For two years the Tipton Three have been silent prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Now, in this remarkable interview with David Rose, they describe for the first time the extraordinary story of their journey from the West Midlands to Camp Delta
'When I woke up I didn't know where I was. I'd lost consciousness at the side of the container, but when I woke up I was in the middle - lying on top of dead bodies, breathing the stench of their blood and urine.
'They'd herded maybe 300 of us into each container, the type you get on ordinary lorries, packed in so tightly our knees were against our chests, and almost immediately we started to suffocate. We lived because someone made holes with a machine gun, though they were shooting low and still more died from the bullets. When we got out, about 20 in each container were still alive.'
In a safe house in southern England at the weekend, Asif Iqbal was describing his survival, together with his friends Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, after a massacre by US-backed Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan - the start of a 26-month nightmare which ended last week with their release from the American detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Their faces gaunt with accumulated stress and exhaustion, they spoke softly, still stunned by the change in their circumstances: 'I just can't believe we're sitting here,' Ahmed says. 'This time last week, we were in the cages at Guantanamo.'
The horror of their story needs no embellishment. One day, perhaps, there will be an inquiry into Guantanamo. Until then, some of their allegations - which, it can be assumed, America is likely to deny - cannot be corroborated. However, many of the experiences they describe, including gunpoint interrogations in Afghanistan and random brutality both there and in Guantanamo, have been related in identical terms by other freed detainees. Last October I spent four days at Guantanamo. Much of what the three men say about the regime and the camp's physical conditions I either saw or heard from US officials.
Having escaped the truck container massacre, they endured near-starvation in a jail run by the Afghan warlord, General Dostum. When the Red Cross appeared and promised to make contact with the British Embassy in Islamabad they thought they were going home. Instead, with the apparent agreement of British officials, they were handed over to the Americans, first for weeks of physical abuse at a detention camp in Kandahar, followed by more than two years in the desolation of Guantanamo.
Month after month they were interrogated, for 12 hours or more at a time, by American security agencies and, repeatedly, by MI5 - in all, they say, they endured 200 sessions each. But when they re-emerged to freedom on Wednesday after two final days of questioning at Paddington Green police station, every apparent shred of evidence had melted away. Iqbal, Rasul and Ahmed, together with the other early arrivals at Guantanamo, had been described by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as 'the hardest of the hard core', lethal terrorists 'involved in an effort to kill thousands of Americans'. Even last week the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was claiming America had been justified in holding them.
Yet despite the denial of legal rights or due process, the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have been forced to accept what the three men said all along - that they were never members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any other militant group. The Americans had justified their detention by claiming they were 'enemy combatants', but they were never armed and did not fight.
'They formally told us we were going home last Sunday [several weeks after this news was relayed to the media],' Rasul said. 'We had a final meeting with the FBI, and they tried to get us to sign a piece of paper which said something like I was admitting I'd had links with terrorism, and that if I ever did anything like this again the US could arrest me.' Like the other two detainees freed last week, Tarek Dergoul and Jamal al-Harith, they refused.
'They took us to the airport in chains,' said Rasul, 'and when we got there this huge plane was surrounded by armed men. As we walked towards the steps they had guns trained on us. This military police guy hands us over to the British, takes off our shackles and tells the Brit he can put on the handcuffs. But the British policemen say, "no, no, there's no need for handcuffs". We walk up the steps and they're not even touching me.
'For the first time in two years I'm walking somewhere without being frogmarched. We get to the door and someone says: "Good morning. Welcome aboard." '