GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba A tortured al-Qaida terrorist turned prosecution witness is being rewarded with a comfortable cabin-style lockup where he can garden, paint, exercise, learn English by Rosetta Stone, cook meals for his interrogators and attorneys and watch American comedy TV.
In sworn testimony on Saturday Ahmed al Darbi, 42, described morphing from a lying, feces-flinging prisoner with a bad behavior record in the maximum-security Camp Five prison to a cooperating witness now cloistered in Camp Echo, an annex of the prison compound across the street.
Darbi has his own kitchen with a freezer stocked with meat and spices, and other never-before-disclosed perks to pass his time preparing to testify as a witness for the war court prosecutor in two cases, one that seeks the death-penalty.
The prison provides him with lamb, rabbit, chicken, shrimp and other halal meat, he agreed, as defense attorney Air Force Maj. Yolanda Miller read from what sounded like a shopping list.
“Goat,” the stout Saudi in a dark blue suit and tie volunteered with a grin, adding, “I love chicken, and I don’t see any issue with that. I still have it in my freezer until now.”
Darbi, 42, is slated to go home to a Saudi rehabilitation program Feb. 20 under an Obama-era plea agreement, if diplomats can close the deal and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis approves the release. Four years ago he pleaded guilty to being an accomplice in a 2002 al-Qaida attack on a French oil tanker, the Limburg, in Yemeni waters.
It did not achieve its goal of upsetting global oil prices or shipping, but a Bulgarian crew member died in the attack, which occurred after Darbi was already a U.S. prisoner. Last year he recorded testimony, a deposition, to be used as possible evidence against the alleged mastermind of the attack, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.
He also separately testified about his life as a jihadist in al-Qaida, pointed to an Iraqi captive in court and identified him as a former al-Qaida commander named Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, to counter the Iraqi’s claim that his true name is Nashwan al Tamir.
This weekend, Hadi’s attorneys were questioning Darbi on the truthfulness of his statements and memory for what could be used as time-capsule testimony if the Trump administration releases him. And the image he portrayed of his life in Guantánamo prison offered a stark contrast to a glimpse a weekend earlier of medium-security communal prison life — prepared food in Styrofoam containers, up to four hours in a new recreation cell block, a now hidden art program for the indefinite detainees known as “forever prisoners.”
Across the street, Darbi has a plethora of quality-of-life accommodations provided by the prison, interrogators or the prosecution. Cilantro, cumin and cloves to cook with using a hotplate, blender and microwave in his kitchen; treats like Strawberries n’ Creme Oreos, baklava, Turkish delight and a pecan pie; a garden where he said he was growing what sounded like the ingredients for ratatouille — eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and green pepper. Papaya too, he noted.
Cooperation also earned him monthly phone calls with his Yemeni wife and children, now living in Saudi Arabia.
Deposition questioning Sunday delved into what Darbi called “the torture times” — his 2002-03 interrogations in Bagram, Afghanistan, and here at Guantánamo.
Defense attorney Adam Thurschwell, in an apparent bid to discredit Darbi’s identification of the Iraqi Hadi, led Darbi through a lurid description of his first year or more in U.S. custody, drawn from sworn court documents. The Saudi was beaten, sleep deprived, hung by the wrists, threatened with rape in interrogation then sent to unwanted rectal exams by U.S. military doctors, kept nude and forced to empty other detainees’ feces buckets with his fingers.
He said a focus of the interrogations was, Where was Osama bin Laden?
In one notorious episode, Darbi described how, after he cried out for God while he was being beaten and questioned at Bagram, a U.S. soldier serving as an interrogator pulled out his own penis, put it “very close to my face” and declared, “This is your God.”
The Saudi said he was kept shackled to the door of a cage there, his toes unable to touch the ground and in plain sight of what Darbi called the guards’ “torture tools” — baseball bats, chains, shackles and hoods.
Darbi got to Guantánamo 14 months after it opened. He testified Sunday that he was kept in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and subjected to midnight-to-dawn, no-bathroom-break questioning in an interrogation room stinking of urine and vomit. Threats here included to rape him, to send him to Israel or Camp X-Ray, which supposedly closed a year earlier. Interrogators had photo copies of pages of the Quran, Darbi testified, and would throw them on the ground with sex photos and pictures of mutilated bodies.
Darbi looked morose Sunday, describing it as a period of helplessness and hopelessness unlike more cheerful testimony about his previously unheard of list of special “comfort items,” as the prison calls items it can take away for bad behavior. It sounded as though interrogators and prosecutors went on a shopping spree at the Guantánamo commissary for base residents, and supplemented their goodies with online purchases.
Darbi has a battery-powered Oral B Pro Health toothbrush, with replacement heads, a Magic Bullet blender, free weights and a spin bike for exercising, and Under Armour T-shirts and athletic socks to wear when he works out in his compound. “Yes, Nike also,” he told Miller. “Don’t forget that.”
Miller, Hadi’s defense attorney, framed the stuff as incentive items to show that life gets good for captives turned prosecution witnesses at Guantánamo Bay. Darbi confirmed under questioning that he would set a table and cook for his interrogators during some visits, and that he had the makings for Arabic and Turkish coffee.
Also, Brazilian, Lebanese, Iranian, Saudi and Yemeni coffee, he offered through Arabic-English translation.
“As you understand it, you’re set to go home in 10 days,” Air Force major Miller asked.
“Supposedly, yes,” Darbi replied.
Miller: “As long as you tell the government what it wants to hear.”
Darbi: “What’s requested is the truth and nothing but the truth.”
In the more than four years since he agreed to plead guilty, he also got a personal laptop computer equipped with Rosetta Stone software to learn English; oil paints, canvas and special brushes; a PlayStation 3 and, by request, some interrogators rented for him old episodes of the situation comedy “Arrested Development,” now available on Netflix.
The program portrays a dysfunctional American family. It first aired on FOX TV during Darbi’s early years as a U.S. military prisoner, the period when he testified he was tortured and lied to his interrogators.
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