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Guardian Weekend – One Huge US Jail

The Taliban doused Kabul in a grim monasticism but the capital of Afghanistan is today a chaotic mulch of prospectors and carpetbaggers. The city clinks with foreign bidders vying for billions of dollars of telecoms, irrigation and construction contracts, sparking a property boom that has forced rental prices to match those in London, Tokyo or Manhattan. Four years ago, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue in Kabul was a tool of the Taliban inquisition, operating from a drab office building that housed cells for heretics caught humming the love songs of Afghan chanteuse Qamar Gular. Now an American entrepreneur owns it and hopes the place won’t scare away his new friends.

Outside Kabul, Afghanistan is far bleaker and medieval, its provinces more inaccessible and lawless than they were under the Taliban. If anyone leaves town they do so in convoys. The daily threat of kidnap, execution and random violence by the remnants of the old regime, that forced seasoned aid agencies like Medecins Sans Frontieres to quit after five staff members were murdered last June, has made Afghanistan a place where it is easy for people to disappear and perilous for anyone to investigate their fate. With its all-terrain Humvees and Apache attack helicopters, only the 17,000-strong US force in Afghanistan has the run of the land and it has used the haze of fear and uncertainty that has engulfed the country to advance a draconian phase in the war against terror, designed to supersede Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

While Washington holds up Afghanistan as an exemplar of how a rogue regime can be replaced by the open market and democracy, human rights activists and Afghan politicians have accused the US military of imposing its own rule of law, placing Afghanistan at the hub of an extra-legal global system of detention centres, where prisoners are held incommunicado and subjected to torture. Michael Posner, executive director of US legal watchdog Human Rights First told Weekend: ‘The US administered 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.’

When Weekend landed in Kabul, Afghanistan was blue with a bruising cold. We asked local UN security staff what we should do to prepare for a trip to former Al-Qaeda strongholds in the southeast of the country that were rumoured to be the focus of the new American network. ‘Don’t go,’ they suggested. But we picked up a driver, a Pashtun translator and a boxful of Clementines before heading five and a half hours into the snow and south to Gardez, a market town dominated by two rapidly expanding US military bases.

Wrapped up against the cold in a kurta, Argyle jumper and tweed jacket, Dr Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), established in 2003 with funding from the US Congress to investigate abuses committed by local warlords and to ensure that women and children’s rights were protected, was delighted to see foreigners in town. At his office in central Gardez, he showed us a wall of files: ‘All I do nowadays is chart complaints against the US military. 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 brought to this country to be processed. No one is charged. No one is identified. No international monitors are allowed into the US jails.’ Dr Bidar pulled out a handful of files: ‘People who have been arrested are brutalised using tactics that are frankly criminal.’

Last November, a man from Gardez died of hypothermia in a US military jail and when his family were called to collect the body they were given a USD100 bill for the taxi ride instead of an explanation. In scores more cases, people have simply disappeared. Dr Bidar opened another file. ‘Naim Kuchi, a tribal elder, was last seen being arrested by US men travelling in civilian vehicles in December 2002. However, the US has never admitted to holding him.’

Hundreds of covert round-ups and prisoner transports are criss-crossing the country, servicing 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 ex-prisoners. There are 20 more facilities in outlying US compounds and fire bases that compliment a major ‘collection centre’ at Bagram Airforce base, where the CIA also keeps one facility in addition to another known as ‘The Pit’ in Ariana Chowk, in Kabul. More than 1,500 prisoners from Afghanistan and many other countries are thought to be held in these jails, although no on knows for sure as the US military declines to comment.

Anyone who has got in the way of the prison transports has been met with deadly force. Dr Bidar directed us to a small Shia neighbourhood on the edge of Gardez where a multiple killing was still under investigation. Our driver said he would keep the engine running. There had been many drive-by shootings here. Inside a frozen courtyard, a former policeman Said Sardar, 25, sat beside his crutches. On May 1, 2004, he was manning a checkpoint when a car careened through. Sardar said ‘Inside the vehicle were men dressed like Arabs. But they were Western men. 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.’ Sardar was taken to Bagram where American military doctors were forced to amputate his leg. Sardar 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 USD500.’ Sardar showed us into another room in his compound where a circle of children stared glumly at us, their fathers all policemen killed in the same incident. ‘Five dead. Four in hospital. To protect covert US prisoner transports,’ Sardar complained. After this attack, US helicopters were deployed in two more similar incidents that left nine dead. The US Army declined to comment on any of the fatalities.

