[Reader-list] America's gulag

Rana Dasgupta eye at ranadasgupta.com
Sat Jun 26 21:04:27 IST 2004

Recent story from the Guardian.


Dignified reporting on some of the detainees in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
No sensationalism, no erasure of personal biographies and history.


'They said this is America . . . if a soldier orders you to take off your
clothes, you must obey'

We know about Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib but until now Bagram and America's
secret network of Afghan jails have come under little scrutiny. In a major
investigation, Duncan Campbell and Suzanne Goldenberg discovered a familiar
pattern of violent abuse and sexual humiliation

Duncan Campbell and Suzanne Goldenberg
Wednesday June 23, 2004
The Guardian

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

While the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo
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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rana Dasgupta

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