How a Botched Translation Landed Emad Hassan in Gitmo

09_03_HassanGitmo_01
Leg shackles on the floor at Camp 6 detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 21, 2009. The prison has become a blot on the United States' human rights record and a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the Bush administration and continues to operate under President Obama. Brennan Linsley/Reuters

“Do you have any connection to Al-Qaeda?” the man asked.

It was the spring of 2002, and Emad Hassan was sitting in a chair in a small tent, hands cuffed behind his back. Standing in front of him were a young American soldier and his Arabic translator. The soldier barked at him in English, a language Hassan barely understood, and the translator repeated his words in broken Arabic.

For weeks, Hassan, a small, soft-spoken 22-year-old with dark skin and curly hair, had been held by the Americans in Afghanistan. Born and raised in Yemen, he traveled to Faisalabad, Pakistan, in the summer of 2001 to study the Koran at a small university. But one evening the following spring, Pakistani authorities burst into the house he shared with 14 other foreign students and brought them to a nearby prison. After two months of beatings and interrogation, the Pakistanis handed him over to the U.S. military.

Related: Judge Orders U.S. to Prepare Guantanamo Force-Feeding Tapes for Release

Eventually, Hassan found himself in front of the young American in what he later learned was the U.S. military prison in Kandahar. Confused and afraid, his lawyers say, Hassan decided it was best to continue telling the truth. “Yes,” Hassan said, according to his lawyers, he had a connection to Al-Qaeda. He waited for the next question, but the soldier and the translator seemed satisfied. The interrogation was over. What was lost in translation, Hassan’s lawyers say: The soldier thought he was talking about Al-Qaeda, the deadly terrorist group. Hassan was actually referring to Al-Qa’idah, a village 115 miles from where he grew up in Yemen.

09_03_HassanGitmo_02 When interrogators asked Yemeni national Emad Hassan if he was connected to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, he told them he’d lived near a town with a similar name. Department of Defense

Weeks later, prison guards came into Hassan’s cell. They stripped him of his clothes and put him in a diaper. Then they blindfolded him, placed earmuffs over his head and marched him onto a plane. When the aircraft landed, he soon learned he was in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. What had started as a comic misunderstanding became a surreal odyssey through the dark side of America’s war on terror.

‘The Worst of the Worst’

In his satirical novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, writer Alex Gilvarry tells the story of Boy Hernandez, a fashion designer mistaken for a terrorist. Like Hassan, Hernandez is sent to Guantánamo Bay. But while Gilvarry’s fictional journey has darkly humorous twists (Hernandez’s PR agent is named Ben Laden), there is nothing funny about the ordeal that prisoners—some of whom are allegedly innocent—have endured behind bars at the U.S. facility.

After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government used parts of the longtime U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo to hold prisoners who Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “the worst of the worst” in the fight against Al-Qaeda. Some detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, are widely considered hardened terrorists. In recent years, however, new information has undercut Rumsfeld’s claims and indicated that few Gitmo detainees were major players in the war against America.

But Rumsfeld’s words stuck, both in the minds of the public and the people who worked at the prison. “Especially in the early days, everyone was pissed,” says Brandon Neely, a guard when the first detainees arrived on January 11, 2002. “People knew people that died in the twin towers. We had friends in Afghanistan. We wanted to do what we could to get revenge.”

Years later, when Joseph Hickman arrived for guard duty in 2006, Rumsfeld’s view was still the norm among Gitmo staff. “They just pushed into our heads that they were the worst of the worst and that if you turned your back on them for one second they’d kill you,” says Hickman, the of author Murder at Camp Delta, which investigates the mysterious deaths of three Gitmo prisoners.

Both former guards say they witnessed Americans treating the prisoners cruelly, from beatings to public humiliation. But perhaps the most disturbing evidence comes from Guantánamo Diary—a wrenching memoir by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian inmate imprisoned there since 2002. Published in January after a long legal battle, the heavily redacted book portrays the staff at the U.S. facility as bungling, bureaucratic and brutal. In Slahi’s rendering, interrogators tasked with uncovering information to save American lives seem more concerned with covering up their mistakes, pleasing their bosses and confirming their own misplaced assumptions. The Pentagon declined to comment on the veracity of the book. But in a statement, Commander Gary Ross, a Defense Department spokesman, says, “The suggestion that DoD personnel, the overwhelming majority of whom serve honorably, are or ever were engaged in systemic mistreatment of detainees is false and does not withstand scrutiny.”

