America’s Secret Afghan Gulag


Syed Nabi Siddiqi, a 47-year-old former police officer with piercing eyes and a long black beard, is lying with his face pressed to the floor, his arms stretched painfully behind his back. He is demonstrating one of the milder humiliations and interrogation techniques that he says happened to him after he was arrested by the Coalition forces in Afghanistan last year as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

During the course of the next hour he will recount how American soldiers stripped him naked and photographed him, set dogs on him, asked him which animal he would prefer to have sex with, and told him his wife was a prostitute. He will tell also of hoods being placed over his head, of being forced to roll over every 15 minutes while he tried to sleep, and of being kept on his knees with his hands tied behind his back in a narrow tunnel- like space, unable to move.

An in-depth investigation by the Guardian, including interviews with former Bagram prisoners, senior US military sources and human rights monitors in Afghanistan, has uncovered widespread evidence of detainees facing beatings, sexual humiliation and being kept for long periods in painful positions. Detainees, none of whom were ever charged with any offence, told of American soldiers throwing stones at them as they defecated and being stripped naked in front of large groups of interrogators. One detainee said that, in order to be released after nearly two years, he had to sign a document stating that he had been captured in battle when, in fact, he was arrested while driving his taxi with four passengers in it.

At least five men have died while under detention, three of which were classified as homicides. Two deaths at Bagram airbase have been classified as homicides and autopsies have indicated “blunt-force injuries”. An investigation into allegations of abuse and the deaths in custody has just been completed by Brigadier General Chuck Jacoby, the second highest-ranking US officer in Afghanistan, and parts of it are due to be made public next month.

While the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has come under the spotlight of the international media as well as US investigators, Bagram and the network of 19 US detention centres and “fire bases” around Afghanistan have largely avoided scrutiny. Until recently, human rights groups investigating alleged abuses in Afghanistan were not even sure how many of the secretive facilities existed. While Bagram is visited regularly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, witness testimonies suggest that much of the abuse took place at these satellite bases. Siddiqi’s story and others like it involving incidents from the end of the 2001 war to the present day indicate that what has been happening in Abu Ghraib is not an isolated occasion of rogue junior soldiers acting independently, but part of an apparent strategy of interrogation that was in place long before the invasion of Iraq.

“In some ways, the abuses in Afghanistan are more troubling than those reported in Iraq,” said John Sifton, the Human Rights Watch representative in the area. “While it is true that abuses in Afghanistan often lacked the sexually abusive content of the abuses in Iraq, they were in many ways worse. Detainees were severely beaten, exposed to cold and deprived of sleep and water.

“Moreover, it should be noted that the detention system in Afghanistan, unlike the system in Iraq, is not operated even nominally in compliance with the Geneva conventions. The detainees are never given an opportunity to see any independent tribunal. There is no legal process whatsoever and not even an attempt at one. The entire system operates outside the rule of law. At least in Iraq, the US is trying to run a system that meets Geneva standards. In Afghanistan, they are not.”

A ‘human sifting station’

An hour’s drive from Kabul, on a dusty plain beneath the majestic, snow-topped Panjshir mountains, sits Bagram airbase. Outside the heavily guarded and sandbagged main gate is a gaggle of small boys, hustling DVDs of The Passion of the Christ and the Baywatch satire, Son of the Beach, to GIs. Fleets of trucks delivering fuel to the base wait in the sun for clearance. Built in 1976, Bagram, formerly a military centre for the Soviet forces, consists of three main hangars, a control tower and various other single- storey buildings, of which the detention centre is one.

Prisoners describe the cells as five by 10 metres, with a large bucket serving as a toilet in the corner of each cell and blankets for beds. The cells, which house between 10 and 15 prisoners, are separated from each other with wire fencing. They occupy the middle of what one detainee called a “factory-like” space, with armed US guards in corridors on each side. Prisoners are taken from there to an interrogation facility, where they are interviewed by both military and CIA personnel and, according to one detainee, they are filmed during this process and watched by other interrogators in another room.

Some of the detainees are released after a few weeks; others stay for many months; some are transferred to Guantanamo Bay; still others are subjected to what is referred to by one human rights organisation as “RPing”, or “Rumsfeld Processing”. These are the prisoners whom the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge, and whose names do not appear in the records kept at Bagram. Sometimes, according to this organisation, the detainees may be “rendered” to Egyptian intelligence or other foreign services for interrogation.

Well before the establishment of the interrogation facilities at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq, there had been an acknowledgement within the Pentagon – as early as October 2001 – that America’s war against al-Qaida and the Taliban might lead to the use of torture. Soon after the start of the Afghan war, lawyers at the Pentagon – specialists on the Geneva convention, international law and interrogation – were asked to explore the legal issues involved in the prosecution of this new war.

