Filmmaker Details Ordeal as a Detainee in Iraq

Iranian-American Cyrus Kar was filming a documentary in Iraq when U.S.-led forces detained him as a suspected terrorist. Kar was imprisoned in Iraq for 55 days, though Kar claims American officials determined his innocence in little over a week. Madeleine Brand speaks with Kar and his lawyer Marc Rosenbaum about the filmmaker's ordeal.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The word `Kafkaesque' may be overused, but it really is the best word to describe this next story. It's about bureaucracy and war and how one man, an American, got caught up in both when he was in Iraq. Cyrus Kar is from Los Angeles. He's an Iranian-American business administration teacher obsessed with history. He's working on a documentary about his namesake, Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor who issued the first declaration of human rights way back it the fifth century BC.

Mr. CYRUS KAR (Iranian-American Business Administration Teacher): Being his crowning moment, it was really necessary to go to Babylon. And since we were running out of money real quick, we decided that it's now or never.

BRAND: So Cyrus Kar boarded a plane in Los Angeles and went to Iraq with his cameraman last May. For the first week, he had no problems filming, until one day he hired a taxi and they were stopped at a checkpoint. When Iraqi police popped the trunk, they found two bags full of washing machine timers, which are sometimes used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. But Cyrus didn't know that. In fact, he had no idea why he was suddenly being dragged off to a detention center blindfolded in handcuffs.

Mr. KAR: So we're sitting there for hours. And after midnight, I feel a tap on the shoulder and I almost jump out of my skin. And it's an American trying to lift me up. And I said, `I can get up by myself.' And he said, `Well, get the F up then.' So I get up and he leads me into the interrogation room. And as soon as they take my blindfold off, they snap a picture. And the ringleader, he asked me what I was doing there. I said, `I'm a filmmaker. I'm making a documentary film, and we have permission to film.' And the guy who was sitting to his left said, `You're in big trouble, man.' And I said, `Why?' He goes, `Because you're an enemy combatant.'

BRAND: Then they told him about the washing machine devices. He said they weren't his, that they were the cab driver's. And later, the driver reportedly admitted they were his. So Cyrus thought he and his cameraman would be released in the morning, but...

Mr. KAR: Around 2:30, 3:00, they come to get us. They handcuff us and take us back into the interrogation room where I see that they've set up my map of Iraq on the floor with all our video equipment and then nicely put all washing machine timers in a row on top of it. And they kneel us down right in front of the timers and they snap a picture. And I'm thinking, oh, my God, they just created something out of nothing. Back on went the flexicuffs and the blindfolds, and they loaded us up into a convoy of Humvees.

BRAND: After a brief stint at another detention camp and then a helicopter ride, Cyrus and his cameraman ended up in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Mr. KAR: We're lined up outside the building in a fetal position again. And then we hear the MPs from Abu Ghraib; as they're coming out, they're already yelling at us, `You F'ing terrorists. You're here to kill Americans. You F'ing terrorists,' just whipping themselves up into a frenzy. Then they start pushing us, pulling us into the prison.

BRAND: The guards think you're all Iraqi detainees.

Mr. KAR: Right. Right.

BRAND: And what were you saying back to them, if anything?

Mr. KAR: Nothing. Nothing. I was in shock. And then they had us lined up against the wall and they said, `Put your head up against the wall.' And we're still handcuffed. And my head was about two, three inches from the wall and the guard took my head and he said, `I said, put your F'ing head up against the wall.' And he grabbed my head and he just smashed it into the cinder block. After that, he told my cameraman, `Take your F'ing clothes off.' And so he strips in front of--right there in the lobby in front of everyone. And then they take me in the back and they tell me that, `You can't stay here because you're an American citizen.'

BRAND: From their perspective, they're dealing with an entrenched insurgency with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, going off daily, killing people almost every day. Do you understand at all the way that they were behaving?

Mr. KAR: I certainly understand why we would be held in the first place, yeah, but there's no excuse to treat anybody like that. And at that point, I was let out, again blindfolded, shackled and handcuffed, put in another Humvee for another 40-minute drive to Camp Cropper.

BRAND: And that's where Cyrus would stay for nearly two months. It was a lot different than Abu Ghraib. No one yelled. There was no violence. His cell was air-conditioned. Pentagon officials declined to talk on tape, but in a press release they say Cyrus was treated fairly and humanely consistent with the standards set by the Geneva Conventions. In the meantime, the FBI went to his apartment in Los Angeles to investigate. They cleared him 10 days after he was first arrested in Baghdad. Mark Rosenbaum is an ACLU lawyer who took up Cyrus' case.

Mr. MARK ROSENBAUM (ACLU Lawyer): He was treated as a guilty man, even though for 40-odd days he was proven innocent by the FBI in a national security investigation.

BRAND: They said--the Pentagon said--I called them up to see what they would say about this--and they were saying 55 days is not an outlandish nor an unreasonable amount of time to conduct this kind of investigation.

Mr. ROSENBAUM: That's a lie. They didn't do a 55-day investigation. Within 10 days, they did a thorough investigation. They knew by June 10th at the very latest that he was innocent. He had cleared every piece of investigation they had. We were, at the ACLU, attempting to find out what was going on. And there's no evidence whatsoever that they were doing any investigation other than what he voluntarily cooperated with.

BRAND: What are your suspicions as to why they kept you there after they had cleared you?

Mr. KAR: One government official said, `I could sum that up in one word, "bureaucracy."'

BRAND: The Pentagon says Cyrus' case highlights the effectiveness of their detainee review process. In other words, he was released. But Cyrus suspects the real reason was because a federal judge in Washington demanded to know why the government was keeping Cyrus and had scheduled a hearing. Cyrus was released a day before that hearing.

Mr. KAR: You have to be really, really gullible to believe that it was this well-established process that won my release and that the release curiously came the day before the attorneys of President Bush and Don Rumsfeld had to appear in court. It's just too much of a coincidence. And I honestly believe and I'm quite certain that I would have been there for a long, long time had the ACLU and the press not gotten hold of this and driven this case home.

BRAND: Back home, Cyrus, who was once a supporter or the war, now says he thinks the occupation is doomed. He says that if he, an American, was treated so inhumanely, imagine what ordinary Iraqis are going through. And he says the worst part for him was losing his faith in American justice.

Mr. KAR: I came to realize that I'm not considered an American. Being an American is an exclusive club that really wants no part of folks of my ethnicity.

BRAND: As for his movie, Cyrus says it's still a go. He says, when he can, he'll return to Iraq to finish filming his documentary on Cyrus the Great.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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