Pakistan's Gitmo Prisoners Pose Problem

Mohammed Saad Iqbal never imagined that his 26th birthday would be the first of many spent behind the concrete walls and barbed-wire fences of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Over nearly eight years, the Pakistani preacher was transferred through four detention facilities, starting from the scene of his arrest in Jakarta, Indonesia in late 2001. After that, it was on to Cairo, Egypt, Islamabad, Pakistan and the Bagram Collection Point (now called the Bagram Detention Center) near Kabul, Afghanistan before finally making it to Guantanamo Bay in early 2003.

There was no trial. No legal counsel. No phone call home.

American and Egyptian interrogators accused him of mingling with the likes of Osama bin Laden and shoe bomber Richard Reid, making him a terrorist by association, he says.

Iqbal maintains his innocence. "I'd never been to Afghanistan; I've never met Osama bin Laden; I've never picked up a weapon nor have I had any training; even I never curse," he said.

His voice grows shaky and his eyes timid as he recalls the endless cycles of torture and psychological abuse he says he endured throughout his years in captivity. He claims it was so bad he tried to kill himself twice and went on numerous hunger strikes to protest his mistreatment.

Today, less than five months after his release, he is safe within the confines of his modest Lahore home, surrounded by family and friends, and free to savor a glimpse of sunlight or a breath of fresh air.

Still, the painful memories of his years in Guantanamo Bay linger as he suffers from physical disabilities that hinder his efforts to find a job and reintegrate into society. He recently retired his walker in favor of a cane, which he still needs due to knee injuries he alleges to have suffered from electric shocks to his legs.

Like many Pakistanis, Iqbal welcomes news of the executive order signed by President Barack Obama to shut down the prison within a year, but he says his physical and emotional scars will not heal by a stroke of the pen.

"In Iraq we recently saw a journalist throw at President Bush his shoes," Iqbal says.

"I hoped that he got one hit and feels pain for two seconds then compare this pain with the pain I felt in Guantanamo for almost seven years."

For many in this region, the move to close down the Cuba-based U.S. prison is something of a relief. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, little more has emerged from the detention facility beyond horrific stories of alleged torture, ranging from electric shock to sexual abuse, and numerous claims of desecration of the Quran, Islam's sacred book.

According to Amnesty International, nearly 800 detainees have been officially held at the camp, although hundreds of other "ghost prisoners" may have been detained unofficially. Iqbal says the number of unregistered detainees topped 2,000.

Most were subjected to conditions that violate the international prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including solitary confinement, according to Amnesty International.

However, with the newfound relief comes a realization that the closure of Guantanamo Bay ultimately means that some prisoners not transferred to U.S.-based prisons, might be coming home, and placed in the hands of local authorities.

Here in Pakistan, many are asking whether their authorities are ready. Fighting rages on along the country's Western border with Afghanistan – a region that remains virtually lawless, creating a hotbed for al Qaeda and Taliban forces.

Pakistan has not developed a system of reintegration for these young men, most of whom have lived in solitary confinement for years, all the while growing increasingly disgruntled with their Western captors.

While many Guantanamo detainees have no proven ties to extremists groups, some do. "A lot of the Pashtuns who have been released go right back and rejoin the Taliban because they have been released, held here by the ISI [Pakistani intelligence] and then released back into society without any re-education, or retaining or re-explanation of Islam," explained Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of several books about militant Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As for the dark legacy that is Guantanamo Bay, Pakistanis may not be in the clear -- only the danger lies much closer to home. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) warns of some 250 cases of detainees who have "disappeared" --- taken away by intelligence and law enforcement agencies and never heard from again.

Those prisoners who do resurface bear stories eerily similar to the horrific accounts by Guantanamo Bay captives. Testimonials released by HRCP include repeated incidents of beatings and waterboarding but also of authorities urinating and defecating in the mouths of prisoners.

"Pakistan is signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture and yet despite that, our security and police and armed forces deploy those methods," said Hossain Naky, head of mission for HRCP.

While Iqbal yearns for any assistance from his government, he thanks Allah that he is home again and able to spread Islam's message of peace. He remains hopeful that the closure of Guantanamo Bay is more than merely political rhetoric – rather, the start of a new era.

"Ask a child to do something and you can get what you need. If you force him, he will never accept. If we have more talking, we will have less wars."

Vivian Salama is a freelance correspondent working in Pakistan.