KUWAIT CITY — Former Guantanamo detainees told McClatchy that American soldiers and interrogators mistreated the Quran in detention facilities at Bagram Air Base, Kandahar Airfield and Guantanamo.
Former detainees interviewed in Jordan, Russia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Afghanistan said that from late 2001 to early 2002, soldiers at Kandahar dropped Qurans into buckets used as latrines.
"I saw the soldiers, many times, drop the Quran on the floor, in the garbage and in buckets of feces," said Airat Vakhitov, a Russian who was held at Kandahar for about six months in 2002 before he was transferred to Guantanamo. "I approached a guard one time and said it was no good to do this because it would provoke unrest amongst the prisoners; that while we were unarmed, this book was the most holy thing in the world for us, and that it would be better for them if they stopped doing these things."
It's an incendiary allegation: A 2005 Newsweek magazine report that Qurans were dumped in toilets at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp — which the magazine later retracted — sparked riots in Afghanistan and other countries that killed more than a dozen people.
The stories of mistreatment of the Quran at Guantanamo were repeated and exaggerated so many times by detainees or militants looking to stir up trouble in the cellblocks, however, that it was impossible to pinpoint the truth.
A U.S. military investigation of Quran-abuse allegations in the aftermath of the 2005 riots documented nine incidents of alleged mishandling of the Quran at Guantanamo, five of which were confirmed. The investigation didn't include Bagram or Kandahar.
In a Justice Department study released May 20, the FBI said its agents on two occasions witnessed "disrespectful statements, handling or actions involving the Quran" at Guantanamo. Detainees reported 19 additional instances of such abuse to FBI agents, and in 10 more cases the reports were relayed by "others," a category that wasn't defined.
The issue of Qurans and latrine buckets at Kandahar was one of 15 questions that McClatchy submitted to the Defense Department for comment. Senior defense officials repeatedly turned down requests for interviews, but Pentagon spokesman Col. Gary Keck said, "We heard many times the allegations about Qurans thrown into buckets that were used as latrines. There have been some (instances) where it's been substantiated, I think."
Afterward, Keck quickly sent an e-mail to the reporter saying that he assumed that the conversation wasn't for reporting purposes.
Told that the reporter considered all conversations with public affairs officials to be on the record — but that there were no immediate plans to use the interview material — Keck sent a second note, saying, "My only concern here is that I have researched nothing specifically on the information we discussed, so if you need an on-the-record quote, I would have to try to determine the facts. I was speaking in general on the subject of detention operations, it is not my expertise. I would hate for you to use inaccurate information."
Keck didn't supply any additional information in subsequent conversations.
The only nongovernmental agency allowed to visit Kandahar was the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Officials at the main Red Cross office in Kabul said they weren't able to comment on previous findings at installations such as Kandahar. To do so would violate the impartial standing that allows the committee access, said Michael O'Brien, a spokesman.