Inside the Construction Materials Shop, Mohammed Timouri dug around for photographs of his son. ‘Ismail was a part-time taxi driver. He was waiting to go to college,’ Mohammed said, handing us a photograph of a beardless, short-haired 19-year-old held aloft in a coffin at his funeral in March (2004). Mohammed Timouri said: ‘A convoy delivering prisoners from a US detention facility in Jalalabad to one in Kabul became snarled up in the traffic. A US soldier jumped down and lifted a woman out of the way. She screamed. Ismail stepped forward to explain that she was a conservative person, wearing a burqa. The soldier dropped the woman and shot Ismail, before a crowd of 20 people.’ Mohammed Timouri 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 a second fatal shooting by another prison transport at the same crossroads later that month. It has also refused to comment on an incident outside Kabul where a prison patrol cleared a crowd of children by throwing a grenade into their midst.

Nothing ever moves out of Gardez until mid-morning. It takes hours for the Afghan police to pick along the highway unearthing explosives concealed overnight by insurgents. Eventually they finished and we crawled up to the Gardez-Khost pass that loomed at 10,000 ft. No one saw us slipping onto the fertile Khost plain, where Osama bin Laden’s training 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.

US Camp Salerno, the largest forward firing base outside Kabul, dominates the area around Khost. Inside the city, Kamal Sadat, a local stringer for the BBC World Service, told how he was detained last September and found himself locked up in a prison that was filled with suspects from many different 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,’ Sadat said. Held in a small wooden cell, 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.’

Others fared worse. The US has prevented independent investigations into eight known deaths in its detention facilities including those of Dilwar, a 22-year-old taxi driver from Khost, and 32-year-old Mullah Habiullah, from Oruzgan, who were died at Bagram. Death certificates recently obtained by the families were signed by US military pathologists who concluded that the men had died from ‘blunt force injuries’.

We drove outside Khost city and towards the porous border with Pakistan, where the US Special Forces conduct nightly counter-insurgency operations. In the trading village of Lakan, Noor Khan, a taxi driver, described how the US Army raided his home on September 24, 2004 even though the family was employed by the Karzai government to promote the impending parliamentary elections. Noor Khan said: ‘They just burst in. We are working with the US military and could not understand. The room was dark. An American soldier panicked and “bang” he shot dead my brother Rais. Then they arrested my oldest brother Mohammed and one of my cousins.’ Rais, a 33-year-old teacher, was buried early the next morning and Noor Khan’s cousin was taken to Bagram from where he would not emerge for three weeks. Later, the family were called to Camp Salerno. ‘An American soldier gave us the body of our brother Mohammed. No one would say how he had died. When the soldiers took him away he was a healthy, vigorous man. Our wives washed his corpse and saw blood stains and three wounds.’ Beckoning to us, Noor Khan and his remaining brothers walked to a field of stones that held the dead men’s bodies. The mourners washed their faces with their cupped hands and prayed for better times.

Camp Salerno that houses the 1,200 troops of US Combined Taskforce Thunder was being expanded when Weekend arrived. It no longer resembled a temporary facility with which to wage a short war. Army tents were being replaced with concrete dormitories. The detention facility, concealed behind a perimeter of opaque green webbing, was being modernised and enlarged, security around it stepped up. Ensconced in a Soviet-era staff building, was the camp’s commanding officer, Colonel Gary Cheeks, and outside his office sat a stack of forces magazines Freedom Watch whose January 16, 2005 edition offered a homily: ‘I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.’ Col. Cheeks 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’. Col. Cheeks eased forward in his chair: ‘There have been some tragic accidents for which we have apologised. Some people have been paid compensation. And I remember the death of Mohammed Khan in custody. He was bitten by a snake and died in his cell.’

Relatives say his body showed signs of torture, we said. ‘You could go on for ages with a “he said, she said”. You have to take my word for it,’ Col. Cheeks replied. ‘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, we asked? ‘So all guards and interrogators behave by the same code of behaviour,’ the Colonel said, the screen saver bouncing on the computer behind him blinking the word ‘Secret’. But there is evidence that an ever-increasing number of prisoners have vanished and others are being shuttled between jails to keep their families in the dark, we said. Col Cheeks moved towards his office door: ‘There are many things that are distorted. No one has vanished here.’ The Col. wanted to talk about winning the war. ‘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 are now not with the Colonel, having become fearful of the US military’s presence and purpose. In Kabul, Nader Nadery, Commissioner of the AIHRC, told Weekend: ‘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 AIHRC has logged more than 800 cases of human rights abuses committed by US troops; most of them inside detention centres or during roundups and prisoner transports. The Afghan government privately shares Nadery’s fears. One minister, who asked not to be named, told Weekend: ‘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.’

