Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark / Guardian – 2005-03-21 23:20:14
KABUL (March 19, 2005) — Kabul was a grim, monastic place in the days of the Taliban; today it’s a chaotic gathering point for every kind of prospector and carpetbagger. Foreign bidders vying for billions of dollars of telecoms, irrigation and construction contracts have sparked a property boom that has forced up rental prices in the Afghan capital to match those in London, Tokyo and Manhattan.
Four years ago, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue in Kabul was a tool of the Taliban inquisition, a drab office building where heretics were locked up for such crimes as humming a popular love song. Now it’s owned by an American entrepreneur who hopes its bitter associations won’t scare away his new friends.
Outside Kabul, Afghanistan is bleaker, its provinces more inaccessible and lawless, than it was under the Taliban. If anyone leaves town, they do so in convoys. Afghanistan is a place where it is easy for people to disappear and perilous for anyone to investigate their fate.
Even a seasoned aid agency such as Médécins Sans Frontières was forced to quit after five staff members were murdered last June. Only the 17,000-strong US forces, with their all-terrain Humvees and Apache attack helicopters, have the run of the land, and they have used the haze of fear and uncertainty that has engulfed the country to advance a draconian phase in the war against terror. Afghanistan has become the new Guantánamo Bay.
Washington likes to hold up Afghanistan as an exemplar of how a rogue regime can be replaced by democracy. Meanwhile, human-rights activists and Afghan politicians have accused the US military of placing Afghanistan at the hub of a global system of detention centres where prisoners are held incommunicado and allegedly subjected to torture.
The secrecy surrounding them prevents any real independent investigation of the allegations. “The detention system in Afghanistan exists entirely outside international norms, but it is only part of a far larger and more sinister jail network that we are only now beginning to understand,” Michael Posner, director of the US legal watchdog Human Rights First, told us.
When we landed in Kabul, Afghanistan was blue with a bruising cold. We were heading for the former al-Qaida strongholds in the south-east that were rumoured to be the focus of the new US network. How should we prepare, we asked local UN staff. “Don’t go,” they said. None the less, we were able to find a driver, a Pashtun translator and a boxful of clementines, and set off on a five-and-a-half-hour trip south through the snow to Gardez, a market town dominated by two rapidly expanding US military bases.
Thousands of Iraqis Rounded Up and Detained
There we met Dr Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, established in 2003 with funding from the US Congress to investigate abuses committed by local warlords and to ensure that women’s and children’s rights were protected.
He was delighted to see foreigners in town. At his office in central Gardez, Bidar showed us a wall of files. “All I do nowadays is chart complaints against the US military,” he said. “Many thousands of people have been rounded up and detained by them. Those who have been freed say that they were held alongside foreign detainees who’ve been brought to this country to be processed. No one is charged. No one is identified. No international monitors are allowed into the US jails.” He pulled out a handful of files: “People who have been arrested say they’ve been brutalised – the tactics used are beyond belief.” The jails are closed to outside observers, making it impossible to test the truth of the claims.
Last November, a man from Gardez died of hypothermia in a US military jail. When his family were called to collect the body, they were given a $100 note for the taxi ride and no explanation. In scores more cases, people have simply disappeared.
Welcome to ‘Camp Slappy’
Prisoner transports crisscross the country between a proliferating network of detention facilities. In addition to the camps in Gardez, there are thought to be US holding facilities in the cities of Khost, Asadabad and Jalalabad, as well as an official US detention centre in Kandahar, where the tough regime has been nicknamed “Camp Slappy” by former prisoners.
There are 20 more facilities in outlying US compounds and fire bases that complement a major “collection centre” at Bagram air force base. The CIA has one facility at Bagram and another, known as the “Salt Pit”, in an abandoned brick factory north of Kabul. More than 1,500 prisoners from Afghanistan and many other countries are thought to be held in such jails, although no one knows for sure because the US military declines to comment.
Anyone who has got in the way of the prison transports has been met with brutal force. Bidar directed us to a small Shia neighbourhood on the edge of town where a multiple killing was still under investigation. Inside a frozen courtyard, a former policeman, Said Sardar, 25, was sat beside his crutches.
On May 1 2004, he was manning a checkpoint when a car careened through. “Inside were men dressed like Arabs, but they were western men,” he said. “They had prisoners in the car.” Sardar fired a warning shot for the car to stop. “The western men returned fire and within minutes two US attack helicopters hovered above us. They fired three rockets at the police station. One screamed past me. I saw its fiery tail and blacked out.”
