Nazar Chaman Gul
By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — At the bottom of Nazar Chaman Gul's case, beneath hundreds of pages of documents filed by his lawyers and the American government, are a toothache and some bad luck.
In April 2003, Gul left his home in Pakistan, where his family operated a bakery and he'd lived as a refugee since he was a toddler, to find a job in his native Afghanistan. He still has a lazy right eye from Soviet shrapnel that tore into his 3-year-old face just before his family fled the Afghan village of Musayi.
He and three friends went to Gardez, because one of them had a cousin there named Mohammed Akhtiar, a tribal elder who was recruiting troops for the Afghan government.
"This is my country, and there was finally peace," Gul said during an interview in a Kabul restaurant. "We had been refugees in Pakistan for almost 20 years, and we finally had the chance to move back to our country."
Akhtiar got them a job guarding a fuel depot on the outskirts of Gardez and said he might be able to get them better positions once he was hired by the government as a security commander. It was a boring job; the men spent most of their time sitting around, their AK-47 rifles propped against the wall behind them, sipping tea and telling jokes.
One night in May, a tooth that had been bothering Gul started to hurt more. A friend gave him a ride into town, where he got some pain medicine and then went to spend the night at Akhtiar's house, where he could get better rest than he could at the fuel depot, Gul said.
The men were asleep when American soldiers burst into the house.
Gul had picked the wrong evening to visit Akhtiar.
Apparently unbeknownst to Gul, there was a long-standing rivalry between Akhtiar and local Taliban militants who didn't want to see him rise to power in the postwar Afghan government. The Taliban, according to Akhtiar — in a story corroborated by a senior Afghan intelligence officer — used informants to peddle false allegations about him to the Americans.
None of this had anything to do with Gul, except that he was in Akhtiar's house when the American soldiers came.
His gums aching from the bad tooth, and his head cloudy from the pain medication, Gul tried to explain the situation to the Americans' interpreter.
"I told the translator that I was with the government, that I came to my friend's house because of a toothache, that I had been in Gardez for only a few weeks," Gul said.
The interpreter listened to what he had to say, then shouted, "Don't talk."
The soldiers took Akhtiar and Gul to a military base outside Gardez.
"They asked me who I was, why I had come to Afghanistan," Gul said. "I told them I had come to Gardez to get a job with the military, that I had no connection with anti-government forces."
A few hours later, he was flown to the detention camp at Bagram Air Base.
The interrogators there accused him of being a militant commander, saying that his brother had fought American troops in Jalalabad. Gul said that his brother worked at the family bakery in Pakistan.
"I told them, look, my brother fights fires in a bakery oven, and that's all," he said.
He began to wonder if the Americans were just making up allegations.
Gul's attorneys, though, offered another possibility in their motion for summary judgment in a Washington federal court: The Americans had confused Nazar Gul with Chaman Gul, who'd been a militant commander in the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
"Witnesses have provided information that suggests . . . from the moment of his arrest in Gardez in May 2003, (the U.S. military) confused Nazar 'Chaman' Gul with another man with the same name: Chaman Gul," his lawyers said in their motion. "That other man, Commander Chaman Gul, is well-known throughout Afghanistan as a former mujahedeen fighter."
The other Gul, the attorneys pointed out, was also a prisoner in Guantanamo.
Several political and security officials from the area where Nazar Gul was arrested and the area where he lived said they'd never heard of him, which suggests that if he was involved with insurgent activity, it was at a very low level.
Gul's malik, or tribal chief, in Musayi said that Gul had no ties to the Taliban or al Qaida that he knew of and that he'd led a quiet life since he'd been released.
"He's not related to any parties," said Sheerin, the malik, who like many Afghans has only one name. "I think he was taken by the name of another man."
In August 2006, Gul's attorney Ruben L. Iniguez, an assistant federal public defender in Portland, Ore., did what few other lawyers had: He went to Afghanistan and Pakistan to check out his client's story.
