Fresh from prison, Afghans angered at yearlong detention

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Two Afghans just freed from U.S. military custody expressed bitterness Friday at being sent to prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without being questioned first at home -- asserting they could easily have proven their innocence.

The men, among a dozen prisoners released this week, were held for nearly a year without charges or access to lawyers. Upon release from Guantanamo, they received no apology or compensation for their time in the high-security prison on suspicion of links to the Taliban or al-Qaida terror network.

In an interview with The Associated Press, they described their treatment in U.S. custody as fair -- with decent meals and permission to pray -- but said they should never have been taken to Cuba.

"I'm just angry that the Americans waited until we were in Guantanamo to interrogate us. Had they questioned us here in Afghanistan, it would have saved us a lot of trouble," said 28-year-old Mohammad Tahir.

"They could have realized a lot sooner that I was innocent."

Human rights advocates have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration for holding prisoners at the U.S. naval base on Cuba and without charging them with any crime or giving them legal counsel.

The men released this week, who arrived Thursday at Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan, were part of the third group of prisoners set free.

Deputy Interior Minister Hilal Uddin told AP that 11 prisoners had arrived at Bagram. The two detainees interviewed said they were then transferred to a police station in Kabul.

Afghan authorities said they will release the men after brief interviews and checks to make sure they are not wanted for any crimes.

Was forced to fight

Wearing a dark blue traditional Afghan pantaloon suit, 22-year-old Rostum Shah said his American interrogators took him from his cell two or three times a week, his feet and hands bound in chains.

"All the time they asked us, 'Where are you from? Are you Taliban? Were you in Pakistan? Why were you captured with the Taliban?'" Shah said. "They said, 'If you're innocent, then why did you go to fight against your own people?'"

Shah answered like his fellow prisoner, Tahir.

"The Taliban forced us to fight," he said.

Shah was sent to fight in Bamiyan from the southern province of Helmand by Taliban forces. Tahir, who said the Taliban demanded one man from each family in his village in central Ghor province, was also sent to Bamiyan.

In late 2001, both said they were captured by Hezb-e-Wahadat, a Shiite Muslim faction comprised mostly of ethnic Hazara's opposed to the Taliban.

The two were held for four months by the faction, which then handed them over to the Americans. The men were held at a U.S. detention center in the southern city of Kandahar for four months before being sent to Guantanamo.

"When they took us to Guantanamo, they didn't tell us how long we'd be there," Shah said. "We didn't know when we'd be released. We didn't even know why they brought us there."

Aside from the repetitive interrogations, none of the former inmates had anything bad to say about their treatment at the U.S. prison.

All were allowed to pray, to eat three times a day and smoke cigarettes. They were allowed showers twice a week, when authorities came to clean their rooms, and to communicate with their families in messages sent through the international Red Cross.

At their release, the men said, they received no acknowledgment that they were held unfairly -- only a blue sports bag. "We didn't get much. They didn't give us any money," Tahir said. "We got this bag and what's in it."

Inside was a new pair of pants and tennis shoes, a jacket, underwear and a bottle of shampoo.

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