Sunday, December 14, 2008

Former U.S. Contractor Alleges 9-Month Detention in Iraq

Former U.S. Contractor Alleges 9-Month Detention in Iraq

Translator Says He Was Denied Attorney, Phone Calls While Held For Months


December 11, 2008—

For months, he worked closely with American soldiers, ferreting out threats to the troops and forging a relationship with a key sheikh who went on to lead the Sunni awakening. But when this 52-year-old translator and veteran of the U.S. Army headed for his annual leave as a contractor in Iraq, he claims he was wrongfully imprisoned for nine months by American forces, with no access to a lawyer and no contact with his family for months.

The allegations are laid out in a lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, recently filed in federal court in Washington where the former contractor for Titan, and a naturalized U.S. citizen, alleges that his due process rights were violated when he was detained and held in "torturous conditions." "There was no justice in what happened to me," the translator said in an exclusive hour-long phone interview with "There was no justice involved in it."

The translator's suit is filed under an alias, John Doe, because he fears for his safety and his family. But through his lawyer, Michael Kanovitz, the translator agreed to an interview about the details of his imprisonment. His case is the fourth known example of a U.S. citizen held in Iraq without a formal trial. Two other former contractors, Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, have filed a similar suit in Chicago over their three month long detention at Camp Cropper. Another U.S. citizen, filmmaker Cyrus Kar, also filed suit over his arrest and several-week long detention, but a judge recently dismissed his suit on the grounds that the military officials had immunity.

Spokespeople for the defense and justice departments declined comment, as did a company spokesperson for Titan, now called L-3 Communications.

The translator's story begins in December 2004 when he arrived at the al-Asad airbase about 180 kilometers west of Baghdad. There he met with the site manager for Titan, the American-owned defense contracting firm he worked with, and first learned his job: translating for the Marine Corp Human Exploitation Team near the Western border of Iraq and Syria, according to the complaint.

He was based in Camp Korea Village and worked alongside three other men, two sergeants and a lieutenant. His job was straightforward: to interrogate prisoners, develop sources among Iraqi civilians and "ferret out threats to the unit," according to the complaint.

He stayed with them until July 2005, when he was transferred to al Walid, another military base on the closer border. There he joined another HET with the same mission, according to the complaint.

About that time, a well-known Sheikh, Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, contacted the translator to request a meeting. He had an idea: he would provide information on the insurgents in exchange for army contracts. Though a Sunni, he had reasons to hate the insurgents: they had killed his father and his brothers. And the sheikh, who traveled in a convoy with body guards, believed he would one day meet the same fate, the translator said. (It was a premonition that proved accurate: in September 2007, the sheikh was killed in a bombing outside his home.)

The Sheikh's New Contracts Generated Animosity

The relationship took off. "If the insurgents were coming, he would give us time they were coming, what they look like and what time," the translator said.

Such information was invaluable and the sheikh's cooperation was a closely guarded secret. "My supervisors were saying nobody should know this guy is giving us information, another marine unit," the translator said.

But the sheikh's new contracts generated animosity, a feeling that would only grow as the sheikh's relationship with the United States grew. The translator said that many of the Iraqi military officials in the area "started spreading rumors about this guy" saying that he "might be working for al Qaeda and the insurgents."

And sometimes they would harass the sheikh, confiscating his weapons. The sheikh would call the translator and his unit would either get the weapons back or give him new ones, the translator said.

Once, he said, the Iraqi general in charge of the border patrol told him to stop taking the sheikh's calls or he would get him in trouble.

The translator chalked it up to jealousy over the contracts and his supervisors told him not to worry about it.

So he had little concern when, just before he was scheduled to leave on Nov. 5, an agent from the Navy Criminal Investigative Services asked to interview him. She wanted to know about the conditions along the border and he answered willingly, he said.

He then headed to the Al Asad airbase, where he planned to catch a flight to Kuwait. But before he could do that _ and before he could talk to a contracting official he saw at the base _ he was taken to an interrogation room, according to the complaint. The questioning lasted four hours and included three NCIS agents _ including the woman who'd interviewed him before _ as well as another official, whom he thought was with the CIA. The translator asked for someone from his company to sit in, but, the complaint states, he was told no. He then asked for an attorney. The answer was the same. He tried one more time: what about a member of his HET team. Again, the answer was no.

Aware of the sensitivity of his work, he refused to respond without someone else present. But the questions continued. They asked if he knew the sheikh. He says they accused him of giving weapons to the Iraqis. And he claims they threatened him with jail.

The translator kept silent. Of course he knew the sheikh. And technically he had given him weapons, but how could he explain that it was for his protection, that the unit "couldn't leave this guy alone in that dangerous area," the translator said.