After interviewing a raft of witnesses — whose videotaped testimony he included in his court filing — Iniguez established that Gul was telling the truth about having just arrived in Gardez, about being a guard and about having a toothache that night.
"Every single, minor detail he told us was corroborated," Iniguez said in a phone interview. "They (U.S. officials) never took the time or effort to find it out. . . . All it would have taken was a phone call."
At Bagram, Gul said he had no idea what was going on; he'd been in Gardez for only a few weeks, so he couldn't possibly have any enemies who set him up. Yet the American interrogators continued to yell in his face that he was a militant.
The guards, he said, were even worse.
"Two or three of them would come in suddenly, tie my hands and beat me," he said. "The beatings came every five days or so. . . . After one of the beatings, I asked an interpreter why they were doing this to me, and he said the soldiers had orders from their superiors."
The men were taken to shower in small groups. There usually were female soldiers there, watching them and laughing, Gul said. "It was a very big shame," he said.
He was held at Bagram for more than three months and then was flown to Guantanamo.
For Gul, in his early 20s at the time, it was a dizzying transition.
There were men from all over the world in the cellblocks: Saudis, Syrians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians and Uighurs from China.
When he was taken to questioning on his first day, Gul — who hadn't slept in two days — thought the interrogation room would be his cell. He was happy about it, he said, because the room was a decent size and had air conditioning.
"But then they took me to a small metal container and left me there for two months," he said.
He was taken to interrogation every day for the first month and was asked questions about the area around Gardez: mountain passes, where different men lived, how the Taliban were structured when they controlled the area.
Gul said he had the same response to every question: He'd been in Gardez for only a few weeks, and he didn't know a thing about the town.
"Sometimes they would say they'd gotten a new report that I led a large group, that I killed people," he said. "I said, look, you have people in Pakistan, just call them and ask who I really am."
Although he saw other men get punched and kicked by the guards at Guantanamo, Gul said he was never beaten. The harassment, he said, was all verbal.
"The guards would insult us. They would calls us donkeys or monkeys in English, or say fuck you or call us stupid," he said. "I learned those words myself and began calling them names in English."
He went on a 15-day hunger strike, Gul said, because he and others in his cellblock wanted the guards to stop searching their Qurans.
At this point in Gul's interview with a reporter at a restaurant in Kabul, a group of Afghan soldiers came in and sat down at a nearby table. Gul went quiet for a little while, listening to what they were saying, then continued his story in a lower voice.
He was kept at Guantanamo for more than three years.
In hindsight, he said, he probably was kept there so long because the interrogators thought he was lying every time he repeated his improbable story of being a baker who'd been in Afghanistan for a few weeks, working as a guard at a fuel depot, who was caught up in a raid on a house while he was recovering from a toothache.
In court filings, Iniguez pointed out that the military had asserted in Gul's tribunal hearing at Guantanamo that he was an insurgent commander who'd been linked to several attacks on U.S. forces near Jalalabad. But in his later appearance before a military administrative review board, those charges were dropped.
In fact, Iniguez said, the review board's entire case against Gul was that he'd been captured with another man who was accused of being a militant leader.
A review of the transcript from that hearing, however, shows that while the presiding military officers didn't accuse Gul of being a militant commander, they charged that he'd come from Pakistan to work for one.
After Gul told the board that he went to Afghanistan to work for the military, the presiding officer said, "I don't believe you. I think you went there because (Mohammed Akhtiar) was an HIG (an insurgent) and he needed fighters and you came to be a fighter."
Gul responded: "If that's true, you can put me here."
To which the presiding officer said, "We understand. We know we can do that."
Gul was finally released from Guantanamo in February 2007.
Asked what he'd do now that he was a free man, he replied, "It depends on God, what my future will be."
"You know," he said, walking outside the Kabul restaurant, "the Americans really should have proof before they arrest somebody."