United States Plans to Transfer Afghan Prisoners
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. We're going to begin this hour with two reports about prisons run by the U.S. military as part of the war on terrorism. In a moment, we'll hear about new documents that tell us more about the men being held at Guantanamo Bay.
First, we're going to hear about some 500 men detained by U.S. forces at Bagram Air Base, outside Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. Most of those prisoners were captured and held without being charged as enemy combatants following the U.S. invasion in 2001. Under a deal between the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan, most of those detainees will be transferred to a new Afghan- controlled prison about a year from now. But human rights advocates say the transfer raises new questions about the conditions and treatment of prisoners in the fight against terrorism.
NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Kabul.
RACHEL MARTIN: A year and a half ago, Abdul Kahar Sarwari (ph) was arrested by U.S. forces outside of Kandahar. As Sarwari tells it, someone threw grenades at an American patrol. When they couldn't find the culprits, the Americans arrested 24-year- old Sarwari and his friend, who were hanging out at a corner store nearby. The two men were interrogated in Kandahar as suspected Taliban, then blindfolded, handcuffed and flown to Bagram Air Base. Sarwari says his conditions and treatment improved with time, but the first few months at Bagram were difficult.
ABDUL KAHAR SARWARI: (Through translator) In the winter, we didn't have, you know, a heater to make us warm. And also they didn't give us time to sleep there. They kicked me. They punched me. And also they hit me with their belts. And I was praying God to either release me from there or kill me.
MARTIN: Sitting on the floor of his uncle's house in Kabul, the bearded young man recounts his year long detention with a numb detachment. His 11-year-old cousin kneels next to him, his brow furrowed as he listens to Sarwari.
KAHAR SARWARI: (Through translator) When I was there, I didn't know about anything, when I was supposed to be released or whether I will be released or not, and I didn't have any idea how long I would stay here.
MARTIN: U.S. officials in Kabul have repeatedly stated that detainees are held in accordance with international standards. Under pressure from the Afghan government, the U.S. signed an agreement last year to gradually transfer detainees from Bagram and Guantanamo to a new U.S.-funded Afghan facility. The plan is to renovate part of a notorious prison outside Kabul called Pulicharki, move the detainees there, and then put them under the control of the Afghan government.
Last week, riots at the Pulicharki prison left six dead, many injured and an entire cellblock destroyed. Over the weekend, workers cleaned up the piles of broken glass and threw out tables and chairs torched by prisoners. Nadir Nadiri, with Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, says the riots were incited partly by a group of 200 accused Taliban, who have been in prison for more than three years without being convicted. Nadiri says the plan to transfer detainees from Bagram and Guantanamo to Pulicharki will only work if the Afghan government commits itself to developing a transparent legal system that stands up to international scrutiny.
NADIR NADIRI: The concerns are that if those people are once transferred to the Afghan authority, and the Afghan authority under the domestic and international laws obligation do not provide access to court and do not provide them with — provide to have defense lawyer, then that would make a big, big problem.
MARTIN: General Abdul Salaam is the head of Afghanistan's prison system under the Ministry of Justice. He's traveling on a fact-finding mission to Guantanamo Bay in a few weeks as part of preparations for the prisoner transfer. Salaam says the Afghan government will have full control over all the detainees sent over from the U.S. military, and that each one will be tried and either convicted or set free.
ABDUL SALAAM BAKSHI: (Through translator) The Americans would not interfere in our affairs even when the Guantanamo prisoners will be transferred to Pulicharki prison. I can declare that Pulicharki will not become Guantanamo.
MARTIN: Western officials say the transfer of detainees won't happen until Afghanistan has developed a solid legal framework to handle them, their trials, their continued detention or their possible release. Meanwhile, former Bagram inmate Abdul Kahar Sarwari says these detentions have already eaten away at Afghans' faith in the U.S. operation here. What he calls his arbitrary and irresponsible detention has shaped what he, his family and his community think about America's real priorities in Afghanistan.
KAHAR SARWARI: (Through translator) We know that they want to help Afghanistan, and they want to help our people, but I cannot ever forget my being mistreated in the prison, and I will always have that in my mind.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.