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Ironic twist landed Afghan satirists in jail

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Badr Zaman Badr and his brother Abdurrahim Muslim Dost relish writing a good joke that jabs a corrupt politician or distills the sufferings of fellow Afghans. Badr admires the political satires in ''The Canterbury Tales" and ''Gulliver's Travels," and Dost wrote some wicked lampoons in the 1990s, accusing Afghan mullahs of growing rich while preaching and organizing jihad.

So in 2002, when the US military shackled the writers and flew them to the US naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, among prisoners whom Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared ''the worst of the worst" violent terrorists, the brothers found life imitating farce. For months, interrogators grilled them over a satirical article Dost had written in 1998, when the Clinton administration offered a $5 million reward for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Dost responded that Afghans put up 5 million Afghanis, about $113, for the arrest of President Clinton.

''It was a lampoon . . . of the poor Afghan economy" under the Taliban, Badr recalled.

The interrogators didn't get the joke, he said. ''Again and again, they were asking questions about this article. We had to explain that this was a satire." He paused. ''It was really pathetic."

It took the brothers three years to convince the Americans that they posed no threat to Clinton or the United States, and to get released.

As Badr and Dost fought for their freedom, they had enormous advantages over the approximately 500 other captives at Guantanamo Bay. The brothers are university-educated, and Badr, who holds a master's degree in English literature, was one of few prisoners able to speak fluently to the interrogators in their own language. Because both men are writers, much of their lives and political ideas are on public record here in books and articles they have published.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Commander Flex Plexico, declared this summer that ''there was no mistake" in the brothers' detention because it ''was directly related to their combat activities [or support] as determined by an appropriate Department of Defense official."

US officials declined to discuss the case.

The Pentagon's prison network overseas is assigned to help prevent attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001, so ''you cannot equate it to a justice system," said Army Colonel Samuel Rob, who was serving this summer as the chief lawyer for US forces in Afghanistan.

Still, he added, innocent victims of the system are ''a small percentage."

The military is slow to clear innocent prisoners, largely because of its fear of letting even one actual terrorist get away, Rob said.

''What if this is a truly bad individual, the next World Trade Center bomber, and you let him go? What do you say to the families?" Rob said.

Rob and the Defense Department say the prison system performs satisfactorily in freeing innocent detainees and letting military investigators focus on prisoners who actually are part of terrorist networks. Badr and others, including some former military intelligence soldiers who served at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, emphatically disagree.

The United States for years called Badr and his brother ''enemy combatants," but the men say they never saw a battlefield. And for an America that seeks a democratized Afghanistan, they seem, potentially, allies.

Badr and Dost are Pashtuns, members of the ethnic group that spawned the Taliban. But the family library where they receive guests is crammed with poetry, histories, and religious treatises -- mind-broadening stuff that the Taliban were more inclined to burn than read.

Like millions of Afghans, they fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s and joined one of the many anti-Soviet factions. Their small group was called Jamiat-i-Dawatul Quran wa Sunna, and Dost became editor of its magazine. Even then, ''we were not fighters," Badr said. ''We took part in the war only as writers."

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