“There was a kind of sub rosa [secret] thought process during at least the first few months of the prosecution of the war on terror,” a former Pentagon official told the Guardian. Legal experts began quietly discussing what methods could be used to extract information from captured fighters in Afghanistan. “It did not include electric probes in the genitals. But there were certainly a range of psychological measures,” the official said. But that was in the upper echelons of the Pentagon. On the ground, military intelligence officials were developing their own sets of rules.

In those early stages, it was never envisaged that America would preside over a large prisoner population in Afghanistan. Bagram was supposed to be a giant human- sifting station, with a swift turnover of detainees. Its primary aim was to provide immediate battlefield intelligence, and to select a relatively small number of detainees thought to have strategic information about al-Qaida, who would be sent on for more detailed interrogation to Guantanamo.

In practice, Bagram has become a more permanent facility, a repository for al-Qaida and Taliban suspects and a dumping ground for people who ended up there often because an enemy had maliciously told the authorities that they were al-Qaida or Taliban members. The gathering of intelligence has proceeded extremely slowly.

“Once we were there six months, people began saying, ‘We don’t have Osama bin Laden, we don’t have Ayman al- Zawahiri.’ All of a sudden it was like, ‘We are going to pressure interrogators,’ ” said a retired senior military intelligence official. When America went to war on Afghanistan, it had a severe shortage of experienced interrogators, and it was desperately short of Pashtu translators. But the Pentagon demanded results. Interrogators were set a target number for completed interrogations, and advised to limit each session to under an hour. “Unless you were going to come out with a good report that you were going to find a nuclear bomb in the desert or Osama bin Laden in a cave, they really didn’t really want to devote the time,” said the official.

During the second half of 2002, Captain Carolyn Wood of the 519th military intelligence battalion was the officer demanding results. Wood, who was in charge of the Bagram Collection Point, the main screening area, was redeployed to Abu Ghraib last year, where she was also in charge of interrogations. US military spokesmen have said she laid down the same procedures that had been established at Bagram.

“In Afghanistan, they had some interrogation rules of engagement. When they deployed to Iraq, she brought those rules with her,” one spokesman said. “Those rules were modified to make sure the right restraints were in place.” Last month, Pentagon officials described to the Senate armed services committee Wood’s instructions for interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a supposedly more moderate version of her guidelines for Bagram. The captain’s rules of engagement included sleep and sensory deprivation, stress positions, dietary manipulation, and the use of dogs.

Attorneys for soldiers charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal believe that Wood was instrumental in setting policy for interrogations at the Iraqi prison – just as she did in Afghanistan. “We do think she is an important element in this case,” said Gary Myers, the lawyer for Staff Sgt Ivan Chip Frederick, who goes on trial in Baghdad this week. “She was present, and we are thinking she has knowledge.”

However, a former member of the 205th military intelligence brigade, which was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the abuse, said an officer of Wood’s rank would not have had a free hand in setting policy either at Bagram or Abu Ghraib, but would be following orders from a higher command. An army spokeswoman said yesterday that Wood was on an advanced course at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, the training centre for US military interrogators. She faces no charges in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal. She has, however, been assigned a military lawyer.

The policeman’s story

The journey to Syed Nabi Siddiqi’s home in the village of Shaikhan, near Gardez, a city about 60 miles to the south of Kabul towards the Pakistan border, takes you past the tanks of Coalition forces on the outskirts of Kabul, past the Kochi nomad camel trains, strolling languidly across the highway, past the cemeteries with their traditional fluttering green, purple and yellow banners, through almost biblical scenes of 10-year-old goatherds and their charges, past the mine-clearers whose long blue armoured tunics and helmets make them look like medieval warriors, through the Tera Pass and into the crowded, dusty chaos of Gardez, which has seen regular warfare for much of the last quarter of a century.

Siddiqi, who has nine children, had a job as a policeman – he offers proudly to change into his uniform – and had been promoted to the post of deputy head of the crime department and the deputy in charge of operational officers in Gardez at the time of his arrest. However, he had had problems with his senior officers. The day before his arrest, he said, he had a meeting with his superior that turned into an argument.

“I said that there should be no corruption,” said Siddiqi, offering tea and sultanas. “I said that every week there should be a visit to the jail which is under the control of the security commander.” Siddiqi said that the local commander “knew nothing of how to deal with prisoners. He was an illiterate man; he put people in prison because he got money to do so.”

