Guantánamo

War court witness describes his dark days of abuse in U.S. interrogation

Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.
Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.

A Pentagon prosecutor pressed an embarrassed and reluctant Saudi terrorist Wednesday to describe his abuse during his 2002-03 interrogations in Afghanistan, including an episode of an Army private shoving his genitals in the man’s face.

“He hit me, threw me against the wall, threw garbage on me and pulled me to the floor,” captive Ahmed al Darbi testified. “He was kneeling on my chest, pushing my chest with his knees. After that he exposed ‘little Corsetti’ and put it in my face. You happy?”

Cmdr. Kevin Flynn, the prosecutor, was clearly trying to air out the episodes of abuse to neutralize any coming challenge to the admissibility of testimony by Darbi, particularly his day-earlier identification of an alleged al-Qaida commander, Abd al Hadi al Iraqi. Darbi said he didn’t lie about his abuse, and he didn’t lie about knowing Hadi, either.

Torture and the question of how long it taints a captive’s or witness’ confessions, and the circumstances of when those statements can be used at the war court loom large over all the proceedings against former CIA captives, particularly those awaiting death-penalty trials.

RELATED: How long after torture are statements admissible? Gitmo court debates question.

But Darbi, an admitted terrorist whose abuse at both Bagram in Afghanistan and here at Guantánamo prompted internal investigation, was providing evidence as a cooperating witness and admitted terrorist. Under a plea agreement, he’s been repeatedly re-interviewed by FBI agents and should return to his homeland next year to finish a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Later, after he was transferred to Guantánamo in March 2003, Darbi said, interrogators threatened that if he wouldn’t sign certain statements, he’d be sent back to Bagram or to Egypt, Israel or Camp X-Ray. Darbi said he didn’t sign those.

Darbi’s description of his abuse is not new. He told Army investigators about it in sworn testimony in March 2006 for the court-martial of former Army interrogator and Spc. Damien Corsetti, who was cleared of charges. In a 2013 interview with the Witness to Guantánamo oral history project, Corsetti said he was made a scapegoat for approved practices. He blamed his immaturity as a 22-year-old interrogator and the enormous power he was given over his captives.

“They couldn’t take a piss or s--- if I didn’t say ‘OK,’ ” he said.

He also told the video project bitterly that the military “made me go do things that completely violated my conscience and changed forever who I am as a human being, but I went along with it. ... The very same things they gave me awards for, they charged me with.”

But Wednesday’s was the first such public testimony. Darbi’s deposition two weeks ago against the alleged USS Cole bomber, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, was closed, unseen by the public.

The day began with Darbi matter-of-factly identifying al-Qaida members from photos and videos — not one of them Hadi — perhaps to establish his credentials as an al-Qaida insider, and to shore up his identification a day earlier of Hadi as his one-time military commander. He testified that he knew they were members of the terror organization “through my observations and my work with al-Qaida.”

In one instance he said he recognized a man in a home-movie style video of a big outdoor gathering at an Osama bin Laden compound as “one of the perpetrators of” the Sept. 11 attacks. “I don’t know his name,” Darbi said, explaining he recognized him from television news coverage after 9/11.

In another instance, he identified two men in the 2000 videotape as al-Qaida members because, although he recognized one from Afghanistan, he met both at Guantánamo.

He identified a photo showing Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahri, from an old photo, saying that at the time it was taken Zawahri was not a member of al-Qaida, just “a guest of honor” at a big official event. Zawahri, an Egyptian physician by training, at least once conducted a health checkup on Darbi, he said, before he left Afghanistan in 2000 to be captured in 2002.

The prosecutor asked Darbi if Zawahri was still with al-Qaida. “I’m in detention here,” he replied, “but, according to the media, he is the officer in charge of al-Qaida.”

When’s Flynn’s questioning turned to the question of torture, apparently to show that even as military interrogators abused him Darbi was truthful with FBI interrogators, Darbi’s demeanor turned dark and mournful.

He reluctantly described being brought to Bagram for first an extensive cavity search then hoodings, short-shackling, beatings and being housed for nine months in a cement-floor, wooden-walled cell with no bed, no toilet. At times he offered barely audible “yes” and “no” answers.

Yet to be decided is how much of Darbi’s testimony will be admissible at the trial of Hadi, who faces life in prison if he’s convicted of commanding insurgents who carried out war crimes in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. By 9/11, Darbi was already gone from Afghanistan and traveling between Pakistan and then the Persian Gulf on a new al-Qaida mission: helping plot attacks on foreign vessels to shut down shipping traffic in the Straits of Hormuz.

Darbi is due to be questioned by Hadi’s lawyers later this year, and may be gone to Saudi Arabia before the Hadi judge decides how much of the testimony is admissible.

“We need to hear all of the testimony, including the cross-examination,” said Hadi attorney Adam Thurschwell. “But we believe that there’s a high likelihood we can show it was not voluntary within the meaning of the Constitution and should be suppressed.”

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