A routine tale of our times: abuse, beatings, imprisonment and injustice

After two months, and 15 interrogations, Mustafa says one of his American questioners told him he believed he was innocent

By Robert Fisk

08 January 2005

I travelled down to Zarqa on Christmas Eve - Zarqa as in "Zarqawi", for it is indeed the home town of the latest of America's bogeymen, a grey, dirt-poor, windy town south of Amman. The man I went to see was palpably innocent of any crime - indeed, he even has a document from the American military to prove it - but he spent almost two years of his life locked up in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. Hussein Abdelkader Youssef Mustafa's story tells you a lot about the "war on terror" and about the abuses that go with it.

Mustafa is a thin, ascetic man with a long pepper-and-salt beard, and he sat on the concrete floor of his brother's home dressed in a long cloak and a black woollen hat and frameless spectacles. He is a Palestinian by birth but had been a resident in Pakistan since 1985, working in a school near Peshawar, teaching Afghans who had fled the 1980 Soviet invasion, visiting Afghanistan just once, in 1988, to teach at a school near Mazar-e-Sharif. Then on 25 May 2002, Pakistani soldiers and plain-clothes police stormed into his home, tied Mustafa up, led him out of the house past two Westerners, a man and a woman in civilian clothes - he assumes they were American FBI agents - and dumped him in the old Khaibar prison for 10 days. He was interrogated there by a blond, Arabic-speaking American and then taken to Peshawar airport where he was freighted off with 34 other Arabs - illegally under international law - to the large American base at Bagram in Afghanistan.

"We had been hooded in the plane, and when we arrived they stripped us naked and gave us overalls with numbers on. I was 171 and then I spent two months under interrogation," Mustafa told me. "They were Americans, usually in uniform but without names. They wanted to know about my life, about what Afghans I'd met, about where false passports came from. I knew nothing about this. I told them all about myself. I said I was innocent. They made me stand on one leg in the sun. They wouldn't let me sleep for more than two hours. We had only a barrel for a toilet and had to use it in front of everyone."

In the hours to come, I will learn that the Jordanian authorities have told Mustafa not to talk any more about his experiences - no doubt, the Americans told the Jordanians to shut him up. But he would admit later: "My torture was even less than what they did to others. A broomstick was inserted in my backside and I was beaten severely and water was thrown on me before facing an air conditioner." And why did he think the Americans did this to him? "If a prisoner did not comply and cooperate in details in Bagram, he would be abused according to how convinced the interrogator thought he was guilty; and to reach the stage of 'not guilty' in the eyes of the interrogator, one went through a long period of being physically abused."

After two months, and 15 interrogations, Mustafa says one of his American questioners told him he believed he was innocent. "He said to me: 'Have you seen Cuba on the television? I'm going to make you one of the prisoners there. I'm very sorry, it's out of our hands. Your names are in Washington now. You have to go to Cuba.' We were tied up, blindfolded, handcuffed and chains were attached to us. They put dark eyeglasses on us so we couldn't see. They covered our ears and nose and mouth so I could hardly breathe. On the plane, they pushed three or four pills into my mouth, drugs. I felt all the time I was between sleeping and waking. It took 24 hours to reach Cuba and we stopped once on the way and changed planes about four hours after leaving Bagram."

Diego Garcia? Was this the mystery airbase? Were these chained, hooded, drugged Muslims taken via our very own and very British Diego Garcia?

Mustafa says he was less harshly treated at Guantanamo Bay. One of his interrogators was an American Iraqi. "I was shut up first in isolation in a room made all of metal. Even the floor was metal. There was just a small slit in the door. They kept going through my background papers, asking me the same questions over and over. Why was I a teacher in Pakistan? Why had I gone to Afghanistan? Sometimes in the showers, the American women soldiers could see us naked. They shaved off our beards. If we didn't obey orders quickly, they sprayed mace in our faces. In Bagram, they beat the men with sticks. Here they didn't do that. But many men tried to commit suicide in Guantanamo. I remember at least 30. We'd see them hanging themselves and shout: "Soldiers! Quickly!", and the Americans would come and take them down."

In all, Mustafa spent 20 months in Cuba, and in the last 10 of those months, he says, no one asked him a single question. "Then one day, they gave me a lie detector test and medical tests and fitted me for clothes and gave me jeans and a jacket and trainers. Three days later, an American translator said we were leaving. I asked where to, and he said: "I have no idea, but we have nothing more to do with you."

After five days, hooded and bound, Mustafa was put on an aircraft with an Iraqi, a Turk and two Tajiks and flown back to Bagram. The irises of his eyes were photographed. "We were told we were now 'guests', but I spent another four months in Bagram. Then an American officer came to see us and said: 'As you know, we were subject to a very big attack and thousands of our people were murdered. That's why we took in all these people. Now you will return to your country as any other citizen and you don't have any kind of problem to face.' And that was it? No apology, nothing. I was flown back to Amman."

Mustafa was given a document by the US Combined Joint Task Force 76 at Bagram. "This individual," it says, "has been determined to pose no threat to the United States armed forces or its interests in Afghanistan. This individual has been released into the vicinity of his capture location."

The Red Cross confirmed Mustafa's release on a paper which named his home village of birth as "Silat al-Hatezia, Palestine". But the Americans didn't have that much courage. Faced with the little problem of Mustafa's country of birth, you can see how they must have fretted over this one. Dare they put the word "Palestine"? Of course not. So beside "Country", they wrote "West Bank".

Mustafa is out of work now, living with his family in Zarqa, but with no future. Two years were taken out of his life, and his story - shameful though it is - is now so routine as to be forgettable. When the Red Cross first disclosed to me back in 2002 that Mustafa had been taken illegally from Pakistan to Afghanistan, I wrote about this in The Independent. Not a single newspaper picked up on the story. But it tells us a lot about the illegal world in which George Bush believes we must live. September 11, 2001 has become a piece of legislation. It allows us to arrest who we want, question who we want, abuse who we want, lock up who we want, invade whatever countries we want. This is the Bush administration's memorial to the dead of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Beat, abuse, imprison the innocent - only, it is clear in Mustafa's case, for information - and to hell with it. Why, you can even invent a new name for the prisoner's country. West Bank, indeed!