09_03_HassanGitmo_03 A sign on the road leads to Al-Qaidah, a town in central Yemen. The town has no connection with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization; the words mean 'the base' or 'the foundation' in Arabic. Local people applying for passports often claim to be from elsewhere, as having documents with the name Al-Qaidah on them can present them with travel problems in many parts of the world. Tim Smith/Panos

Newsweek was unable to speak to Hassan directly, and the U.S. government has offered little information about Guantánamo and prevented reporters from speaking to the 779 who have been imprisoned there. “It is our policy not to comment on the specific detainee status [or] details,” spokeswoman Army Colonel Lisa Garcia of Southern Command, which is responsible for military activities in Central and South America and the Caribbean, tells Newsweek, a line echoed by the Pentagon and State Department. But Hassan’s story—reassembled from public documents, transcripts of his conversations and interviews with former intelligence officials and Hassan’s legal team—offers a glimpse into the lives of dozens of men who say they’ve been accidentally ensnared in the war against Al-Qaeda like dolphins in a trawl line.

For years, the White House has been trying to close Gitmo, but critics in Congress are afraid that former detainees pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies. As of early September, 52 of the 116 prisoners who remain at the U.S. facility have been cleared to be set free, a tacit admission, critics say, that they should never have been imprisoned. A cause for delay, a State Department representative says, is finding countries that are willing and able to accept detainees. None have been charged with a crime. Some have spent years on hunger strike, force-fed by the prison’s medical staff, waiting in purgatory for a release they fear is never going to come. Others, such as Hassan, never completely gave up hope.

A $5,000 Bounty

The U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay looks oddly suburban. There’s a Pizza Hut and an Irish pub, a Blockbuster video and a gift shop selling “I Love Gitmo” lip balm. Walk a few minutes outside of the camp and the island looks like a Caribbean paradise: steep coral cliffs and iguanas lounging in the sun, red-purple sunsets and blue waves lapping at the shore.

Yet from the moment Hassan arrived there in June 2002, his experience was harsh, his lawyers say. The guards alternated between beating him, shackling him for hours, forcing him to strip and having him crawl around on the cold, metal floor. He was given a number—680—and sometimes housed in Romeo Block, a notorious part of Camp Delta, located on the easternmost edge of the camp. There, the guards often kept detainees naked for days and sometimes sexually harassed them in hope of making them confess, according to several detainee accounts. (Hassan’s lawyers at Reprieve, an international nongovernmental organization, say he doesn’t talk about this part of his imprisonment; it’s too upsetting for him.)

09_03_HassanGitmo_04 Military personnel are supposed to inspect each occupied cell at Guantanamo’s Camp 5 every two minutes. Brennan Linsley/AP

Those early days were grim for Hassan. “I was interrogated from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” he told his lawyers, finishing each session feeling exhausted and afraid. Once again, Hassan’s interrogators asked him about his ties to Al-Qaeda. This time, the Arabic translators were able to clear up the earlier misunderstanding, his lawyers say, but Hassan’s interrogators didn’t believe him. Though he was never charged with a crime, classified Defense Department notes obtained by WikiLeaks show the government thought Hassan was associated with a terror cell trying to attack American soldiers in Afghanistan. They claim he visited Al-Qaeda’s Al-Faruq training camp in Afghanistan and traveled to the mountainous region around Tora Bora, where they believe he fought U.S. forces pursuing Osama bin Laden. He then allegedly fled to a safe house across the border, where the Pakistanis captured him and handed him over to the U.S.

Related: Report: Obama Administration Drafting Plan to Close Guantanamo Bay

The government files link that capture with another ambush conducted in Faisalabad that night, which led to the apprehension of Abu Zubaydah, once thought to be a high-level Al-Qaeda recruiter. What the documents don’t make clear, however, is that these ambushes were part of a large, coordinated raid led by American authorities. “It was the largest raid in the CIA’s history,” says John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA officer and one of the mission’s co-leaders. (He was later imprisoned for nearly two years for emailing a reporter the name of a fellow officer.) Fourteen houses were raided and 52 people were taken prisoner that night, he recalls. At each location, Pakistani security forces burst in and made arrests, as a CIA and FBI representative waited outside. The CIA officer then took the men to a U.S. safe house for questioning while the FBI agent gathered evidence.

Hassan’s house, Kiriakou says, was a last-minute addition. Each house was targeted because it had been in frequent electronic contact with an Al-Qaeda affiliate. But Hassan’s had just one short call on record. The day before the raid, an unnamed foreign government called to give the CIA a tip; an informant said it was an Al-Qaeda safe house.

