MIAMI (Reuters) - Former Guantanamo prisoners released after years of detention without charge went home to find themselves stigmatized and shunned, viewed either as terrorists or U.S. spies, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The report by human rights advocates urged U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to form an independent, nonpartisan commission with subpoena powers to investigate the treatment of U.S. detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Navy base in Cuba.
“We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation’s history under the rug by simply closing the Guantanamo prison camp,” said study co-author Eric Stover, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Human Rights Center.
“The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable.”
The authors at the center and at the Center for Constitutional Rights interviewed 50 U.S. government officials, military experts and former guards and interrogators, as well as 62 former Guantanamo prisoners in nine nations.
Two-thirds of the former captives said they had psychological and emotional problems, which the authors called consistent with being held in extreme isolation for extended periods.
Only six had regular jobs, with many saying employers would not hire anyone who had been held at Guantanamo.
“It doesn’t matter that they cleared my name by releasing me. We still have this big hat on our heads that we were terrorists,” said a Chinese Muslim former prisoner, one of eight who were settled in Albania in 2006.
That group was still struggling to learn Albanian and had abandoned hope of ever being reunited with their families, said the report titled “Guantanamo and Its Aftermath.”
The United States has released 520 men from Guantanamo since it opened the detention camp for suspected al Qaeda and Taliban captives after the September 11 attacks. Currently about 250 are being held.
It has not publicly acknowledged that any were there by mistake, although intelligence reports and a former camp commander had said as early as September 2002 that one-third to one-half of the 600 captives there at the time had no connection to terrorism, the report noted.
The most notorious prisoners who are accused of plotting the September 11 attacks, the Bali nightclub bombings and attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa were not taken to Guantanamo until 2006, when they were transferred from secret CIA prisons.
Many of the former prisoners said they had lost their homes and businesses or that their families had piled up debts in their absence because there was no one to support them.
One returned to find his wife had divorced him and remarried, another to learn his father had been murdered and his estranged wife had taken their children and moved away.
“Two Afghan respondents said that rumors of sexual abuse at Guantanamo had stigmatized them and made it difficult to find a marriage partner. One of these was also accused of being an American spy and as a result was fearful of becoming a Taliban target,” the report said.
Others said they had received death threats.
Those who fared best seemed to be Afghans from tightly knit villages, where several said they were greeted when they came home with celebrations that even some local police attended.
“When I’m walking on the streets and I meet some people, they usually say to me, ‘We’re sorry for you...’ Everyone knows that I’m innocent, that I’m not involved in any political activities,” the report quoted an Afghan shepherd as saying.
Among the 55 freed captives who discussed their interrogations, 31 said they were abusive and 24 said they had no problems. The majority held “distinctly negative views of the United States” but many said that was directed at the U.S. government, not the American people.
One-third said they ended up in U.S. custody after being sold for bounties. Many viewed their time at Guantanamo as a test of their Muslim faith.
Others said they only wanted the American public to recognize that they were innocent.
“I just want to tell them that I am not this savage beast, what they were told I am,” one said.
Editing by Michael Christie and David Storey