Twenty-three Afghan men freed from Guantanamo Bay protested their innocence and accused the US of mistreating them as they prepared to travel back to their villages, many after more than two years behind bars.
The group, believed to be the largest single release of Afghans from the US military detention centre in Cuba, arrived at Bagram airbase Monday night where they were met by officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Aged mostly between 25 and 50, they were brought to the ICRC compound in Kabul and given clothes and cash to pay for their journeys to their home towns, most of which are in southern areas of Afghanistan still wracked by Taliban violence.
Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Hamanullah, 28 (L) displays his prisoner tag to media representatives in Kabul, following his release along with 22 other Afghans. The 23 Afghan men freed from Guantanamo Bay protested their innocence and accused the US of mistreating them.(AFP/Shah Marai)
"I'm an innocent and poor man," said bearded Mohammed Wazir, 60, from southern Helmand province. "I was in my home, unaware of Taliban and Al-Qaeda when I was caught," he told AFP at the ICRC compound.
"If I'm a Taliban or Al-Qaeda I want to be punished, if I'm not, then they should compensate me. The two-and-a-half years that I have spent in pain and soreness -- who is going to pay?"
More than 600 prisoners are still being held as "enemy combatants" at Camp Delta, a maximum security prison at a US naval base at Guantanamo. The US has come under pressure from rights groups over its treatment of prisoners there.
On Monday the Pentagon dismissed as "lies" charges levelled by recently released Britons that they were beaten and maltreated while in custody there.
But Mohammad Osman, one of the newly freed Afghans, said: "It was a jail, not only a jail but a very bad jail."
Another former inmate, 27-year-old Mohammed, said US officials mistreated prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
Mohammed, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said he was captured by anti-Taliban Northern Alliance soldiers who later handed him over to US troops. He had been searching for his brother, a Taliban fighter, when he was caught in northern Kunduz province in late 2001, he said.
"The American inspectors behaved very badly -- they were mentally torturing us," he told AFP.
"I'm very happy at being released but even recalling the past two and half years that I spent there is very painful for me," he said.
There were still hundreds of "innocent" people behind bars at Guantanamo Bay, he added.
"They are all innocent people just like me -- if I was a Taliban and Al-Qaeda why did they release me? The others still in jail are just like me."
Pentagon officials announced Monday that 23 Afghan and three Pakistani nationals had been released from the detention centre.
"They no longer were deemed a threat and they no longer had intelligence value," Pentagon spokesman Major Michael Shavers said.
The releases come less than a week after five Britons were turned over to British authorities, flown to London and quickly released without charge.
By the Pentagon's tally, 119 detainees in different groups have been released so far. Among them were three Afghan teenagers released in January.
ICRC spokeswomen Jessica Barry said the latest group was the largest to be released from Guantanamo Bay. "We have done this several times but this is the biggest group to be released," she said.
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