It is easy for people imprisoned in a foreign land to be forgotten. They are of little interest to their government and even their relatives may find them too far away to visit.
For Afghans imprisoned in jails in Tajikistan, that is particularly true. Some have spent years in prison on charges of crossing the border illegally or drug trafficking and during that time they have had little or no contact with home.
This is despite the fact that Tajikistan and Afghanistan signed a treaty more than a year ago on prisoner exchanges so that inmates could serve out their sentences in their own countries.
But the situation looks set to change, after the prisoners’ plight was brought to the attention of both governments with a little help from the media.
As it does, the experience is providing a glimpse into how Afghans have come to expect the media to play the kind of gadfly role in their society that it plays in other countries with a much longer tradition of a free press.
The story begins with a recorded telephone message in July from a prisoner to RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan’s talk show “Liberty and Listeners.”
“Hello, all Radio employees! I am speaking on behalf of all Afghan prisoners in Tajikistan’s prisons," the man says. "According to an agreement signed between Afghanistan and Tajikistan on June 20, 2008, all Afghan prisoners were supposed to be transferred to Afghanistan to serve the rest of their terms in Afghan prisons. Unfortunately, no step has been taken in this regard so far. Thanks. Abdullah.”
Following up the case, “Liberty and Listeners” confirmed that there was, indeed, a prisoner exchange agreement between the two countries. But the agreement had yet to be implemented because it had fallen into a bureaucratic limbo.
The moderator of “Liberty and Listeners,” Zarif Nazar, discovered that no one had yet taken the final steps needed to conclude the deal after making calls to Afghanistan's Interior, Foreign, and Justice ministries.
In each case, a ministry spokesman or official confirmed the agreement’s existence and offered some detailed information about it. But as to when prisoners might be exchanged, and under what conditions, there seemed to be nothing but confusion.
“None of them gave us complete information, and one said it is not our job, you should contact the Foreign Ministry," Nazar says. "But in fact all three ministries had important roles to play in the matter.”
'Watchdog And Advocate'
As each ministry claimed to be waiting for missing pieces from the other before the agreement could move forward, it became clear that without a gadfly the agreement might never move forward at all.
“We saw clearly why people need to have a free press that can play the role of a watchdog and advocate," Nazar says. "And people all over Afghanistan began listening with real interest to see where this effort to be a gadfly was going to end in the face of the kind of bureaucratic indifference that every Afghan knows so well from personal experience.”
With the topic coming up weekly, Afghan government officials also appeared to be listening closely.
In early August, “Liberty and Listeners” received a call from Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dodfar Spanta. He said he had heard what the spokesman from the various ministries had said and he was ready to try to explain himself where the agreement stood.
“I listened to your interview with a spokesman of the Afghan Foreign Ministry – my own spokesman – and the deputy justice minister, and I feel there is a need to provide more concrete information," Spanta said.
"With the initiative of the Afghan Foreign Ministry, an agreement on prisoners’ exchange has been signed between us and Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry. The agreement has been approved by both chambers of the Afghan parliament and signed by the president.”
Spanta said the hang-up in the agreement was that Dushanbe had requested some additional special conditions and wanted a letter from Kabul confirming acceptance of them. One of the conditions was not to free the to-be-repatriated prisoners until the time of their full sentence was served.
And then the Afghan foreign minister produced a surprise announcement. He said he had just received a letter from the Justice Ministry confirming Afghanistan’s acceptance and he had forwarded the letter to the Afghan Embassy in Dushanbe.
For the next weekly program, on September 11, “Liberty and Listeners” called Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan to see if he had yet received the necessary letter.
The ambassador, Sayid Mohammad Khairkhoh, said he had. And he, too, had a surprise announcement. The embassy had prepared all the necessary documents for establishing a joint Tajik-Afghan commission needed to oversee the exchange, and implementation of the agreement was now being discussed with the Tajik government.
“Now the ball is on the Tajik side,” he said.
Were any of the Afghan officials that “Liberty and Listeners” phoned surprised to be getting a call from the press on behalf of some prisoners forgotten in a neighboring country?
“They were surprised," Nazar says, "but we also were surprised by their reaction. They took it seriously and that gives us hope that they understand this is the proper role of the press, no matter whether the people are prisoners or from other walks of life.”
It is too soon to know when a prisoner exchange will actually take place. But “Liberty and Listeners” plans to keep watching the progress. And, with thousands of people listening to the program each week doing the same, Nazar hopes the result will be a well-learned civic lesson for everyone.