‘No one bothered’: Afghan mother waits for son held in Guantanamo

Painful wait for mother as life for one of the last Afghans in the detention facility is defined by hunger strikes, force feedings and isolation.

Sehar Bibi holds a photograph of son Asadullah Haroon, in Shamshatu refugee camp near Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar [Abdul Majeed/AFP] (AFP)

For 13 years, Sehar Bibi has waited for her son to be released from Guantanamo Bay, where life for one of the last Afghan prisoners has been defined by hunger strikes, force feedings and isolation.

Hundreds of detainees including senior Taliban leaders have been released from the notorious detention centre run by the United States military.

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But Asadullah Haroon, who has never been charged with a crime, remains.

“No one is bothered about my son still being in Guantanamo Bay. All the other prisoners have been released but he is still languishing there,” Bibi told AFP news agency in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar where the family lives as refugees.

“I have no more patience. I have lost my mind.”

Sehar Bibi, centre, walks with elder son Roman Khan, right, as her husband Abdul Ghafar reads the Quran in Shamshatu refugee camp near Peshawar [Abdul Majeed/AFP]

Haroon was working as a honey trader travelling between Peshawar and eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad when he was arrested in 2006 in what his family claims was likely a trap to claim a cash reward for fighters.

The US government alleges he was a courier linked to al-Qaeda and served as a commander with a Hezb-i-Islami group. His family, lawyer and supporters insist he had no links to al-Qaeda.

‘Forever prisoner’

Haroon, whose wife had just given birth to a girl when he was detained, is now a so-called “forever prisoner”, part of about half the jail’s remaining 40 inmates stuck in legal limbo.

Washington’s push to end its long military entanglement in Afghanistan has made his imprisonment all the harder for his family to accept.

As part of its recent push for peace in the country, the US pressured the Afghan authorities to release thousands of hardened fighters, including many behind deadly attacks on foreigners.

The US government “insisted that the Afghans should release 5,000 Taliban … and yet have not released the one no-value Afghan from Guantanamo,” Haroon’s lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal non-profit Reprieve, told AFP.

“The thing he finds psychologically most difficult is that he’s a nobody and he’s randomly still there.”

The secretive prison was once infamous for keeping “high-value” detainees in cages and for the use of harsh interrogation methods denounced as torture.

Although most inmates have been released or transferred, US President Donald Trump has promised to keep the facility – which lies on the island of Cuba but is under US jurisdiction – filled with “bad dudes”.

The only other Afghan left at the prison – Muhammad Rahim – arrived months after him, accused by the CIA of being a close associate of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

But Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a leading research group on the country, said Haroon was no significant terrorist figure.

The allegations against Haroon, initially kept secret until revealed by WikiLeaks, relied on a lot of hearsay, according to Clark.

“Whatever you think about Guantanamo, he was not important enough to be there … if he was anything, he was a bit player,” she told AFP.

Sehar Bibi, left, drinks tea next to her elder son Roman Khan in Shamshatu refugee camp near Peshawar [Abdul Majeed/AFP]

Haroon’s family, who fled the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, admit he was a Hezb-i-Islami member, like many in their refugee camp.

Even so, Hezb-i-Islami signed a peace deal with the Kabul government in 2016 that cleared the way for its prisoners to be released.

When asked for comment on the case, the US Department of Defense said it was keeping alleged fighters off the battlefield “until the end of hostilities”, not so that they could be tried in court.

However, it would not comment on whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Trump has said could happen by Christmas, would mark a policy change.

Haroon, who is believed to be in his late 30s, insists he has tried his best to work with the authorities.

“I do a lot of things to cooperate with the Americans, but still they are not happy,” said Haroon in a statement provided by his lawyer.

In video chats facilitated by the Red Cross, Haroon’s family has noticed changes in his physical appearance and speaking habits, and he recently began the latest in a series of hunger strikes.

“I was 175 pounds [80 kg] and now I am down to 110 pounds [50 kg],” he said in the statement. “At least 65 pounds of me has escaped from Guantanamo.”

Source: AFP