Afghanistan's Guantanamo: Prison or 'Taliban-making factory'?
Afghanistan’s maximum security prison, Bagram, where many remain detained despite Afghan authorities claims of innocence. The US remains firm: detainees are dangerous terrorists.
by Yalda Hakim
On Thursday 13th February, the gates of Afghanistan’s maximum security prison, Bagram, swung open and 65 detainees walked free, despite ongoing protest from the United States.
The US says the men are dangerous terrorists. But Afghan authorities say they’re innocent and have been illegally locked up by foreign soldiers.
The move was a major blow to already strained relations between Kabul and Washington, and very clearly showed how much President Karzai had broken ties with his supposed ‘allies’, after more than 12 years.
Bagram detention facility is a place where ‘high value targets’ caught on the battlefield are held. Some have called it Afghanistan’s Guantanamo Bay. While 65 have been released, there are currently more than 1,300 inmates at the prison.
The facility was originally built and run by the Americans, but was handed over to Afghan control last year. The US still controls the wings with foreign born inmates. The extensive perimeter security, including vehicle X-ray machines, sniffer dogs and machine gun nests are also under American control.
After two years of negotiating, I was finally given unprecedented access at a critical turning point in the prison's history and Afghanistan's future.
The day I arrived at the prison, the Afghan Review Board (ARB), the committee responsible for the prisoner issue, had announced that it would be releasing the 65 detainees.
The ARB said these men could not be prosecuted because of a lack of evidence. The NATO-led international peacekeeping force (ISAF) quickly came out and condemned the decision, saying the detainees had "blood on their hands".
Sixteen-year-old Mohibullah was part of the group waiting to be released. He told me he was a simple shepherd from Helmand Province.
The US military told me he was a Taliban coordinator who conducted bomb attacks. They said he was caught with a firearm, insurgent propaganda on his mobile phone and tested positive for four types of explosives.
Whatever the truth, after a year in Bagram Prison, his views on the United States had crystallised. He told me: “I hate them, because I am here for no reason. Of course I hate them. I want to ask them: what is my crime? If they told me clearly what evidence they had against me I wouldn’t mind if they kept me in prison for ten years. But no one is asking about us. I have spent a year far from my mother and father. Why? What is the reason, I ask.”
Cell after cell contained men proclaiming their innocence; telling me they were farmers who got caught up in American raids on their villages.
I was taken into one cell where a group of about 20 men had gathered to express their grievances. One man told me he had been held for four and a half years without trial. The man would not tell me what evidence they had against him. He is not among those not scheduled for release.
He went on to say that after he was captured, he was tortured by the Americans at a place known as the ‘black prison’. “They drowned me a few times. There was an audio box, they would put me in it and turn on the voice and deprive me of sleep for hours. They would electrocute me. I am sorry to say that I have been raped. We don’t like to admit to this because we are ashamed,” he said.
When we asked about the so called ‘black prison,’ the US military told me there was no such place and this man ‘may have been coached’. When I pressed them to tell me by whom, they said they "would rather not say".
During the two days I was there, I came across families who were visiting their detained relatives. Many had made the long journey from the south of the country, travelling on buses for days to get here. They were allowed about 30 minutes together, often separated by toughened glass. Each of the family members had numbered placards round their necks.
I met the distressed mother of one prisoner who told me, “I feel very bad, because of all the worrying about him, we all are suffering from psychological problems now. Is this life? His father, brother and sisters come to see him and we all leave crying. It is very difficult to see our son like this.There are lots of others like my son here. For God sake, they should think about them. We had only one court hearing in a year and a half!”
It is difficult to know whether these men are innocent or not. The Americans have accused the Afghan authorities of ignoring crucial forensic evidence. Senator John McCain told me: “Many of these people were caught red handed. The tests on their fingers, of explosives on their hands. I mean it’s not as if this was questionable. These are the hardcore of literally maybe over 1,000 that we have already released.”
In an unattributed briefing, the US military provided us with a detailed document on some of the detainees who were scheduled for release. We were told many of these men were Taliban insurgents involved in making and detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One of the examples the Americans gave was that DNA had been found on gaffer tape and wrapped around wires of IED fragments.
"I want the Afghan people to understand clearly that from the American perspective, this is an outrage against the Afghan people, against the Afghan legal system and against the coalition as a whole," Senator Lindsay Graham told me.
The Afghans have rebutted these claims, saying their American counterparts have not provided them with sufficient intelligence and many of the names of sources had been redacted. The lack of trust between the supposed allies is clear.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me Bagram is a "Taliban-making factory" where innocent people are indiscriminately mixing with extremists and being indoctrinated. “People who have come out of the prison have told me: this is a prison where they take innocent Afghans and turn them against their own country and government,” said Karzai.
Now that some of these prisoners have been released - some to the most troubled regions where the Taliban hold sway - the question is, will American fears be realised?
Yalda Hakim is a presenter and correspondent with BBC World News delivers hard hitting journalism for the Our World strand and BBC News. Hakim was born in Afghanistan and moved to Australia in the late 1980s after her father fled Kabul with his family when Russia invaded. She was also a finalist for the Australian Young Journalist of the Year Award and won the United Nations Media Peace Prize for Best Australian Television News coverage in 2009
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