He was taken to Bagram, where US military doctors had to amputate his leg. Afterwards, he said, “an American woman appeared. She said the US was sorry. It was a mistake. The men in the car were Special Forces or CIA on a mission. She gave me $500.”
Sardar showed us into another room in his compound where a circle of children stared glumly at us; their fathers, all policemen, were killed in the same incident. “Five dead. Four in hospital. To protect covert US prisoner transports,” he says. Later, US helicopters were deployed in two similar incidents that left nine dead.
In his builders’ merchant’s shop, Mohammed Timouri describes how he lost his son. “Ismail was a part-time taxi driver, waiting to go to college,” he says, handing us a photograph of a beardless, short-haired 19-year-old held aloft in a coffin at his funeral last March. “A convoy delivering prisoners from a facility in Jalalabad to one in Kabul became snarled up in traffic. A US soldier jumped down and lifted a woman out of the way. She screamed. Ismail stepped forward to explain she was a conservative person, wearing a burka. The soldier dropped the woman and shot Ismail in front of a crowd of 20 people.”
Mohammed received a letter from the Afghan police: “We apologise to you,” the police chief wrote. “An innocent was killed by Americans.” The US army declined to comment on Ismail’s death or on a second fatal shooting by another prison transport at the same crossroads later that month. It also refused to comment on an incident outside Kabul when a prison patrol reportedly cleared a crowd of children by throwing a grenade into their midst.
However, we have since heard that the CIA’s inspector general is investigating at least eight serious incidents, including two deaths in custody, following complaints by agents about the activities of their military colleagues.
There are insurgents active in the Gardez area, as there are throughout the south of Afghanistan, remnants of the old order and the newly disaffected. Every morning it takes Afghan police several hours to pick along the highway unearthing explosives concealed overnight.
And so it was mid-morning before we were able to leave town, crawling over the Gardez-Khost pass, some 10,000ft high. No one saw us slipping on to the fertile Khost plain, where Osama bin Laden once had his training camps — the camps were destroyed by US cruise missiles in August 1998. Today a shrine to Taliban loyalists still greets travellers to the city, although no one here would say they preferred the old life.
BBC Reporter Hooded and Harrassed at Camp Salermo
US Camp Salerno, the largest base outside Kabul, dominates the area around Khost. Inside the city, Kamal Sadat, a local stringer for BBC World Service, told how he was detained last September and found himself locked up in a prison filled with suspects from many countries. “Even though I showed my press accreditation, I was hooded, driven to Salerno and then flown to another US base. I had no idea where I was or why I had been detained.”
He was held in a small wooden cell, and soldiers combed through his notebooks, copying down names and phone numbers.
“Every time I was moved within the base, I was hooded again. Every prisoner has to maintain absolute silence. I could hear helicopters whirring above me. Prisoners were arriving and leaving all the time. There were also cells beneath me, under the ground.”
After three days, Sadat was flown back to Khost and freed without explanation. “It was only later I learned that I had been held in Bagram. If the BBC had not intervened, I fear I would not have got out.” After his release, the US military said it had all been a misunderstanding, and apologised.
Camp Salerno, which houses the 1,200 troops of US Combined Taskforce Thunder, was being expanded when we arrived. Army tents were being replaced with concrete dormitories. The detention facility, concealed behind a perimeter of opaque green webbing, was being modernised and enlarged. Ensconced in a Soviet-era staff building was the camp’s commanding officer, Colonel Gary Cheeks. He listened calmly as we asked about the allegations of torture, deaths and disappearances at US detention facilities including Salerno.
We read to him from a complaint made by a UN official in Kabul that accused the US military of using “cowboy-like excessive force”. He eased forward in his chair: “There have been some tragic accidents for which we have apologised. Some people have been paid compensation.”
We put to him the specific case of Mohammed Khan, from a village near the Pakistan border, who died in custody at Camp Salerno: his relatives say his body showed signs of torture. “You could go on for ages with a ‘he said, she said’. You have to take my word for it,” said Cheeks. He remembered Khan’s death: “He was bitten by a snake and died in his cell.” He added, “We are building new holding cells here to make life better for detainees. We are systematising our prison programme across the country.”
For what reason? “So all guards and interrogators behave by the same code of behaviour,” the colonel said. Is it not the case that an ever-increasing number of prisoners have vanished, while others are being shuttled between jails to keep their families in the dark? Cheeks moved towards his office door: “There are many things that are distorted. No one has vanished here … Look, the war against the Taliban is one small part. I want the Afghan people with us. They are the key to ending conflict. If they fear us or we do wrong by them, then we have lost.”
