Note: comments to this article will be addressed by Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed as they receive them; co-director Matt Whitecross of The Road to Guantanamo will be available for a LIVE CHAT on Thursday June 15 from 1-2pm in humanrights.gather.com
The Road to Guantanamo is in theaters June 23rd.
On September 10th 2001, the mother of 19-year old British National, Asif Iqbal, returned home from a visit to Pakistan. She had found a girl for Asif to marry. Nine days later Asif set off for a small village near Faisalabad in the Punjab where his bride-to-be lived. While he was visiting his bride, his best man called to tell him that he couldn't come out for the wedding. Asif decided to call another friend from Tipton, 19-year old Ruhel Ahmed. Ruhel agreed to come out to be best man. A few days later he flew out with two other friends – Shafiq Rasul (23) and Monir Ali (22).
The four men meet in Karachi. After a couple of days on the beach and in the arcades they visited a mosque with Shafiq's Pakistani cousin, Zahid. Later in the week, an Imam (a local religious leader) called upon the men in the village to travel to Afghanistan on a humanitarian expedition. The cost of the journey to Kandahar was only £2.50, so all five men- Rhuel, Shafiq, Monir, Asif and Zahid - volunteered.
The next day, they were taken back into Konduz. The city was bombed daily by US planes, and the Taliban forces stream into town, but after two weeks a truce is negotiated through the UN. The Taliban agrees all the foreigners should leave the city first. Monir is not with the others when he is told to get on a truck out of town. He is never heard from again.
The four others are told that foreigners have been granted safe passage, so they board a truck headed for Kandahar in the night. The convoy of trucks is bombed by US fighter planes, killing or maiming most of the passengers. Zahid is on a truck that is hit. They find him soaked in blood but still alive.
The four - Rhuel, Shafiq, Asif and Zahid - are captured by Northern Alliance troops. Along with hundreds of other prisoners, they are tied up and herded into containers. Ruhel Shafiq and Zahid are lucky. Their container has canvas sides. Asif is not lucky. His container is metal and airtight, and the prisoners begin to suffocate. Asif loses consciousness. When he comes round there are bullet holes in the sides of the container. Many prisoners are dead – either from bullets or suffocation. Asif has a gunshot wound. He licks the condensation on the walls of the metal container – a mixture of blood and water – to survive.
The four men are detained at Sheberghan prison for 10 days, and are visited by Red Cross officials, who notify the British embassy in Karachi. However, on December 28th, US forces policing the prison take the three Britons and fly them to a detention centre at Kandahar air base, where they are beaten and interrogated, by both US soldiers and the SAS. Zahid is left behind, and eventually imprisoned in Pakistan. During the flight to Kandahar, they were secured in stress position while in the cargo plane. Shafiq's recalls the flight to Khandahar:
In normal circumstances the position would have been difficult to maintain for any length of time. Given that I was extremely weak and that I was suffering from dysentery, dehydration, hunger, and exhaustion it was impossible to maintain this position for more than a few minutes at a time. If however I leant back or tried to move, I would be struck with a rifle butt. These blows were not designed to prevent us from falling back or to adjust our position, they were meant to hurt and punish us.
In Kandahar the men continued to be held largely without proper nutrition, sanitation, clothing, or shelter (an increasingly grave problem as by then winter had come to Afghanistan). In addition to suffering the daily indignities and abuses omnipresent at the facility, all three were also repeatedly interrogated by American and British forces. After recounting their stories, they were accused of belonging to radical organizations and attending radical gatherings in Britain of which they had no knowledge. As the men did not provide the "correct" answers to their interrogators' questions, these encounters often merely occasioned further violence and beatings. Asif recounts one interrogation by an American official in Kandahar:
I said I was not involved in Al-Qaeda and did not support them. At this, he started to punch me violently and then he knocked me to the floor and started to kick me around my back and in my stomach. My face was swollen and cut as a result of this attack. The kicks to my back aggravated the injuries I had received from the soldier striking me with a rifle butt. After a few moments the guards dragged me back to the tent. Whilst he was attacking me, the interrogator didn't ask me any other questions but just kept swearing at me and hitting me.