What has been glimpsed in Afghanistan is a radical project to replace Guantanamo Bay after it foundered on a surprise legal judgement. The Cuban holding centre, created as an offshore gulag in January 2002, beyond the reach of the US constitution, was brought onshore on July 8, 2004 when the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Court in Washington had jurisdiction to hear cases brought by relatives of prisoners alleging that the detentions were in violation of the US constitution, its laws or treaties. Guantanamo was suddenly bogged down in domestic lawsuits and to avoid the prospect of being forced to release all terror suspects, the US looked to extending an extra-legal prison network that was capable of holding them beyond the reach of the American and European judicial process. Originally constructed to support Guantanamo, feeding terror suspects to it from the Middle East, Europe and Asia, this network consisted of foreign jails commandeered by the US, cellblocks built at US military bases and covert CIA facilities that were located almost anywhere from an apartment block to a shipping container.

There is no visible infrastructure – no prison rolls, visitor rosters, staff lists or complaints procedures, nothing to link the US to any of its constituent parts. And yet now that this prison network has overtaken Guantanamo, terror suspects can be processed in Afghanistan or at any of the dozens of other facilities located 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 that are hosting these invisible prisons are already partners in the US coalition. Others, including Syria, are new and pragmatic associates, working privately alongside the CIA and US Special Forces, despite bellicose public statements from President George W. Bush who has condemned the country for harbouring terrorism.

All of the host countries are renowned for their poor human rights records, enabling interrogators – US soldiers, contractors and their local partners – to operate with impunity in a no-holds-barred system of summary justice. Weekend has obtained prisoner letters, de-classified FBI files, legal depositions, witness statements and testimony from US and UK officials familiar with the US global prison network, that describe how the methods deployed in Afghanistan – shackles, hoods, electrocution, whips, mock executions, sexual humiliation and starvation – are practised across the network. Sir Nigel Rodley, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, said: ‘The more hidden detention practises 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 high profile Al Qaeda operatives such as Abu Zubayda, Osama 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 Pakistan government said Zubayda was being held at a CIA facility in their country. The following November, US Homeland Security director Tom Ridge revealed that America had a hand in the disappearance of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, who vanished after being arrested in the United Arab Emirates. Al-Nashiri had been taken to Afghanistan before being moved to another jail in a third, undisclosed country and was now ‘providing useful information’. In May 2003, President George W. Bush clarified the fate of Waleed Muhammad bin Attash, another alleged USS Cole co-conspirator, who disappeared having been 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’. One more person who has never appeared on a US prison roll, although the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has hinted that it played a part in Attash’s ongoing interrogation.

In June 2004, a senior counter-terrorism official in Britain confirmed that Hambali, accused of organising the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002, who had not been seen since Thai police seized him in August 2003, was ‘singing like a bird’ apparently at the US base on Diego Garcia. In August 2004 the US was forced to reveal that it was also holding alleged 9/11 co-conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh when a court in Hamburg, Germany, demanded he be produced before a judge after intelligence said to have been provided by al-Shibh was cited in court. The US Justice Department refused but deposited excerpts from al-Shibh’s interrogation file, papers that confirmed he was being held at an undisclosed location thought to be Thailand’s U-Tapao Airbase, 90 miles east of Bangkok. And on September 30, 2004 President Bush revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of helping organise the 9/11 attacks, who disappeared in Pakistan in March 2003, was now being held in an unspecified prison, having been first assessed at Bagram in Afghanistan.

However, Weekend has gathered evidence that many more of those swept up in the network have few provable connections to any outlawed organisation and experts in the field describe their value in the war against terror as ‘negligible’. Former prisoners claim they were only released 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.

No official prisons or prisoners identified, no charges or trials – just a floating population of ‘Ghost Detainees’, that according to US and UK military officials familiar with the network now exceeds 10,000, endlessly circling the world like freight in what, Reed Brody, special counsel for the US-based Human Rights Watch, described as ‘a practise that fundamentally challenges the foundations of US and international law’ run by an administration in Washington that ‘is violating the most basic legal norms’.

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