That night, Kiriakou and a Pakistani police officer drove past the large home, which is located in a middle-class neighborhood. They wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be ambushed the next day. “I can tell you that something bad is going on inside that house,” the Pakistani officer told Kiriakou. “It is 105 degrees today, and all of the windows and the shutters are closed—it has to be boiling in there. They have something to hide.”

The CIA remained in Faisalabad only long enough to see their captives off to their next location. Kiriakou concedes that he lost track of the “lower-level guys.” He was focused on the major players.

Yet he does recall a series of errors in the lead-up to the raid. The reason: faulty intelligence. One suspected safe house turned out to be a shish kabob stand with a pay phone (the agency realized the mistake before it went in). Another was a girls school. The CIA-led team stormed in and arrested an old man and his two sons. The agency later discovered the men had allowed strangers to use their phone for 5 rupees per call. “Were there innocent Arabs in some of those houses?” Kiriakou says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was yes.”

Hassan and his lawyers say the U.S. government’s claims about his Al-Qaeda connections are false. The Pakistani forces who took Hassan from his student housing, his lawyers say, received $5,000 from the U.S. military. This was typical. According to a 2006 analysis by the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School, the vast majority of detainees at Guantánamo Bay were arrested by local groups eager to profit from the counterterrorism gold rush. “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams,” reads one flier mentioning the bounties. “This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” Handing over Al-Qaeda suspects was lucrative for the government in Islamabad too. As former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf wrote in his 2008 memoir, In the Line of Fire: “We have captured 689 [enemy combatants] and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars.”

As for the terrorist training camps, Hassan says he had never been to Afghanistan before American forces took him there. His lawyers claim much of the U.S. government’s incriminating information comes from a small group of informants at Guantánamo who told interrogators what they wanted to hear. Many sold out their fellow detainees for small rewards. Some reportedly received PlayStations and pornography for their assistance. Others were mentally ill or say they were tortured, Hassan’s lawyers say. “It didn’t matter what the evidence was,” says Mark Fallon, former deputy commander of the Criminal Investigation Task Force, an organization created in 2002 to investigate detainees captured in the war on terror. “You could have 10 witnesses stating that the detainee was not at an Al-Qaeda training camp. [But] if one detainee said he kinda looked like someone that was there, if there was any suspicion that someone might have been involved, they would not have them released.”

Slahi, the author of Guantánamo Diary, offers a similar account. He says interrogators at Gitmo beat him, molested him and prevented him from sleeping. In the end, he says he offered a false confession and implicated people for crimes they didn’t commit—all to make the pain stop. His rewards included a television, the ability to write whenever he wanted and his own garden where he grew mint for tea.

09_03_HassanGitmo_06 The younger brother of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Yahdih Ould Slahi holds up a copy of Mohamedou's prison memoir 'Guántanamo Diary,' showing pages that were redacted by the U.S. government. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

Hassan, however, never informed on other inmates to make his life easier, his lawyers say. “Emad continued to carry the hope of getting out and going back to his family again because of his absolute belief that he has not committed a crime towards the U.S. or any other party,” says Sami Al-Hajj, an Al-Jazeera journalist and former Gitmo inmate, in a letter to Newsweek.

Related: Former Guantanamo Prisoner Arrested at 15 is Released on Bail in Canada

Instead, nearly two years into Hassan’s stay, he began leading intermittent hunger strikes among the other inmates. Doing so is considered a form of disobedience at Guantánamo. According to the Defense Department, Hassan has been assessed with at least 132 infractions during his time in the U.S. prison, including assault and throwing his feces at guards. These acts periodically earned Hassan time at what is now known as Camp 5. Here, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement and given orange jumpsuits, a prayer mat and a hole in the ground to use as a toilet. If the guards and others felt his behavior was improving, they’d move him back to a cell in what is now called Camp 6, a more comfortable place to live, where detainees receive white uniforms, blankets, books and the freedom to interact with other prisoners.

As Hassan was shuttled between these two camps, he appeared before a military tribunal and once again told the U.S. military it had made a mistake.

“The interrogators have asked you about your association with Al-Qaeda?” a tribunal member asked.

“Yes, I believe so,” Hassan said.

“Have you told them the same thing that you are telling us?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do you believe you are here?”

Hassan laughed.

“How can you ask me this question?” he replied. “This question should be asked to you.”

Dr. Jekyll

The interrogations continued. But during Hassan’s early years at Guantánamo he didn’t have a way to dispute his detention. That is, until early 2005, when attorney Douglas Cox, then a lawyer for the firm Allen & Overy, arrived at the prison to meet him for the first time.