However, many Afghans who celebrated the fall of the Taliban have long lost faith in the US military. In Kabul, Nader Nadery, of the Human Rights Commission, told us, “Afghanistan is being transformed into an enormous US jail. What we have here is a military strategy that has spawned serious human rights abuses, a system of which Afghanistan is but one part.” In the past 18 months, the commission has logged more than 800 allegations of human rights abuses committed by US troops.
The Afghan government privately shares Nadery’s fears. One minister, who asked not to be named, said, “Washington holds Afghanistan up to the world as a nascent democracy and yet the US military has deliberately kept us down, using our country to host a prison system that seems to be administered arbitrarily, indiscriminately and without accountability.”
Buildling a Post-Gitmo Global Prison Network
What has been glimpsed in Afghanistan is a radical plan to replace Guantánamo Bay. When that detention centre was set up in January 2002, it was essentially an offshore gulag — beyond the reach of the US constitution and even the Geneva conventions. That all changed in July 2004. The US supreme court ruled that the federal court in Washington had jurisdiction to hear a case that would decide if the Cuban detentions were in violation of the US constitution, its laws or treaties.
The military commissions, which had been intended to dispense justice to the prisoners, were in disarray, too. No prosecution cases had been prepared and no defence cases would be readily offered as the US National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers had described the commissions as unethical, a decision backed by a federal judge who ruled in January that they were “illegal”.
Guantánamo was suddenly bogged down in domestic lawsuits. It had lost its practicality. So a global prison network built up over the previous three years, beyond the reach of American and European judicial process, immediately began to pick up the slack. The process became explicit last week when the Pentagon announced that half of the 540 or so inmates at Guantánamo are to be transferred to prisons in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.
Since September 11 2001, one of the US’s chief strategies in its “war on terror” has been to imprison anyone considered a suspect on whatever grounds. To that end it commandeered foreign jails, built cellblocks at US military bases and established covert CIA facilities that can be located almost anywhere, from an apartment block to a shipping container.
The network has no visible infrastructure — no prison rolls, visitor rosters, staff lists or complaints procedures. Terror suspects are being processed in Afghanistan and in dozens of facilities in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Egypt, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the British island of Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean. Those detained are held incommunicado, without charge or trial, and frequently shuttled between jails in covert air transports, giving rise to the recently coined US military expression “ghost detainees”.
Most of the countries hosting these invisible prisons are already partners in the US coalition. Others, notably Syria, are pragmatic associates, which work privately alongside the CIA and US Special Forces, despite bellicose public statements from President Bush (he has condemned Syria for harbouring terrorism, for aiding the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, and most recently has demanded that Syrian troops quit Lebanon).
All the host countries are renowned for their poor human rights records, enabling interrogators (US soldiers, contractors and their local partners) to operate. We have obtained prisoner letters, declassified FBI files, legal depositions, witness statements and testimony from US and UK officials, which document the alleged methods deployed in Afghanistan — shackles, hoods, electrocution, whips, mock executions, sexual humiliation and starvation — and suggest they are practised across the network.
Sir Nigel Rodley, a former UN special rapporteur on torture, said, “The more hidden detention practices there are, the more likely that all legal and moral constraints on official behaviour will be removed.”
The only “ghost detainees” to have been identified by Washington are a handful of high-profile al-Qaida operatives such as Abu Zubayda, Bin Laden’s lieutenant, who vanished after being picked up by Pakistani authorities in Faisalabad in March 2002. In June of that year, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Zubayda was “under US control”. He did not say where, although sources in the Pakistani government said Zubayda was being held at a CIA facility in their country.
In May 2003, Bush clarified the fate of Waleed Muhammad bin Attash, an alleged conspirator in the USS Cole bombing, who disappeared after being arrested by police in Pakistan in April 2003. Bush described Attash as “a killer … one less person that people who love freedom have to worry about”; he is also one more person who has never appeared on a US prison roll.
In June 2004, a senior counterterrorism official in Britain confirmed that Hambali (a nom de guerre) — accused of organising the October 2002 Bali bombings and unseen since Thai police seized him in August 2003 — was “singing like a bird”, apparently at the US base on Diego Garcia.
Evidence we have collected, however, shows that many more of those swept up in the network have few provable connections to any outlawed organisation; experts in the field describe their value in the war against terror as “negligible”. F
ormer prisoners claim they were released only after naming names, coerced into making false confessions that led to the arrests of more people unconnected to terrorism, in a system of justice that owes more to Stanley Milgram’s Six Degrees Of Separation — where anyone can be linked to everyone else in the world in as many stages — than to analytical jurisprudence.
The floating population of “ghost detainees”, according to US and UK military officials, now exceeds 10,000.
(End of part one.)
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