For Cyrus Kar, a trip this spring to the Middle East for work on a documentary quickly turned into a nightmare that he says involved inhumane treatment at the hands of U.S. officials.
Some might have questioned his decision to visit war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. But Kar, an Iranian-American documentary filmmaker and U.S. citizen, says it was part of a labor of love: to complete his documentary about the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great.
Kar's documentary took him from Tajikistan through Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. The final piece of the story was to be filmed in Iraq. As an American citizen and a veteran of the U.S. Navy, the 44-year-old filmmaker felt confident about his presence in Iraq and had U.S. officials' permission to film there.
But soon Kar's plan to finish his dream project turned into a terrifying ordeal.
Cargo Draws Suspicion
On May 17, Kar and his Iranian cameraman hired an Iraqi taxi driver to take them to the outskirts of Baghdad. When they were stopped at a checkpoint, Iraqi police searched the trunk and found a bag of washing machine timers, devices that can be used to set off roadside bombs.
Kar, his cameraman and the Iraqi driver were all taken to a police station 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Once at the police station, Kar revealed his American citizenship and showed the police his passport and filming permit. When he asked to speak with the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi police said they had contacted the U.S. military.
Military officials say they notified the FBI to begin investigating Kar's case and his possible connection to the devices found in his taxi's trunk. Eventually they concluded the filmmaker and his cameraman had nothing to with the suspicious equipment and both men were released. Officials said the taxi driver was still being held as the investigation continued.
U.S. officials insist Kar was treated fairly and humanely. "This case highlights the effectiveness of our detainee review process," Brig. Gen. Don Alston, a Coalition Forces spokesman, said in a statement. "We followed well-established procedures and Mr. Kar has now been properly released."
Kar, however, describes a violent and terrifying ordeal at the hands of U.S. personnel during his nearly two-month detention.
When U.S. military personnel first took him into their custody, Kar says they treated him with indifference and a lack of concern.
"They struck right by me and just mumbled, 'So these are the guys?' and 'Go into the room and close the door.' " Kar said. "And never asked us a single question."
Kar, his cameraman and the driver were blindfolded as they were led out of the Iraqi police station.
'He Grabs My Head and Slams It ...'
As he was transferred to American custody, Kar repeated that he was an American citizen and again asked to speak to the U.S. Embassy.
"And I said, 'Listen, I'm a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces. This is how you treat your own?' "
Once at the American detention camp, Kar was placed on the dirt floor, restrained with flexi-cuffs behind his back and left with a blanket and bottle of water. Around 1 a.m. he was led to an interrogation room and photographed.
Kar's group was shackled, blindfolded and driven to Tikrit, in northern Iraq. U.S. officials there decided to take them to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, where Kar and his group say they were subjected to violence and humiliation.
"At that point, the punch had been taken out of me," Kar said. "I wasn't responding and he [the interrogator] is pulling me up ... and he just got a handful of skin and he's pulling me up. Skin comes loose, shirt rips and they're leading us into a processing area which looked like a lobby.
"Once we're inside the lobby, they make us face the wall, standing this time and they tell us to put our heads up against the wall. My head was about two inches from the wall and so he grabs my head and slams it against the cinderblock."
Kar was taken to another room, but his cameraman was asked to remove his clothes while the assembled group of guards laughed at him.
Kar's Iranian cameraman remained at Abu Ghraib but, as an American citizen, Kar was not allowed to be held there.
"I understand suspicion," Kar says, "I don't understand wanton hostility. And it was wanton."
By the end of his second day of captivity, Kar was taken from Abu Ghraib to the detention camp at the Baghdad airport, Camp Cropper.
After Kar was processed at Camp Cropper, it took several days for the FBI to check out his story, and another 47 days to get a hearing with the military's Detainee Status Board. Even after he was cleared, it was still six more days before he was released.
Kar continues to share this story to bring awareness to a situation he feels is jeopardizing American lives in Iraq.
"There's a reckless arrest policy," he says, "There's a tremendous amount of humiliation that follows that arrest policy, and I strongly believe that one of the major reasons that the insurgency is growing is because when detainees are released, they come out, and they're looking for retribution. ...They're angry."