Months earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled against the Bush administration and decided it was unconstitutional to deny Gitmo inmates an attorney and the ability to challenge the basis of their detention in American courts. Cox told Hassan his family had hired him, but initially Hassan didn’t trust him; his experience behind bars made him wary of Americans. “After you have been burned by hot soup,” he told his lawyer, “you blow in your yogurt.”

Related: U.S. Military Bans McDonald's and Other Food From Gitmo Legal Meetings

Though Hassan was suspicious, Cox’s first impression was positive. “Emad is sharp…. Discussing things with him was very easy,” Cox says. “For him, the biggest problem was simply whether it was good to pursue these cases. He was skeptical it was going to change anything [and]...he didn’t want to legitimize the process that kept him detained for that long.”

The two met again on August 30, 2005. But Hassan was on yet another hunger strike. He felt helpless and could no longer stomach the green beans and soggy chicken cutlets the guards brought to his cell. “I tried to persuade him to stop,” Cox says. “We were scared about long-term effects to his health.” But Hassan, like dozens of other inmates who say they were arbitrarily sent to Gitmo, refused. A week later, Cox learned the guards had begun force-feeding his client—a process a fellow hunger striker described as “like having a dagger shoved down your throat.” The military has said it humanely feeds and treats inmates who refuse to eat.

09_03_HassanGitmo_09 A military doctor holds a feeding tube used to feed detainees on hunger strike at Camp Delta, part of Guántanamo Bay, June 26, 2013. Joe Raedle/Getty

In the beginning, the guards took Hassan to a prison hospital, where the force-feeding was conducted once or twice a day. By 2007, when Hassan began what would become one of the longest hunger strikes at the facility, the protocol had changed. The guards would stand outside his cell and order him to lie facedown on the floor with his hands behind his back. They would enter, shackle his arms and legs, and put him in a chair that had extra restraints. Then a doctor or nurse would thread a lubricated tube through a nostril, down past Hassan’s throat and into his stomach. They would then tape the top end of the tube to Hassan’s forehead and attach it to a bag filled with a vitamin-fortified liquid, like Ensure. Hassan was force-fed more than 5,000 times, a process that Cox and Hassan’s current lawyers say became torturous: Hassan developed chronic pancreatitis, one of his nostrils swelled shut, and he frequently vomited and defecated blood, sometimes as the process was underway. His weight plummeted to just under 90 pounds.

Yet Hassan’s relationship with prison staff wasn’t all negative. “There were good guards working today,” Hassan once told his lawyers at Reprieve, who took over Hassan’s case after Cox left his firm. “I was talking to one of them. I said that we are not asking for much in our hunger strike—just our basic human rights.”

“680, we do care,” the guard said.

“Tell the higher-ups, then.”

“I did,” the guard replied. “They don’t listen to us either.”

When the guards are kind to inmates, Hassan says, they’re often punished, not rewarded by the prison. “When guards show us that they respect us, when they respect our humanity, we respect them,” he told his lawyers. “Unfortunately, these guards are in the minority.” Ross, the Pentagon spokesman, says “all credible allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated, and appropriate disciplinary action is taken when those allegations are substantiated.” Former guard Joseph Hickman recalls an instance in which one guard reported another for detainee abuse. “The guard that reported received all kinds of threats,” says Hickman, “but a few weeks after, the guard he turned in got promoted."

Related: ISIS Used Guantanamo as Model, Former Hostage Says

One doctor, whom Hassan called Dr. Jekyll, was widely feared among the inmates. “If you looked at him the wrong way, he would put you on discipline for seven days,” Hassan told his lawyers at Reprieve, referring to punishments that included beatings and sleep deprivation. “No one did as much harm as him. He believed that the tougher he acted, the faster he would be promoted.”

Yet many have objected to the prison’s policy, including a Navy nurse who was recently reassigned after threats of discharge for refusing to force-feed detainees. “There was a good nurse. You will have heard about him by now,” Hassan told his attorneys. “If you were sick, he would let a force-feeding go by, so you did not get sicker.” A medical officer, whom Hassan referred to as Dr. R, once sat on Hassan’s bed and cried over how the staff was treating him. “I joined the military so I could go to med school,” Hassan says the doctor told him. “And now I’ve ended up force-feeding brothers.”

Reading Harry Potter in Gitmo

On May 21, 2009, President Barack Obama stood in front of a podium at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., looking calm and confident in his black suit and dark tie. It was only four months into his first term. As he began his remarks, Obama explained why he was pushing to close Gitmo and creating a task force to review the cases of those trapped in legal limbo. “The record is clear,” he said. “Rather than keeping us safe, the prison at Guantánamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it.”