Interrogators had told the men they would be transferred to Belmarsh or other maximum security prisons in Britain for detention and trial; however, after several weeks Shafiq and Asif were instead readied for transfer to location unknown to them—Guantanamo Bay. Rhuhel was to stay at Kandahar for several additional weeks for reasons which remain unexplained. Though split up, they all recount the horror of their flights to Cuba (the transfer involved a stop in a third country presumed to be Turkey). The conditions on the flight to Cuba were similar to their previous transfer, with the notable addition of goggles, earmuffs, and other measures to achieve total sensory deprivation. Shafiq describes one element of the torment of the transfer:
During the plane journey the shackles had been so tight that they really cut into me. I still have scarring on my left arm from them and I lost the feeling in my right hand for a long time because they were on so tight.
On January 13 2002, Asif and Shafiq arrive at Guantanamo's Camp X-Ray and Ruhel joins them on February 10. The men were kept in the open-air 6'x 6' cages that have been seen in photographs. They were not allowed to speak to one another, stand up, or lean against the edge of the cages. They were allowed out once a week for 5 minutes to exercise. They slept on mats and had to keep their hands over the blankets while sleeping, which was difficult to due to constant noise, the constant high-intensity lights, and intentional sleep-deprivation by the guards. Despite the heat they were only allowed 1-2 minutes to shower each week. They were also often only given 1-2 minutes to eat, with any remaining food then being taken away. Certain cages were exposed to near constant direct sunlight during the day. Each prisoner was given two buckets, one for water and one to use as a toilet. As the cages were out in the open, they also had to contend with snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Initially denied Korans or even the right to pray at all, ritual mistreatment of the Koran later became a staple of daily life, as Asif notes:
They would kick the Koran, throw it in the toilet, and generally disrespect it. It is clear to me that the conditions in our cells and general treatment were designed by the officers in charge of the interrogation process to 'soften us up.
All three were subject to numerous and continued interrogations by both British and American military and intelligence officials. Under the pressures of repeated physical abuse and the unceasing privation of daily life, all three eventually acceded to interrogators' claims that they had come to Afghanistan for jihad—admissions which they interrogators often assured them would lead to a speedy dispensation of their cases. By contrast, the interrogators only pressed increasingly fantastical claims that the three laundered money for Mullah Omar or had known Osama bin Laden. They also describe the interrogations as often random, haphazard, and unorganized with officials from different agencies often forcing them to go over the same set of questions on repeated occasions or wait alone with a guard in the room for several hours before an interrogator arrived. Rhuhel notes:
I was interviewed every 3 or 4 days. The routine would be I was taken, short-shackled at the air-conditioner would be turned up to make the room freezing. The longest time I was short-shackled was about 6 or 7 hours.
The conditions of daily life improved slightly when the three were moved to the purpose-built facility at Camp Delta; however, they were still housed in cages in open-ended metal shipping containers. Hunger strikes by the detainees led to the relaxation of some rules. They could now converse with one another, pray more freely, and were afforded the additional luxuries of pit toilets and two extremely brief showers per week. Nevertheless, the now ritualized beatings, deprivation, shackling in stress positions, death threats, verbal abuse, occasional spates in isolation, harassment from dogs, and other provocative actions by female interrogators continued unabated. The men, of course, continued to be denied legal representation or any other contact with the outside world—aside from occasional and frustrating visits with British officials (they continued to also be interrogated by other British officials, sometimes outside the presence of American officials). They were also refused adequate medical care, resulting in permanent, debilitating conditions in some cases.
On March 5 2004, after more than two years at Guantánamo, Shafiq, Asif and Ruhel - now referred to as the "Tipton Three" - were taken back to England and interrogated in London by the Anti-Terrorist squad at Paddington Green station. The next day they were released without charge.
On Thursday June 15 from 1-2pm EST co-director Matt Whitecross of the documentary film The Road to Guantanamo (opens June 23rd) will be live on Gather.com to answer questions and discuss their story. Shafiq, Asif, and Ruhel will field questions as they are posted on the site. Please begin posting comments for the discussion directly to this article and join us in humanrights.gather.com on Thursday June 15 at 1pm to find the responses and participate in the livechat.