Saad Madi al Azmi
By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KUWAIT CITY — Settling down on a long sofa and arranging the pillows around himself, Saad al Azmi said he had a story to tell.
He promised that it would be an interesting one: A simple, innocent man goes to Pakistan, is caught in the tide of war and swept all the way to Cuba, where he's held for more than three years by soldiers of a foreign army for no apparent reason.
Azmi, however, has told other versions of his story that contradict that one. Those other versions paint him not as an unlucky bystander but as an al Qaida-linked jihadist.
He told a McClatchy reporter that he'd never been to Afghanistan, but he told a panel of tribunal judges at Guantanamo that he traveled there for three weeks.
Azmi denied to the tribunal that he was in Kabul for anything related to al Qaida, but a questionnaire that his family filled out said that he'd gone there to work with the Wafa Humanitarian Works Organization, which has been linked to al Qaida and is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Azmi told McClatchy that he was arrested in his hotel room in Peshawar during a routine police check of guests' passports in August 2001, but he admitted during his tribunal that he was arrested with another Kuwaiti, Adel al Zamel, who headed a branch of Wafa in Kabul and had links to Osama bin Laden's spokesman. If he were rounded up with Zamel, though, that arrest came in Karachi, not Peshawar, and in early 2002, not August 2001.
The U.S. government alleged that he was arrested at an al Qaida safe house along with a known member of al Qaida and foreign fighters.
Finally, Azmi was accused of being a member of an extremist group in Kuwait that attacked women for un-Islamic behavior. He acknowledged that he was arrested on charges of harassing a woman, but he denied that he was involved with the group and said Kuwaiti courts had found him not guilty.
His lawyers didn't check out his story.
"Because all of the court battles so far have turned on legal issues, and we have never been able to get to the point of presenting the facts, neither we nor our predecessors at Shearman & Sterling" — the firm that initially represented the Kuwaitis at Guantanamo — "pursued factual investigations to corroborate the detainees' stories, other than to get information from them regarding witnesses and documents," said Azmi's attorney, David Cynamon.
When he was asked during his tribunal hearing whether he'd take an oath to speak the truth, Azmi replied: "If the court would prove me innocent, I am willing to swear."
Told that there could be no guarantee of the tribunal's finding, Azmi declined to take the oath.
The tribunal's three judges decided unanimously that Azmi was an enemy combatant who'd been involved with an extremist group in Kuwait, who supported al Qaida and who'd worked for three months in Afghanistan for a group that purports to be a charity but is really a terrorist organization.
Azmi maintains that he was a businessman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To begin with, he said, stirring his tea, he went to Pakistan in August 2001 to buy honey and other goods to help set up an import business in Kuwait, where he also sells cars. He said he'd never been to Afghanistan, and he had no thoughts of radical Islam or any such subject.
One day the police came to his hotel in Peshawar, he said, and asked to see the passports of people staying there. It was a routine check. But if he were arrested with Zamel, Azmi's story doesn't hold up.
His visa had expired three days earlier, Azmi said. The police, he said, told him they'd have to take him in for questioning. Azmi said he sighed and asked whether it was really necessary.
The police took him to the local jail and questioned him: Why was he in Pakistan? Why had he traveled there before?
"I told them I was a trader," Azmi said.
He said he suspected that their real interest was the $59,000 he'd brought with him, to get the import business started, he said.
"After a few days, one of the police officers called me in from my cell and asked for a bribe," he said. "I refused to pay it."
Azmi, a businessman from Kuwait — a wealthy nation on the sea, a place of fancy shopping malls and luxury cars — wasn't going to be suckered by some rube of a policeman in a dingy Pakistani jail. It was a game of wills, and Azmi knew that he'd be released in a few days.
"He wouldn't release me unless I paid him a bribe," he said, chortling a little at the memory. "I told him I would never pay him a single penny."
To teach him a lesson, the police kept him there for several weeks, he said.
The timing, he added with a shrug, was very bad.
Airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and everything changed. Azmi was no longer dealing with small-time cops trying to squeeze him for money; he was an Arab who'd been detained near the Afghan border with a large amount of cash.
The police in Peshawar shipped him to a jail in Karachi, where, he said, things took a turn for the worse. He said he was put into a dimly lit cell with about two dozen other men.
He said they were taken out one by one to an interrogation room where two American men — one tall and thin, one short and stocky with glasses — sat behind a table. He said they introduced themselves as CIA officers.
From their questions, Azmi said, it was clear that they thought he was associated with al Qaida. He pleaded with them to understand, he said, that he was just a businessman who'd made the mistake of not paying off a corrupt Pakistani cop.
Azmi said he spent about a month in that jail and was interrogated three or four more times.
Then, he said, the United States military flew him, shackled and blindfolded, to a detention facility at Kandahar, Afghanistan. After two weeks at Kandahar — during which American troops punched, kicked and humiliated him, Azmi said — he was flown to Bagram Air Base and kept there for a month and a half.
The Americans transferred him back to Kandahar for about three months before he was flown to Guantanamo, where he was held for about three and a half years.