The following day, when he returned to work, he was told that he was dismissed and was arrested by four soldiers, two Afghan and two from the Coalition forces. He told the troops that he had a breathing problem for which he needed medicine, so he was taken to the pharmacy where the pharmacist was promptly arrested, too, for no other reason, insists Siddiqi, than that they spoke to each other. Both men were blindfolded and taken to the Coalition detention centre in Gardez, one of 20 such centres across the country.

An interpreter wearing a mask then told him to cooperate and asked him if he knew Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan. He said he did, but had not seen him since he returned to his village. He was then asked if he knew Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the founder of the Islamist party, Ittehad-e-Islami. “I said I had heard about him but had not met him.”

After three or four days, he was taken away blindfolded, he said, by a group of Americans. “They were kicking me and beating me and shouting like animals at me. They took off my uniform. I requested them several times – ‘If you don’t respect me, please respect my uniform.’ I showed them my identity card from the government of President Karsai. Then they asked me which animals – they made the noise of goats, sheep, dogs, cows – I had had sexual activities with. They laughed at me. I said that such actions were against our Afghan and Islamic tradition, but they again asked me, ‘Which kind of animals do you want to have sex with?’ Then they asked me to stand like this [he indicates being bound to a pole] and beat me with a stick from the back and kicked me. I still have pains in my back as a result. They told me, ‘Your wife is a prostitute.’ ”

“All the time I kept saying, ‘Why are you doing such things?’ and they laughed,” he said. He and other prisoners were then placed in a structure, 25m long by 2m wide. Siddiqi demonstrated how they were made to kneel with their hands handcuffed behind their back in great discomfort. “I saw many other people – young, old, different ages.” After he had been detained for 22 days, an American soldier wrote the number 22 on his hand. He was told to make sure the number was not erased or he would not be released. They were taken outside, where he and other prisoners, still handcuffed behind their backs, were dumped face first in two helicopters, some piled on top of prisoners already in the helicopter, he said. “I asked for water and my medicines and they kicked me again.”

They were flown to Kandahar, where, once they had been taken out of the helicopters, he begged again for water. “I was saying, ‘Oh, mister, give me some water!’ Nobody cared. At the back of every detainee there was an American standing.

“Then they brought dogs close to us, they were biting at us,” he said, demonstrating how he and the other prisoners had cowered and tried to protect themselves from the dogs. “Then we were taken into another room and they took off our trousers. Then they just beat us. They took off my watch. In another room, they took our photographs without any clothes on. They asked me, ‘Are you al-Qaida or Taliban?’ I said, ‘No, I am a policeman.’ Then they gave us a blue uniform.” He points out the colour from part of the pattern on the carpet where we are sitting. “They blindfolded me and shackled my hands and legs. It was very painful. Again they started kicking me. Then they began to open my legs and my arms.” He demonstrated being spreadeagled. He said he was beaten with a stick.

After his blindfold had been taken off, he found himself with around 15 to 20 other prisoners, aged, he said, from teenagers to the elderly. The prisoners were not allowed to converse, but one man told him that he was an Afghan soldier who had been wrongly reported as being a member of a Pakistani militia. They were told that they had to go to the toilet in front of everyone else and American troops jokingly threw stones at them while they did.

“One American soldier said, ‘Why are you ashamed to show your backside? Why are you so shy? See my backside.’ and he showed it to us.” Here he paused. “You know that we are Muslim. According to Muslim tradition, if a person tells lies, he is not a real Muslim. Everything I say is true.”

Siddiqi said that they were made to roll over in the night every 15 minutes or so in order that they could not sleep. Then the interrogations started again. “It was always, ‘Are you Taliban or al-Qaida?’”

A civilian interrogator, whom Siddiqi described as wearing black jeans, treated him sympathetically. “He was a nice man. I told him that I am an innocent person and he told me I would forget what had happened. I said I would not forget it.” After 12 days in Kandahar, he was taken by helicopter to Bagram. He was again made to lie on the floor, he said, once again demonstrating how his face was forced on to the ground. “Then an American asked, ‘Who is the policeman?’ and they got me up and took my blindfold off. I saw computers and American flags on the wall.

“They asked me, ‘Do you know where you are now?’ I said no. They said, ‘This is America. Do you accept American laws and rules?’ I said: ‘If this is America, I will accept and obey the rules.’ They said, ‘If a soldier orders you to take off your clothes, you must obey.’ Then they took off our clothes and with gloves on they touched us everywhere they wanted.” He said that fingers were stuck in his anus. (While the detainees we spoke to described these incidents as humiliating, the Coalition authorities maintain that they are standard search techniques to ensure that prisoners do not bring weapons into jails.) After 11 nights at Bagram, he was asked at two in the morning if he wanted to see his family and if he missed them.

