive without his income and to finance trips to Afghanistan to search for him.
"My family thought I had been killed in Afghanistan; people came to pay their respects," he said. "And then after a year and a half, the Red Cross sent my letters to my family. They were very surprised to get them."
He's now worked for more than five years and sold all his land to pay off the debt, he said, but he still owed some 400,000 rupees as of last summer, about $6,000.
Before he started his story, Sagheer pulled out his wallet and removed two crumpled pieces of paper, an airline ticket stub and a receipt from a Holiday Inn in London. He said that he'd been there in November 2005 for a human rights conference about Guantanamo. Sagheer held the pieces of paper on a coffee table for a few moments and then, looking a little embarrassed, he folded them up and slipped them into the chest pocket of his gray shalwar khamis, a floor-length shirt with pajama-like trousers.
Sagheer said he'd gone to Afghanistan with Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group. But like many former detainees who said proselytizing was their reason for traveling to the country, his timing and itinerary were odd.
Sagheer said he was arrested between the towns of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif in November 2001. At the time, the area was a battleground for clashes between the U.S.-backed northern alliance forces and Taliban and al Qaida fighters.
Since Sagheer was released before the military tribunal process began at Guantanamo, there are no transcripts from which to glean the U.S. Army's evidence of his guilt or innocence. That he was released in less than a year — far more quickly than many other former detainees — might indicate that his jailers didn't consider him a security threat and, further, that they doubted whether he could offer much information to interrogators.
Sagheer said that back in November 2001, he was trying to get out of Afghanistan, to flee the violence, in a convoy that included people "from all walks of life: There were traders, preachers and jihadists." He was in the back of a pickup, clutching a bedroll and a small bag that contained his Quran and his clothes when the vehicle was stopped by U.S.-backed northern alliance troops, according to Sagheer's account.
The soldiers eventually pushed him into a metal shipping container with some 200 other men, 50 of whom had died by the time the doors were opened several hours later. In other containers, Sagheer said, only two or three men survived.
He said he spent three to four months at the northern alliance jail at Sherberghan, where he watched many around him die of infections.
American soldiers took him from there to Kandahar Airfield.
Next came a bewildering 10 months or so at Guantanamo.
"I asked the interpreter where I was. It was my first question," Sagheer said. "He said I was in Cuba. I didn't understand what he was saying. I didn't know what Cuba was."
Three or four months after he arrived, he said, he joined a hunger strike to protest rules that forbade detainees from talking to one another and prohibited prayer, and he went for three days without food.
"The guards came in with riot shields, grabbed me by the neck and gave me an injection," he said. "I fell down unconscious and woke up in the hospital. They had put a tube in me."
The Department of Defense refused to comment on the findings of a McClatchy investigation. U.S. defense officials have said that stories of mistreatment are the product of al Qaida sympathizers and other radicals, though they offer no explanation for how so many men — many of whom speak different languages and are from different countries — have accounts with very similar details.
Sagheer said that another hunger strike began a few months later to protest several instances in which, inmates claimed, guards had thrown copies of the Quran on cell floors during searches. It lasted just a day.
In between, he went to interrogations and told the Americans that he didn't know where Osama bin Laden was and had no knowledge of the planning behind the attack on the twin towers in New York.
Other than that, Sagheer said, he prayed, spoke with the men in the cells near him and, often, just stared at nothing.
"Even if I was sick of the routine, what else could I do?" Sagheer said. "I was in the middle of the sea; there was nowhere to go. It was always summer there. The weather never changed."
When an interpreter came with a group of soldiers, asking Sagheer to take a bag and pack his things because he was leaving the island, he thought at first that he was hallucinating, he said.
When he was back in Pakistan, he said, he was handed over to intelligence officers, who held him for a week and then let him go.