He had another problem. Because he was working with members of an intelligence unit, he said he didn't know the real names of soldiers he worked with. Asking for Mr. Joe wasn't exactly a detailed identification.

After several hours he was handcuffed, blindfolded and the necklace he was wearing was ripped from his neck. One agent told him if he tried to escape they would shoot him, according to the complaint.

Strip Search Followed By Orange Jump Suit and Isolation

Then, he was put on a helicopter for an approximately 30-minute flight to another military base, according the complaint. There, he claims, he was strip-searched, given an orange jump suit and put in isolation for three days in "small, cold cell." He says he slept on a thin mattress laid on the concrete floor and was given only a bottle of water and a few biscuits to eat.

Inside the dark cell, the translator tried to make sense of this situation. "I thought this was a test for to see if I can stand humiliation and detention," he said. "I thought one of the members of my unit would come and say I know what he was doing."

He just couldn't imagine the detention would be real. After all, he said, he'd never gone anywhere by himself during his whole detail on the base. And he was never alone when he met with the sheikh. It was always with a convoy of at least two vehicles and several guards, he said.

But three days later, he was shackled, blindfolded and hooded once again before being taken to Camp Cropper, near Baghdad, the complaint states. It was then that reality began to set in.

Several days later _ on Nov. 11 _ he received a letter from the Detention Review Authority, stating that he was being held as a "security internee." Unable to get an attorney, he went on a hunger strike.

A month later, he received another letter, this one from the Detainee Status Board, indicating that a proceeding would be held to determine his legal status as an "enemy combatant," security internee or "innocent civilian." The letter also said that he had no right to a lawyer but that he could call witnesses that were "reasonably available."

On Dec. 22, 2005, the complaint states, he was brought -- shackled, hooded and blindfolded -- before a panel called the Detainee Status Board. He was hardly able to think straight after 16 days on a hunger strike, he said. He says he also wasn't allowed to hear much of the evidence against him, but he was given a chance to speak.

Realizing that this clearly wasn't a joke, he told the story of his work with the sheikh. The judges stared blankly, he said, and when he was through told him to step outside. Minutes later he was brought back in and told he would continue to be held. All they said was that he was a threat to the multinational forces in Iraq. When he was brought back to his cell, he decided to begin eating again.

For the first several months he claims he was kept in total isolation, where he slept on either a small cot or a thin mattress on the concrete. If that didn't make sleep difficult enough, the guards certainly didn't help. He claims they would keep the lights on throughout the night, blast heavy metal or country music and bang his door when they thought he was asleep. He was rarely taken outside and when he was it was usually around midnight or later, the complaint states.

"There was nothing I could do," he said. "I couldn't tell the day from the night. Luckily I went out without being insane."

Finally Allowed to Call Home After Three Months, He Says

Three months in, he says he was allowed to make his first call to his family. He got just five minutes. "They wouldn't believe it," he said. "It was like someone from the dead." They'd tried to contact his employer, the military, anyone they could think of. But nobody gave his family any information until that day.

Soon, he was then transferred to another building, inside the prison, one used to house suspected al Qaeda members and Baathists. The translator stood out and, he says, was attacked several times by fellow prisoners. It didn't help, he claims, that one of the guards had told some of the suspected al Qaeda operatives that the translator used to be in the U.S. military and had worked for the defense department.

Days, weeks and eventually months passed until June 23, 2006, when he received another notification about another hearing, scheduled in July. The rules were the same. But this time, the proceeding lasted much longer. The array of military officials also had more specific and pointed questions, particularly about his relationship with Sheikh Abd Al-Sattar. They also wanted to know how he was being treated and what he would do if he were released.

The hearing ended with no more indication about his status. But several days later a woman from the U.S. embassy came to take a picture of him, saying she needed it to make a new passport, he said.

Then, late in the afternoon on Aug. 9, he was moved to another building and told he would be transferred. The next morning he was put in a Jeep with another American being released. The two were sent to the Baghdad airport where he was given another passport and put on a military flight to Jordan.

About two months later, the sheikh he had once worked with appeared publicly with Gen. David Petraeus, touting the recently formed the Anbar Awakening Council, which led the much heralded _ although controversial _ alliance between the military and the Sunni tribes in Anbar. The translator believes he'd been held to keep him quiet about the U.S. relationship with this man.

Though his detention is over, the effects have lingered. He tried to get back pay from his contractor but was rejected. He says they told him he was still on a blacklist. And every time he goes in and out of the U.S., he says he is interrogated and his belongings are searched for hours.

"I suffered a lot and my family suffered a lot," he said. "And the persons who are the reasons for me suffering are having a good time."

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