Zia Khalid Najib
â€¨By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KARACHI, Pakistan — There's little in the transcripts that the U.S. military released from Zia Khalid Najib's tribunal hearings at Guantanamo to suggest that he was anything but a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim truck driver for the Taliban militia that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Najib may or may not have come in contact occasionally with low- to mid-level Taliban leaders and "possible" Pakistani intelligence agents inside the Taliban, according to the transcripts.
For that, however, the Pakistani truck driver was imprisoned at Guantanamo for more than four years, longer than many top Taliban leaders and men accused of being al Qaida militants.
After a McClatchy reporter reviewed the unclassified U.S. tribunal transcripts available for Najib and interviewed him in Karachi — along with several other former detainees — it appears that Najib and many more like him were detained for years not because of their actions on the battlefield or their links to terrorist groups, but because they tangled with guards at Guantanamo.
There were exceptions, but some militants who behaved well in their cells were released relatively quickly while men at the bottom of the Taliban pecking order or those such as Najib who appeared not to be Taliban members were held far longer because they'd gotten into fights.
The attorney general of Afghanistan, Abdul Jabar Sabit, a staunch American ally, said that in his visit to Guantanamo he was struck that detainees were classified into groups, marked in descending order from orange to white garb, by how well they behaved and not by whether they were suspected of terrorist or anti-American activities.
"This division did not have anything to do with the crimes attributed to them," Sabit said. "Only their behavior in the prison was taken into account."
Najib, by his own account, wasn't an easy prisoner.
He said that when guards teased him by dropping a copy of the Quran or flipping through its pages, "I could not bear it, so I reacted violently."
When he saw guards get into confrontations with other detainees, Najib said, "I would react violently."
He estimated that he spent the majority of his years at Guantanamo either in solitary confinement or headed that way.
"They would say they were taking me to isolation for three days, and then leave me there for three months," Najib said. "Then they would bring me back to a cell, and three or four days later take me back to isolation. . . . I would say, and this is a guess, I spent 15 days a month in isolation."
As a result, Najib, who was arrested by U.S.-backed northern alliance soldiers in November 2001 after he'd driven a load of Taliban fighters to surrender, was jailed at Guantanamo for more than four years.
He'd made the trip between his home on the outskirts of Karachi to Afghanistan on a regular basis since 1999, often doing jobs for the Taliban who governed Afghanistan such as transporting troops, food and blankets. The Pakistani said he did the work more for money than out of conviction; he didn't provide details about how he'd started.
Many of the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said they were shocked at first by the men the United States decided to keep or release.
Some hard-core al Qaida or Taliban members at Guantanamo, former detainees said, led quiet lives in their cells, praying peacefully, reciting the Quran in low, melodic voices and counseling other detainees in hushed tones. While such men were instrumental in organizing protests and hunger strikes, they usually weren't recognized as a threat to the guards, unlike quarrelsome men such as Najib, who had little or no intelligence value but made a lot of noise.
Kakai Khan, an Afghan who was held at Guantanamo for about three years, said that he remembered watching guards round up a group of about 14 Arabs, among them a collection of senior al Qaida members.
"We thought they were being taken away to be killed," Khan said. "But a few weeks later, they were all released. No one could understand why these top 14 would be released."
While it's possible that those men were being transferred to prisons in their home countries, a lawyer who made several trips to Guantanamo said he frequently was surprised about the detainees who were freed.
"They have released people that were clearly Taliban. They released people who were open advocates for Osama bin Laden," said Thomas Wilner, who represented a large group of Kuwaiti detainees. Meanwhile, Wilner said, detainees with no connection to international terrorism or domestic insurgencies were left to sit.
"Things were so upside down," Wilner said.
At the beginning of his time at Guantanamo, Najib said, an interrogator accused him of being a driver for Osama bin Laden. Najib denied it and said that he'd driven Taliban fighters, almost all of them Afghans, but never senior al Qaida figures, much less bin Laden himself. As the months passed, Najib said, other interrogators didn't bring up the allegation.
"The interrogators spent entire sessions asking me why I was staring at them and yelling at me that I should look at the floor," Najib said.
There's no mention of bin Laden in Najib's tribunal transcripts, which center on his work as a truck driver for the Taliban and the ground-level commanders he may have met along the way.
Toward the end of his administrative review board hearing at Guantanamo, a step in the latter stages of the tribunal process, Najib sounded exasperated with the panel of military officers in front of him. He said that many of the reasons listed for keeping him at Guantanamo — that he knew various militants and their organizations — were the result of his telling interrogators that he knew of the men.
"When they asked me if I know of them or did you hear about them I said yes . . . these people have big banners hanging all over Karachi and in Pakistan," Najib told the officers. "Of course I heard of them."
He later told the officers: "What kind of people are you? Will you do the same thing the interrogators did to me . . . or should I expect justice?"
The presiding officer of the tribunal answered: "Well, I hope you would believe that we would do you justice after we review all of the information. We appreciate you being truthful and sincere with your answers."
Najib wasn't convinced.
He told McClatchy that about a month before he was released, two American men in civilian clothes called him into an interrogation room. They didn't have an interpreter, Najib said, and they spoke at length, so it was hard for him — with his broken English — to follow what they were saying.
"I think," Najib said, "I heard the word 'sorry.' "