Pakistani prisoners at Bagram wait for justice
MORE than 2,400 prisoners, including about 30 Pakistanis, have been in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison for the last decade, the US Joint Task Force 435, the military unit in charge of the jail, has revealed.
“These poor villagers were swept up in night-time raids, with no useful information,” human right activists say.
In Aug 2009, the then top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen David Petraeus, had recommended the release of about 400 of the 600 prisoners, but they have not been released by the US forces.
In May this year, A Human Rights first report, “Detained and Denied in Afghanistan: How to make US detention comply with the law” by Daphne Eviatar, explained that “even some prisoners who have been recommended for release … remain
imprisoned by US authorities. The problem is particularly prevalent for the approximately 30 Pakistanis, among the 41 non-Afghans incarcerated at Bagram. The Pakistani citizens were picked up near the border areas, according to Sultana Noor, an investigator with Reprieve, a UK-based legal action charity. Noor’s investigations reveal certain prisoners were as young as 13 when detained, having spent years without being charged, and often kept in solitary confinement.
Fazal Karim is one of the estimated 30 Pakistani prisoners, picked up in Pakistan in 2003 and rendered to Afghanistan. His brother, Fazal Rehman, met us in Karachi’s densely populated Zia Colony, where we track his family home through Orangi’s maze-like streets. If there is sadness, they hide it well when the family talk about Karim’s incarceration.
Over the years, Karim has told them he has been interrogated and physically abused by the Americans, but not charged with any wrongdoing. This year Karim was permitted a supervised Skype call at Bagram arranged through the International Committee of the Red Cross. “We spoke to Karim six months ago over Skype. He couldn’t stand up because he had chains around his ankles,” says Rehman.
A middle child, Karim was born in Khwazakhela, Swat, in 1983, raised and schooled in Karachi where his family moved. Before his capture he worked as a salesman, trading in CDs, travelling to Peshawar every month. When he disappeared in 2003, his family was unaware of his whereabouts for two years, until they received a letter through the ICRC. They haven’t seen him since.
Human right lawyers explain that it is unclear where and how these men were arrested and why they ended up in Afghanistan.
Pressure on the Pakistan government to ask the US to charge or release and repatriate Pakistani citizens came in the form of a petition filed last year with the Lahore High Court by Reprieve on behalf of the detainees’ families. It questioned the detention of seven Pakistani prisoners at Bagram, asking whether the Pakistani government’s unlawful actions and connivance associated with ‘extraordinary renditions’ is a violation of human rights.
According to Sara Belal, founder of the Justice Project Pakistan (JJP) associated with Reprieve, these prisoners couldn’t have been arrested or rendered without Pakistani intelligence agencies being complicit.
In October this year, the Lahore High Court ordered that a representative from the ministry of foreign affairs visit Bagram to determine why Pakistani detainees were picked up and file a report in a month. But the counsel for the government failed to show in court last month.
“I would be astounded if Pakistani intelligence hasn’t visited Bagram. There is no way to find out presently unless they admit it,” says Clive Stafford Smith, a director with Reprieve.
For Wakil Khan not knowing why his son is detained at Bagram makes him helpless, if not angry. When his son Hamidullah Khan disappeared in 2008, he was 14. Sent by his father to Ladha, South Waziristan, to bring home the family’s furniture after the military operation against the Taliban, Hamidullah never returned. Six months later the ICRC informed Wakil Khan that his son was at Bagram. On Oct 28, he spoke to Hamidullah via Skype from the ICRC office in Karachi. His son, his legs shackled, couldn’t stand up. He said he had been cleared for release by a board of military officers, the detainee review board (DRB).
US authorities at Bagram are not legally required to explain why they detain prisoners for years without charge. Smith, who has represented a terror suspect, Pakistani-British detainee Moazzam Baig, at Guantanamo, explained lawyers had no access to detainees at Bagram, ‘Gitmo’s evil twin’. The Pakistan embassy in Kabul officially identified Pakistani prisoners at Bagram last year. The lists offer no information about how young boys like Awal Noor, a goat-herder from Shaktoi, South Waziristan, ended up in Bagram.
While prisoners have a right to appear before a DRB to plead for their release, they have no right to challenge their detention, and to see classified evidence against them. Noor visited Bagram in June this year to witness two DRB hearings that she describes as “very frustrating” and “mechanical.” Detainees appeared confused, and were shackled and brought on wheelchairs. “The interpreter had a strong accent and he did such a shockingly bad job with the translation. I couldn’t believe others in the room didn’t see how flawed this system was.”
The line of questioning at DRB hearings include queries such as “Do you know Mullah Omar? Are you involved with the Taliban? Will you leave this prison and say you were well treated?”
In 2004, Kamil Shah, a Pakistani, was 17 when he was picked up by American forces in a crowded market in the Afghan town of Spin Boldak near the Chaman border crossing. He was detained until 2009 without charge.
In perfect American English Shah explains: “The American guards would speak to us, so we picked up words and phrases.”
Shah’s story is no different from that of other former detainees: he was locked up in isolation and interrogated: Are you Al Qaeda? Are you a Talib? He was allowed two phone calls home during those years. When Shah was released from Bagram, he says: “I asked Colonel Dalson: Why did you keep me here all these years? He replied: ‘Because, your government didn’t want you. We should have released you a long time ago.”
(A complete version of this story, Illegal Detentions: Stories from Bagram, appears in the December issue of the Herald.)