“Then they said, ‘Do you forgive and forget?’ I told them, ‘I will forgive all of you if you punish those people who reported me to you wrongly.’ I told them that the reports came from people who had links with the government of the former communist regime and that they should not accept such reports. They promised me they would punish those people. They gave me a bottle of water and a box of biscuits and asked me to take them to my children.”

In total, he was held for 45 days before being returned to his family. “When I returned, my children who were studying at school had left their lessons and were working in the bazaar in the city because there was no one to feed them.”

The driver’s story

Out in the wheat fields, not far from Siddiqi’s home, a young man is helping to build a mud wall. Noor Aghah is 35, a father of four. Wearing a kolla, the traditional hat, he comes down from the wall to talk and we sit in a field watched intently by a teenage boy with a slingshot, who breaks off momentarily to fell a bird perched in a nearby tree. Lighting a cigarette, Aghah tells his story.

He had applied for a job as a driver for a local militia commander at the end of 2001, working first in Gardez and then in Kabul before returning to Gardez. Then the commander was arrested as a suspect and, six days later, so was Aghah. After one month’s detention at the Coalition centre outside Gardez, a complex of fort-like mud buildings and modern metal warehouses, he was sent to Bagram, where he was to spend the next four months.

“They said, ‘Tell us what sort of work [the commander] used to do,’ ” he said of his initial detention in Gardez. “I said I hadn’t seen anything. Then they forced me to drink 12 bottles of water and they didn’t allow me to go to the toilet.” The interrogation continued along the same lines for one month, he said, with questions being asked all the time about his commander.

Along with other prisoners, he was handcuffed and kept kneeling in a narrow open space between two high walls with direct sun coming down on them for 10 hours during the day. This continued for 20 days until an American doctor instructed that a covering be put over the space and that the prisoners be given blankets and pillows. “Every minute in Gardez they were beating us. Mostly they kick me,” he said.

“At Bagram, we were totally forbidden to talk to other prisoners and when we were interrogated we were blindfolded,” he said. “Americans interrogated me with an interpreter. Twice a woman asked questions but it was mostly men. They interrogated me every day in Bagram for one month and then only every 20 days or so. They asked me if I was Taliban or al-Qaida. In Gardez and also in Bagram, we were asked to take off our clothes and everyone saw us without clothes, six or seven people.”

Eventually, he was released. “In Bagram, they apologised and gave me a letter.” (This pro forma letter declares that someone has been released from detention and is not a suspect, although it adds, ‘This certificate has no bearing on future misconduct.’) He knew of two other men who had suffered similar treatment.

“I was surprised and confused because I was innocent,” said Aghah. “Why should a person not involved in crime go to jail and be treated like this?” He is unusual in being prepared to speak about what happened to him, although he does not want some of the more humiliating things that were done to him to be reported. “Maybe if they read your report, they will arrest me again,” Aghah said, with a laugh. “Maybe you won’t know.”

‘A culture of impunity’

Fahim Hakim, a quietly spoken, thoughtful man, is the deputy head of the Independent Human Rights Commission set up in June 2002 as part of the Bonn agreeement signed by prime minister Hamid Karzai. Its 330 members of staff across the country have the task of both promoting human rights and investigating abuses, and it has been Hakim’s job to analyse the many complaints arising from the detentions. The commission had received 60 complaints, he said, some from the detainees themselves, and some from the families of men who are still inside.

He said that the complaints had come mainly from Gardez, Jalalabad and Kandahar. “It was really shocking. We had this kind of mistreatment during the communist regime – mass arrests, mass graves, killing of people, torture – but in a country where there is a low rate of literacy and where we haven’t had a well- trained and professional national police, this could be expected. But from those who are well trained and professional, who are talking about human rights and democracy, it is a great shock.”

The complaints he had heard, he said, were to do with the stripping of prisoners, with the feeling of their genitals, with their being made to defecate in front of the Coalition forces, and with beatings. “There were a group of people kept naked in one room and given a bucket in the one room and asked to use that and it was traditionally, culturally, socially not possible for them and, to their surprise and shock, Coalition forces would come and say, ‘It’s very easy, aim at that.’ ”

“There was taunting language – ‘Do you know what is happening next door? Your wife is naked there. Our colleagues are playing with her,’ ” said Hakim. “There was deprivation of sleep and being made to kneel was the common complaint. There were complaints, too, of beating and kicking. They came here to liberate us, to make us free of this intimidation and oppression, but this will be overshadowed by this sort of behaviour.”