That year, Obama’s task force cleared Hassan for release—a process that requires six federal agencies to agree that a prisoner doesn’t pose a national security threat. “The fact that he…[was] cleared for release for more than five years,” says Clive Smith, one of Hassan’s lawyers from Reprieve, “is an admission that there…[was] no reason to hold him. There never was.” Yet Hassan remained behind bars. On December 25, 2009, a Nigerian trained in Yemen attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound airplane, prompting Obama to impose a blanket ban on transferring Yemenis out of Gitmo.

In May 2014, Alka Pradhan, another one of Hassan’s lawyers from Reprieve, met him in a small, air-conditioned metal shed across the road from Camp 5. The room was furnished with a table and chairs, along with a sink, a toilet and a cot. In the corner was a camera to allow guards to monitor the meeting. The last time Pradhan saw Hassan, he was growing a large Afro in preparation for a Skype video chat with his mother—an occasional privilege at the prison. “All the other guys in the camp were making fun of him,” Pradhan recalls. “But he was like, ‘Look, this is going to make my mother laugh.’”

This time, Pradhan says Hassan entered the room wearing cornrows and an oversized orange jumpsuit that hung from his tiny frame. The guards had shackled his arms and legs. When he sat down, Hassan smiled; Pradhan had brought him a care package from the Guantánamo Bay McDonald’s: pancakes, biscuits, juice and a meatless Egg McMuffin. Though he was still on hunger strike, Hassan ate during meetings with his lawyers, which only took place about three times a year. “He ate a little bit,” Pradhan recalls. “He definitely had some of the hotcakes. He tried the Egg McMuffin, but he couldn’t get much of it down.”

09_03_HassanGitmo_08 Guards stand next to a television showing a cartoon as journalists visit the movie room at the Camp 4 detention facility at Guantánamo Bay on December 10, 2008. Camp 4 houses the most "compliant" detainees where they live in a more open, community-oriented manner. National Geographic programs and cartoons are popular with detainees. Mandel Ngan/Reuters

Food wasn’t the only thing on Hassan’s mind that day. For all his anger and frustration with the force-feedings and long captivity, what he mostly wanted to talk about was books, says Pradhan. He was fluent in English, and in Camp 5 detainees can spend one hour a day alone in a windowless room, shackled to the floor, sitting in an old arm chair, either reading or watching TV. The chair, says Pradhan, “looks like your grandfather smoked and coughed on it for 40 years,” and the book selection is limited: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is banned, as is John Grisham’s The Innocent Man and Frederick Douglass’s An American Slave, along with Slahi’s memoir . But in the decade-plus since he entered Gitmo, Hassan had immersed himself in American culture. Some of his favorite books include Twilight and Harry Potter. “He sees himself in some of the characters, and he draws lessons about fortitude,” says Pradhan. “He says, ‘Maybe I’m not that much different from everybody who reads these books.’”

‘It’s Not Who We Are’

During his State of the Union address in January 2015, President Obama renewed his vow to close Guantánamo. Some prisoners will be set free and relocated to countries that will take them. Others—such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—are set to be tried by military commissions. Dozens are considered too dangerous to be released, but there’s not enough evidence to charge them. The Pentagon is currently looking for a facility that will take them in the United States . “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice,” Obama said. “It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.... It’s not who we are.”

09_03_HassanGitmo_05 Human rights activists dissatisfied with the Obama administration's failure to close Guantánamo protest in front of the White House wearing orange jumpsuits with black hoods in Washington D.C., January 11, 2010. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Some lawmakers fear that former Guantánamo prisoners are ripe for recruitment. Earlier this year, Republican senators pushed a draft budget bill that would further limit the transfer of Gitmo detainees. “The war on terror has reached a lethal phase,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential hopeful, told Fox News in January. “It is insane to be letting these people out of Gitmo to go back to the fight.” Recidivism data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicate 17.9 percent of former detainees became directly involved in “terrorist or insurgent activities” after their release. Yet it’s unclear what involvement entails. A Seton Hall University School of Law report from 2012 suggests the definition is overly broad, including those who have “spoken critically of the government’s detention policy.”

As for Hassan, on June 12, 2015, Gitmo guards came into his cell at night. Once again they took off his clothes and put him in a diaper. Once again they stripped him of his senses with a blindfold and earmuffs, and once again they led him onto a plane for a long journey. Only this time, when the plane landed, he was in Oman. The country had welcomed him on humanitarian grounds. Reprieve and the U.S. government wouldn’t comment on his exact whereabouts in Oman, and local reporters say the government in Muscat has warned them away from trying to interview former Gitmo detainees. But more than a decade after he arrived at Gitmo, Emad Hassan was finally free, and nothing seemed lost in translation.