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Gitmo ‘forever prisoner’ Haroon al-Afghani remains virtually unknown

Details surrounding the life and alleged crimes of one detainee at the notorious facility are essentially a mystery

On June 22, 2007, an Afghan man was sent to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

That is perhaps the only fact in Haroon al-Afghani’s case that all agree on; others are disputed by his relatives, who are speaking to the media for the first time.

In official documents, almost nothing certain is known about Afghani’s background and activities. Yet he has been held for more than eight years without being charged. Afghani is a so-called forever prisoner, a detainee at Guantánamo who has not been charged with a crime but has not been cleared for transfer. Nor does he even have a lawyer.

At a time when President Barack Obama is repeating his desire to close down the prison and other prisoners are being released in trickles, the existence of someone like Afghani — a virtual mystery man in official documents — is a reminder of the legal morass that the U.S. overseas prison has found itself in.

Afghani arrived in Guantánamo as George W. Bush’s administration was already shipping people out of the prison. The Department of Defense announced at the time it had transferred a dangerous terrorism suspect to Guantánamo Bay.

The U.S. alleged that Afghani was a senior member of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, (HIG), an Afghan insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who helped end the Soviet occupation in the country.

Afghani is also said to have been a courier for alleged senior Al-Qaeda operations planner Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who was also transferred to Guantánamo from CIA custody in 2007. Iraqi is charged with war crimes.

Afghani lived in Pakistan and used to travel to Afghanistan to visit his relatives and farmland. According to the U.S., the Afghan National Directorate of Security captured Afghani in Farm-e-Hada area in Nangarhar province on Feb. 4, 2007.

He was taken with six men also suspected of being HIG associates, according to a report by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the prison and assessed the detainees.

But that claim comes from just one source, identified in JTF-GTMO report footnotes as TD-314/08910-07, a CIA report serial number. The information comes from an unidentified human source. The -07 denotes the year 2007.

The classified reports were published by WikiLeaks. Often prisoners and their lawyers dispute the reports for banking on unreliable testimony or point out that they contradict other evidence and statements. In Afghani’s case, a footnote states that his capture date was “inaccurately” first reported as March 2007.

A family member of Afghani’s believes that he was taken from a house near Jalalabad, Afghanistan. “I think he was alone while captured,” the relative said. The JTF-GTMO states that among Afghani’s personal items were “vehicle registration [and] miscellaneous papers … reportedly recovered in Jalalabad following detainee’s arrest.”

There is a further accusation by the U.S. that Afghani was an improvised explosive device expert in charge of cells targeting U.S. and coalition forces. This intelligence comes from two sources, identified only as CIR 316/00242-07 and IIR 6 105 4594 07. “CIR” could be a criminal investigative report from the Department of Defense investigative task force, and “IIR” indicates a non-CIA report.

Al Jazeera asked an expert — recognized as such by the Guantánamo military commissions — not familiar with Afghani to review his JTF-GTMO file. The expert (who asked not to be identified, to avoid jeopardizing professional relationships) said the file on Afghani “reminds me of the broad swath of disparate bits of [information] from various interrogations done over years and documented often by newly initiated persons in the JTF overseen by newish [and] temporary supervisors.”

The expert added that it is “plausible that a notable … guy like Abd al Hadi al Iraqi would have trusted a native speaker as a courier… [because] Al-Qaeda leadership knew even the best linguist Arabs spoke Dari, [Pashto], Urdu and Farsi with an accent and could not hide in plain site like natives.” Afghani fluently speaks Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, Al Jazeera understands.

“Moreover,” the expert said, “there was not much … integration of Al-Qaeda Arabs with Afghans or Pakistanis in operation or combat matters,” for two main reasons: “lack of trust and language barriers.”

In short, the expert said, Afghani’s JTF-GTMO report was “pandering and wishful writing.”

There is a mention of a man named Haroon in another case related to a Guantánamo prisoner (District of Columbia District Court case No. 09-cv.1385.), called “Engineer Haroon,” who is the “official spokesperson for HIG” and belongs to a “propaganda production cell.” Haroon, Al Jazeera believes, is Haroon Zarghon and not Afghani. Zarghon is alive and active. He at times uses a fake name, and he is still the spokesman for Hekmatyar. (This reporter has spoken to him several times.)

Where al Afghani is held and whether he is a "complaint" prisoner is considered classified information, according to the Pentagon. He does, however, have a right to a lawyer, and the government does not object to him obtaining one at his expense.

A relative of Afghani’s said that he is not capable of killing anyone and that he is innocent, a victim of local jealousy — not an uncommon story for many Afghans rounded up by U.S. or Afghan forces on the basis of false information, he added. (The relative has asked not to be named because family members are afraid that being publicly associated with a Guantánamo prisoner could negatively affect them.)

Afghani’s family has a long history of belonging to Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), an Afghan Islamic political party formed in 1979 by commanders who originally fought with many of those that stayed with the faction which became HIG.

“It is not a crime to be a member of the HIA,” the relative said. And Afghani was not a “big name” or “important figure” in the group. His affiliation was ordinary, like millions of other Afghans who are members of the HIA.

It’s believed that Afghani was born in 1981 or around that time and is from the Sherzad district in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. “He was just a normal young boy,” his relative said. Afghani was a student when the Taliban was in power. He studied economics at Hayatabad Science University in Peshawar, Pakistan.

In the time of Taliban rule, there were a lot of Arabs in the area, and meeting them was not an indication of anything, the relative said. In the U.S. Guantánamo report on Afghani, there are allegations that his association with senior Al-Qaeda members extended to include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Afghani’s relative said that that men like Iraqi and Mohammed would not have met with a “simple young boy like Haroon,” calling the allegations “total baseless propaganda,” adding that if someone is tortured, he will claim he has been to the “sky and the moon.”

Others said that Afghani was not as clean cut as his family members suggest and that he was close to “Arabs” — referring to Al-Qaeda members — and anti-Afghan-government activists. He was said to be charging “Arabs” for an unspecified service.

An Afghan intelligence official said Afghan and U.S. officials kept day-to-day information about Afghani’s movements in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar. “We had reports about his roaming with Al-Qaeda, but we don’t know if he was involved directly in any attack,” said an Afghan who worked as a government security officer from 2006 to 2008 and had access to a file about Afghani. “Perhaps U.S. found more solid evidences that led him to Gitmo.”

Afghani’s family learned a few days after his capture that he was taken. “We don’t know by whom, by Afghan or Americans,” said his relative.

For years, the family went “knocking doors of everyone to find his whereabouts,” the relative said. About three years after he disappeared, the family received a letter from him from Guantánamo via the International Committee of the Red Cross. “In his letter he said, ‘I am in Gitmo. Pray for me … I am OK.’”  Every six months, the family used to wait for his letters. Family members were then allowed to have phone conversations with him, and now they go to a Red Cross office in Kabul or Pakistan to Skype with Afghani every five weeks or so.

He was married not too long before he was taken, and he has a daughter, who is still young. His wife lives in a refugee camp with another family member.

When one of the family members first saw Afghani, he looked older than his age, he was complaining of headaches, and he had dark circles around his eyes. “He said he is OK,” the relative said. “We were so happy seeing him after such very long time.”

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