By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KHOST, Afghanistan — The U.S. Marine colonel presiding over Swatkhan Bahar's tribunal at Guantanamo had bad news: The witnesses that Bahar requested were unavailable.
Sitting before the panel of American military officers, Bahar pointed out that he'd provided the phone number of one of them.
The colonel, whose name wasn't given in transcripts, said that it wasn't possible for tribunal members to make such phone calls. But, the colonel assured Bahar, a request had been made with the State Department and the relevant embassy.
"They were unable to provide that information or contact," the tribunal president said, according to a transcript. "They were not able to give word back to us."
It wasn't an unusual turn of events during the tribunals at Guantanamo. The boards, each made up of three U.S. officers, told one detainee after the next that witnesses outside Guantanamo weren't "reasonably available," a standard that wasn't defined during the proceedings.
In a later review board hearing, an officer asked Bahar whether he'd thought about sending a letter to his commander in the Afghan Interior Ministry to obtain a note describing his service in the police — something the U.S. military could have easily done itself.
While the tribunal boards didn't spell out what "reasonably available" meant, a McClatchy reporter had little trouble finding Bahar's Interior Ministry boss, one of the witnesses discussed during his tribunal. All it took was a couple of telephone calls, through a translator, to local Khost officials to find Mohammed Mustafa, who was the Interior Ministry's security chief for Khost from late 2001 to mid-2003.
Mustafa confirmed much of Bahar's story: that a rival in the Afghan security services who was working for American troops in the area framed him.
"There was no proof against him, nothing indicating he was involved with these sorts of activities," Mustafa said. "I went to the Americans' base and asked them to release him, but they wouldn't."
During his initial tribunal hearing, Bahar was accused of many things: being a former Taliban intelligence officer who'd attacked or participated in military operations against the U.S. military and its partners; of having about six truckloads of weapons and ammunition — including mortars and artillery — stored in his house; of selling weapons that later were used to attack American-led coalition forces; and of swearing allegiance to a group called the Union of Mujahedeen, apparently a coalition of local warlords who'd fought against the Soviet occupation, some of whom allegedly were directing their men to fight against U.S. soldiers.
Bahar denied being a member of the Taliban. He said that the weapons in question were at a warehouse that he helped guard, not at his house, and that he'd never sold any of them. As for the Union of Mujahedeen, Bahar said that at the time, the U.S. military was working with the group's members to form a local security force.
He was arrested, Bahar told McClatchy, because a local Afghan security officer with whom he was feuding, and whose two sons worked as translators for the U.S. military in the area, made false allegations about him.
In a subsequent review board hearing, the allegations concerning his role as a Taliban intelligence officer weren't mentioned. Instead, the principal reasons for continuing to hold him were that he'd received three months of police training, that he'd allegedly sold weapons to be used against U.S.-led forces and that he was associated with two local warlords. Bahar told the review board members that both were aligned with U.S. commanders when he knew them. One is now a member of the Afghan parliament.
After more than four and a half years in American detention, Bahar was released from Guantanamo in late 2006.
During his time in U.S. custody, Bahar told a McClatchy reporter, guards punched him and suspended him from the ceiling of an isolation cell by his wrists at Bagram Air Base, and a soldier kicked him in the back of a head on a bus that took him from the plane at Guantanamo. His allegations couldn't be confirmed. Bahar said that Arab detainees ridiculed him for having worked with the U.S.-supported government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Bahar said he'd tried to commit suicide at Guantanamo by hanging himself with a pair of pants. Another time, he said, he beat his head against a metal pole in the corner of his cell until he passed out.
All of it, he said, might have been avoided had the Americans done the simplest of things before detaining someone mired in the complexities of Afghan tribal and political rivalries: spoken with more witnesses.
Since he's returned to Khost, the local governor has asked him to rejoin the police.
"When I was at my (police) checkpoint the American soldiers would stop and have lunch with me. I still have the pictures at home," Bahar said in an interview with McClatchy. "But these disloyal people sent me to Guantanamo."