His colleague, Zia Langari, said, “Traditionally, [detainees] do not want to make this sort of thing known because of the shame involved. If a man says that he has had to be naked, he gets a bad name for himself, so, because of the fear and shame, they will not disclose this to the public. Some of them ask that the sexual abuse they suffered not be disclosed.”

Langari said that all the detainees interviewed said that they had received sexual abuse. This may in many cases have been strip searches involving anal and genital examinations and which US officials have argued were necessary to ensure that weapons were not brought into jails. “Maybe the Americans say that this is part of an investigation technique practice everywhere, but for Afghans it is not acceptable,” said Langari. “They could x-ray them if they are suspicious of them.”

Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan human rights worker who has interviewed many former detainees, said that many felt humiliated. Some told of having their pubic and underarm hair shaved by female US soldiers, she said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has access to Bagram every two weeks, but it is part of its established policy that it does not release details of its reports. It has not been able to gain such access to the other detention centres where many of the alleged abuses have taken place. Other human rights organisations have also failed in their attempts to visit them. “We have asked for access many times but in general there has been no response,” said Nazia Hussein of Amnesty International, “so it is very difficult to determine what conditions are like.”

Davood Moradian, an Afghan who lectures at St Andrews University’s international relations department, said: “Bagram seems to be run with exactly the same culture of impunity as the [Afghan] warlords run their private prisons. My impression is that the detainees are mainly poor people who do not have connections and footsoldiers, rather than the top people.”

The Americans are now, in the wake of the revelations of Abu Ghraib, conducting an investigation. Earlier this month, General Barno, speaking at the sandbagged Coalition HQ, said that a “top to bottom” review of detention facilities was being undertaken by his deputy, General Chuck Jacoby. Barno said that much of the intelligence gleaned from these interrogations had been “extremely useful” in safeguarding the lives of Coalition soldiers and identifying targets. “That said, regardless of any intelligence value, I will tell you without hesitation that intelligence procedures have got to be done in accordance with the approriate standards . . . All our forces will treat every detainee here with dignity and respect.”

Last week a US spokesman in Kabul said procedures at US- run detention centres in the country had been changed as a result of Brig Gen Jacoby’s interim findings, but he would not say how.

The deaths of three prisoners in custody are also being reviewed. Two died in Bagram in December 2002. A death certificate for a man, known simply as Dilawar, aged 22, from Yakubi in eastern Afghanistan, and signed by Major Elizabeth Rouse, pathologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, states that the cause of death was “blunt-force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease”. Another prisoner, Mullah Habibullah, brother of a former Taliban commander, died the same month. Two of their fellow prisoners, Abdul Jabar and Hakkim Shah, told the New York Times last year that they were routinely kept naked, hooded, shackled and with their hands chained to the ceiling day and night. The circumstances of their deaths have still to be determined, said Fahim Hakim. The third suspcious death is that of Abdul Wali, a former commander, who died four days after he presented himself for questioning at the request of the governor of Kunar. He died after reportedly undergoing interrogation by a private contract employee of the CIA.

It has been argued that whatever the American troops may have done, its abuses pale into insignificance beside what the Taliban did to their prisoners. Until 2001, public executions and amputations as punishment were carried out at the national stadium in Kabul. However, human rights monitors point out that the action of the Coalition forces and their presence in the country is posited on ending “uncivilised” behaviour and installing a system of fairness and justice. Though Bagram and its satellite detention centres have so far been a largely hidden corner of America’s new gulag, there are signs that the treatment of detainees there is now beginning to come under scrutiny from Washington. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democrat member of the Senate subcommittee on foreign operations, who has campaigned about prison abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq, told the Guardian: “The abuses in Afghanistan were no less egregious than at Abu Ghraib, but because there were no photographs – at least, to our present knowledge – they have not received enough attention.

“Prisoners in Afghanistan were subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, and some died from it. These abuses were part of a wider pattern stemming from a White House attitude that ‘anything goes’ in the war against terrorism, even if it crosses the line of illegality. Not only should these incidents be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators punished, but we need rules to prevent it from happening again.”

Behind the wire: Bagram’s secrets Until recently what goes on inside Bagram, as well as the number and identities of inmates who have been held there, has been shrouded in secrecy. Earlier this month, in response to a question from the Guardian, Lieutenant General David Barno, the head of US forces in Afghanistan, revealed that more than 2,000 people have been detained at the base since the war, and that there are currently 400 detainees being held without charge.

Last week a US spokesman in Kabul said procedures at the prison had been changed in response to the interum findings of an internal investigation.

The interpreter in Afghanistan was Noor Ahmed

Leave a comment