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Afghanistan: US steps up prisoner releases

Afghan detainees kept in the dark about their arrests, even as they are set free.

Afghanistan prisoner release
Family and friends wave to former Afghan prisoners arriving after their release from U.S. custody in 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The United States has recently sped up detainee release programs. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

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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.”