In-Depth Arena

Nobody told us we were guilty

Published Mar 27, 2015 12:42pm

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A photograph of the detention centre. Courtesy CBS News
A photograph of the detention centre. Courtesy CBS News

There are currently more than 2,400 prisoners at Bagram prison and there is no legal system that differentiates between real militants and illiterate, jobless Afghans and foreigners rendered by their own governments. In August 2009, the then top US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), produced a report on Bagram prison recommending that 400 of the 600 prisoners there at the time should be released because they posed no threat to US forces or their coalition partners. These were poor village people swept up in raids, with no useful information. Since then, the US has spent millions of dollars to expand the Bagram internment facility. Two thirds of its non-Afghan prisoners are Pakistani citizens. Some of them were as young as 13 when they were detained, and have spent years without being charged, often locked in solitary confinement.

For two former Afghan detainees, both brothers, their detention at Bagram in 2003 for six and a half months, left them puzzled and taught them not to ask too many questions about why they had been picked up. Mohammad Naeem and Abdul Qayum were later released without charge at the same time. In 2004, Pakistani Kamil Shah was 17 when he was picked up by American forces in a crowded market while trying to locate a doctor’s clinic in the Afghan town of Spin Boldak near the Chaman border crossing. He was detained until 2009 without charge.

His American English sounds perfect. “The American guards would speak to us, so we picked up words and phrases,” he explains. He is now married and has a family in Gilgit but life after Bagram is difficult without a proper education and job.

The three men have the same story — mostly. Naeem, now 25, is married with two daughters. He runs a bakery and often works as a mechanic in Paghman town, near Kabul. Qayum is a full-time mechanic. Both brothers were picked up in a night-time raid when 100 American soldiers entered their home on information received from local informants. Naeem says he was transferred from Kabul’s Pol-i-Charkhi prison to Bagram. “Two other young boys from Paghman were also arrested that night along with a commander loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who lived down the street from our house at the time,” he adds.

Naeem was hooded, handcuffed and had chains on his legs when he was interrogated at Bagram. “What do you know about Mullah Omar? How do you make bombs?” he was asked. When he repeatedly told his American interrogators he was a mechanic and imported engines from Iran, Dubai and Pakistan, they insisted he was lying. He was locked up in solitary confinement for 40 days in a tiny cell. “I was punched and kicked around by American interrogators, questioned with blindfolds through a local translator whose face was covered.”

Shah’s story is not very different: he was locked up in isolation for a fortnight and interrogated. It was a routine and the mind and body adjusted: Are you al-Qaeda? Are you a Talib? The questions always solicited the same response and he was never charged. He was allowed to speak to his family twice on the phone.

Born at Jalozai refugee camp in Peshawar to Afghan parents, Naeem was schooled in Pakistan until grade seven. At Bagram, he shared a cell with Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani prisoners, including Abdul Haleem Saifullah (who disappeared in 2005 from Karachi) and Amal Khan (who disappeared in 2002 from Mansehra). When he was released in 2003, Naeem traveled to Mansehra to meet Amal Khan’s family who learnt for the first time that their son was in Bagram. Amal Khan spoke to them for the first time in 2003-2004 on the phone, says his cousin Gulsher.

“There were about 15 prisoners in a room where we slept on beds on the floor and often there was no proper food,” says Naeem. “The rooms were dirty until a high level American official was about to arrive and they cleaned it up, giving us clean drinking water. The white, red-faced American guards beat prisoners with their shoes or sticks for no apparent reason.”

When prisoners were transferred from their cells to the showers or for interrogation, their head was covered with a heavy, dark, burqa-like covering. “We didn’t know if it was day or night,” Naeem says. Yes, there were decent guards also, he recalls, especially a female soldier who smuggled in the occasional cigarette and naan bread. “I knew I would get out of Bagram, if it was God’s will,” he says. “I never asked them why they were keeping me.”

Like Shah, Naeem speaks English with an American twang. Many detainees went into Bagram semi-literate and came out able to read and write in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and English.

Shah also met other Pakistani detainees including Fazal Karim, detained since 2003, and the youngest Pakistani detainee, Hamidullah Khan. “Karim was in isolation and punishment cells for many months,” says Shah. “He was disturbed, always shouting and fighting with the guards. He was mentally unwell and the Americans gave him sleeping tablets.”

Shah recalls how Dr Ghairat Baheer, the son-in-law of Hekmatyar, counselled Pakistani prisoners. Baheer was taken from his home in Islamabad in October 2002, rendered to Bagram for four years without charge. “When there was a problem, he would negotiate between the prisoners and the Americans, advising us to be calm and patient,” Shah recalls. “The Pakistani prisoners barely spoke to one another. We were too scared of informants.” Naeem concurs: “There were spies among us asking us questions, which we never answered because everyone was too scared to trust the other.”

Shah was released with three other Pakistani detainees in 2009, flown to Peshawar and debriefed. “When I left Bagram,” he says, “I asked Colonel Dalson: Why did you keep me here all these years? He replied, ‘We didn’t keep you here. The Pakistani government didn’t want you. We should have released you a long time ago.’”