GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Two Afghan prisoners, their hands bound and feet chained to the floor, pleaded for their freedom Thursday before U.S. military tribunals, their first hearings since they've been held at Guantanamo Bay (search) and the first open to observers.
The first detainee, who's been held for 2 1/2 years, spoke quietly through a Pashto (search) interpreter to declare he had a Taliban-issued rifle but never fought against Americans.
"I surrendered myself to Americans because I believed Americans are for human rights," the a 31-year-old prisoner said. "I had never heard Americans mistreated anybody in the past."
The other prisoner, 49, also speaking through a translator, said he was a wood seller who was forced to join the hard-line Islamic militia. "The Taliban came to my house and they took me," said the man, who had a full gray beard and closely shorn hair.
Thursday's hearings, held in a windowless 10-by-20-foot room in a trailer, were the ninth and 10th since the tribunal process began a week ago to determine whether some 585 men being held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba should be held as "enemy combatants" or set free.
Though the media was admitted for the first time, the military was keeping a tight grip on information. No identities of prisoners were to be made public, and all testimony is being checked for classified information.
The hearings are the first opportunity detainees have had to plead their cases since the detention mission began in January 2002. Human rights lawyers say the tribunals are a sham, pointing out that the detainees are not allowed lawyers and saying the officers hearing cases can't be considered impartial.
During his appearance, the first detainee — a slight man with a long, dark beard — glanced at panel members and three journalists wearing yellow media badges. Other reporters watched through a two-way mirror.
"If you are arresting everybody with the name of Taliban, it doesn't mean they are all against Americans," he said. "I wasn't going to fight anyone."
"There should be a difference between someone who surrenders and someone who fights against Americans. I surrendered," said the man, who claimed he had been in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz when he heard there would be a surrender arrangement and turned himself in to Abdul Rashid Dostum (search), an ethnic Uzbek strongman.
Asked by the tribunal whether he had surrendered in a car with a Taliban leader, the prisoner said "yes." The prisoner had asked to call an unidentified witness, but the military ruled it wouldn't be relevant to deciding whether he was properly held as an "enemy combatant."
The detainee admitted he had a Kalashnikov rifle issued by the Taliban (search), but said it was given to him "forcefully." "They were giving (rifles) to everybody," he said.
The military claims the man was a soldier and Taliban member since 1997 who went to Kunduz to fight the Northern Alliance. The prisoner said he had once been hospitalized for injuries in an air bombardment and had gone to Kunduz "hoping to earn some money."
When fighting began, he said, "I heard from somebody on the radio that Americans are coming to Afghanistan to get Usama (bin Laden)."
The detainee repeated an oath to God before testifying. He also asked about the hearing's purpose, saying, "Will you release me or keep me here?"
He said he has nothing against Americans. "I am happy the Americans are rebuilding my country," he said.
After about an hour, the U.S. military closed the proceedings to review classified information.
The review panels have the power to reverse assessments that some detainees are "enemy combatants," a classification that carries fewer legal protections than prisoners of war. The process is separate from upcoming military commissions where prisoners will face charges, trial and possible sentences including the death penalty.
All prisoners are accused of links to Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime or Al Qaeda (search), though some observers have said a number of foot soldiers are among them. More than 100 detainees have been freed or transferred back to their home governments.
Each detainee is being assigned a military officer as a "personal representative" for the reviews. Defense lawyers argue that officer is acting as a government agent and is not impartial.
The military convened the Combatant Status Review Tribunals in response to a Supreme Court ruling in June that prisoners have a right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. It is not clear, however, if the reviews meet the court's requirements.
So far, five detainees — three Yemenis, one Saudi and one Moroccan — have refused to appear before the panels. Reasons have not been given.
"It has nothing to do with justice," said lawyer Najeeb Al-Nauimi, a former justice minister of Qatar who says he is representing more than 100 detainees.
Military officials say cases heard so far include those of an Algerian who has threatened to kill Americans if freed and a Yemeni who signed an oath of allegiance to Usama bin Laden (search).