Afghanistan: US steps up prisoner releases

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JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Zahir Daud says he is not angry with the Americans who took 32 months of his life. The only time the slim, dark-eyed former literature teacher showed a trace of bitterness is when he is asked how many children he had.

“Five,” he said. “The youngest, a boy, was only 5 months old when they arrested me. I have not seen him since.”

Zahir is one of nine men being reunited with his family on a blisteringly hot day in eastern Afghanistan. The “Detainee Release Shura” is a well-scripted and strictly controlled event at which those who have been held for various periods at the U.S. prison at Bagram — now known as the Parwan Detention Facility — are set free. As with most of the detainees, Zahir insists that he never had ties to the insurgents.

“Some enemy informed the Americans that I was Taliban,” he said. “I am angry about that.”


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But Zahir, like the others, will never know exactly what evidence the U.S. military had against him. Throughout the process, the detainees have no access to a lawyer, nor are they allowed to see what reports or proof the international forces are using as grounds for their detention. The U.S. government cites national security as a reason for not allowing the detainees to confront their accusers.

This shura, or council, in Jalalabad is being held at the compound of the provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai; his lush gardens, complete with fountain and pool, provide a stark contrast to the bare-bones prison where the detainees — they are never referred to as prisoners — have spent anywhere from a few months to several years.

The detainees sit in the front row; most of them wear a simple white cap on their heads and the long shirts and baggy trousers typical of Afghanistan. They also wear extravagant paper garlands around their necks, gifts from family and from the many government figures on hand to congratulate them.

The governor, who gave the keynote speech in his massive, glass-walled council hall, was effusive in his congratulations to the detainees, who, he said, would be welcomed back into their communities with open arms.

He was less fulsome in his praise for the Americans, although he did acknowledge that the day was a good sign of cooperation between the Afghan government and the foreign forces. He obliquely suggested that many of the detainees in front of him should not have been arrested in the first place.

“The Americans are not intentionally taking innocent people,” the governor said. “They are being given wrong reports. I hope Afghans will soon be taking the lead in this process all by themselves.”

This is supposed to happen sometime in early 2011, according to both U.S. and Afghan officials; control over the Parwan facility will be handed over to Afghanistan in January.

Zahir, like the others, is overjoyed at his good fortune and not eager to criticize those who brought it about.

“I am very happy that I am now being released,” he said. “I have no complaints about my treatment by the Americans.”

But Zahir exemplifies the problem at the heart of the detainee release program: he was arrested by the U.S. forces for vaguely defined crimes, never given a chance to prove his innocence and is now being sent home with no acknowledgement that he may, perhaps, have been unfairly separated from his family and community.

“The fact that these detainees are being released is not a sign that they are innocent,” emphasized Navy Captain Pamela Kunze. “It just means that a Detainee Review Board (DRB) has determined that they are no longer a threat.”

Each detainee must pass a DRB to secure his release. While they are given access to a personal representative, this is not tantamount to allowing them legal representation, said Andrea Prasow, senior counsel for the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at Human Rights watch, who has observed several DRBs.

“The central flaw in the system is that the detainees have no access to a lawyer nor can they review the evidence against them,” she said. “The hearings are just to make the process appear fair.”

The detainees must also receive the approval of their community elders, who sign a pledge that they will help the detainee to re-integrate into the community. They also must attest that the detainee was “properly” captured — meaning that there can be no complaints against the U.S. forces for the time the detainee spent in detention.

The detainees, under the guidance of the community elders, must promise to renounce violence and support peace and the Afghan Constitution.

“It is not a bad thing to involve the elders,” said Prasow. “The detainees will have a better chance at reintegration if they have the support of the community.”

But the process is more show than substance, she added.

“The U.S. believes it has the authority to detain these people indefinitely,” said Prasow. “They do not think that they are obliged to hold these shuras. It is not really appropriate to have the detainees and the elders sign these pledges with no proper judicial review.”

The release shuras have been fast-tracked since the beginning of the year. According to Kunze, the Jalalabad event was the 30th to be held since January and more than 220 prisoners have now been released.

The new facility at Parwan has gone some way to dispelling the taint of the old prison at Bagram, which had been implicated in cases of detainee abuse. In 2002, a prisoner named Delawar was beaten to death at Bagram, a case well documented by the New York Times and recorded in an award-winning documentary called “Taxi to the Dark Side.”

The Parwan Facility is clean, well-lighted, and detainees are, by all accounts, treated humanely, although reporters are not allowed to speak to them because of Geneva Convention restrictions.

They are given training in trades such as carpentry, sewing, agriculture; one of the speakers at the shura, General Moheeb, told the onlookers that Parwan was more a school than a prison.

“It’s a madrassa, really,” said the heavily bearded military man. “Many of these men could not even read the Holy Koran when they came to us. Now they can recite it from memory.”

But however much improved the Parwan facility, the men are happy to be free.

“I would like to teach again,” said Zair Daud. “I just want my life back.”