By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Death seemed to be waiting for Mohammed Akhtiar at every turn in Guantanamo.
He didn't worry about the American interrogators or guards; he got along well enough with them. It was the other prisoners who terrified him. Afghans loyal to the Taliban were ready to kill him. Arabs loyal to al Qaida hated him, too.
The head of a large tribe — comprising thousands of families — in southeast Afghanistan who didn't support the Taliban when they seized power in 1996, Akhtiar fled to Pakistan under threat of execution.
"I did not join the Taliban when they came to power, so they burned my house down," he said.
So there he was in an American military prison, surrounded by Taliban and al Qaida members who wanted him dead because he'd planned to work with an American-backed government in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government accused him of participating in a rocket attack on American forces in Gardez, helping to plan an attack on a local governor and of being a militant commander in his district.
During one of his military tribunals, Akhtiar told the U.S. officers, "I wish that the United States would realize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are."
A senior Afghan intelligence officer with thorough knowledge of Akhtiar's case said he should never have been arrested, much less sent to Guantanamo.
"He was not an enemy of the government, he was a friend of the government," said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.
The Americans detained Akhtiar, the intelligence officer said, because an Afghan who had a personal vendetta against Akhtiar had given them bad information.
Akhtiar was interviewed in April 2007 at a compound of tribal offices in Gardez. His eyes gaunt and troubled, he frequently stared into space and had to be coaxed back to continue his sentence.
The area had seen frequent Taliban attacks in recent months, and he said he was nervous to be there. What if the Taliban captured him? he asked. He'd be killed immediately, he said, answering his own question.
When the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, Akhtiar returned to his home in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktia. Less than a year later, in the summer of 2002, a militant commander detained him in retribution for working with the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was almost executed before a council of tribal leaders intervened, he said.
Akhtiar was released after promising that he wouldn't allow members of his tribe to join Karzai's government for nine months.
A month before those nine had passed, Akhtiar said, the Americans detained him at a house he was renting.
Akhtiar said Taliban leaders in Paktia province knew that Karzai's Defense and Interior ministries had offered him jobs in exchange for hundreds of new police and army recruits from his tribe. A local tribal leader working for Karzai's regime, with a host of new troops loyal to the government, would have posed a substantial threat to the Taliban in the area.
Akhtiar had a deep hatred for the Taliban, he said, because they had beaten his brother to the brink of death and left him paralyzed.
To stop his men and him from gaining power in the province, Akhtiar said, the Taliban orchestrated a barrage of false allegations, funneled through informants who worked with the American military.
U.S. soldiers arrested him in his home in May 2003. He let them in and went peacefully, Akhtiar said, because he knew he had nothing to fear. He was, after all, just a month away from being hired by the Karzai government.
Before he was taken to Guantanamo, he was jailed at the detainment camp at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for about two and a half months. Like most former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed — regardless of background and the weight, or lack thereof, of the evidence against them — Akhtiar said he endured harsh treatment at Bagram.
"They did not let me sleep for 20 straight days. They played very loud music, and if they saw me sleeping, they woke me up. . . . During that time, I managed to sleep for maybe one or two hours a day," said Akhtiar, who was about 50 at the time.
"When I had a dispute with the interrogator, when I asked, 'What is my crime?' the soldiers who took me back to my cell would throw me down the stairs . . . they would chain my hands to the ceiling, and put another chain around my chest and a third on my ankles. They would leave me like this for two or three hours and then take me down because I was so weak."
He was sent to Guantanamo on July 17, 2003, and put in solitary confinement for his first two months there.
"After those two months, I began to have mental problems," Akhtiar said. "I had panic attacks, I had hallucinations — I thought there were dogs trying to bite me or people who wanted to fight me. I began yelling and screaming, but there was nothing there. They took me out of isolation and gave me sedatives; I slept for a very long time."
He was moved to several camps during his first year at Guantanamo, then was transferred to Camp Four, an area reserved for men who were thought to pose little security threat.
That camp, he said, was home to a large group of Taliban and al Qaida members and sympathizers, however, who'd heard that Akhtiar didn't back the Taliban.
"They told me, 'You are an infidel because you worked with Karzai's government,' " he said. The men routinely spat at him and called him names.
He remained in Camp Four for about a year. Toward the end of that time, the insults turned more serious.
"One late afternoon, I was sitting at a water tap, taking my ablution. My eyes were closed and they walked up behind me and hit me with a piece of a bucket," Akhtiar said. "The blood was pouring down my eyes."
Several former Guantanamo detainees confirmed that Taliban and al Qaida members in Camp Four had attacked Akhtiar. They'd removed a metal mop squeezer from a bucket and slammed him in the head with it, the former detainees said.
"Akhtiar went to the central bathroom, and all of a sudden I heard cries of 'Allahu Akbar,' " or God is great, said Akhtiar's cellmate in Camp Four, Mohammed Aman. "They took him away to the hospital; there was blood all over his head."
During an interview, Akhtiar gingerly removed his hat and showed two scars stretching down his scalp.
Aman said that his and Akhtiar's refusals, along with other like-minded Afghans, to abide by fatwas — religious edicts — handed down by a group of al Qaida and Taliban members made them frequent targets of abuse.
"We tried to make the best of it. We played cards and chess together," Aman said. "The Arabs called our room the room of infidels and traitors."
After he was released from the hospital, Akhtiar was moved to two different cellblocks in the next four months. Both had large al Qaida and Taliban factions.
"The Arabs decided they were going to kill me. I told my interrogator that my life was at risk. I spent an entire month in my cell, refusing to go out for exercise," he said. "I called the doctors and told them my mental state was getting worse, that my life was in danger, and that instead of helping me, the interrogator had moved me to live with even more Arabs. . . . I told the doctors I would rather kill myself than risk what the Arabs would do to me."
He finally was moved to an area with other Afghans who didn't support the Taliban, and there he was able, he said, to sleep a little more easily.
Every time al Qaida or Taliban members walked by, however, they shouted threats.
Akhtiar was released from Guantanamo in December 2006. The Afghan government gave him about $30 worth of Afghan currency, enough for a private taxi ride home.
"The local reporters were there. They asked me, 'Who are you? Can you tell us your story?' I told them, 'I don't know who I am,' " Akhtiar said. "I didn't know where to go."
Members of his tribe came to Kabul to pick him up.
He moved back to Pakistan almost immediately, and he still lives there today. The local Taliban leadership, he's been warned, is looking for him, and so is al Qaida.
The Americans, who held him in prison camps for more than three and a half years, haven't been in touch.