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Afghanistan: Kabul Seeks Release Of More Bagram Detainees

Afghan prisoners arrive in Kabul after their release from the Bagram detention center in February (epa) PRAGUE, October 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Military and human rights experts say U.S. forces in Afghanistan have wrongly detained many Afghans on the basis of faulty information -- often provided by rival Afghans trying to settle vendettas. Most are never charged with a crime. But hundreds have been released after mediation by Afghanistan's Reconciliation Commission. The commission is due to visit the U.S. military's detention center at Bagram Air Field on October 7 in a bid to get more detainees released.

Amanullah gets angry when he recalls his 14 months of confinement at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.

The 56-year-old veteran of combat against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan insists that enemies wrongly accused him of being a terrorist.

Amanullah says the accusations led to his arrest at his home in Wardak Province during a nighttime raid by U.S. forces in early 2004. He says he spent nearly a year in solitary confinement at Bagram before being transferred to a cage shared by 16 other Afghans who were forbidden to look at each other or talk.

From Logar Province, where he now resides, Amanullah told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he still doesn't know the specific accusations against him -- or who provided that information to the U.S. military.
"I want the responsible Afghan authorities to ask the United States why they detained me for so long. And they should tell me what my crime was. Otherwise, those [Afghans] who have turned me in should be held accountable."

"I want the responsible Afghan authorities to ask the United States why they detained me for so long," Amanullah said. "And they should tell me what my crime was. Otherwise, those [Afghans] who have turned me in should be held accountable. I haven't committed any crime. I have only waged jihad [against Soviet forces] for the freedom of Afghanistan. One of the enemies of jihad were the communists. There also may have been others making false allegations against me because of personal animosities."

Settling Scores?

Amanullah is not alone in proclaiming his innocence. Hundreds of Afghans have passed through secretive U.S. detention centers set up in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime. All became entangled in a system where they had no legal protections or rights.

Rahul Bedi, a correspondent for "Jane's Defence Weekly" who covers Afghanistan, tells RFE/RL that many Afghan detainees have been wrongly labeled Taliban or terrorists by local rivals who use the U.S. military to settle old disputes.

"The Afghans are very astute and cunning people," Bedi said. "And so I think it's very easy to make a fool of the Westerners -- and particularly, the Americans -- who don't really understand the tribal loyalties, the culture, [or] the language. A lot of score-settling is taking place. A lot of false arrests are being made."

The estimated 500 detainees still held by U.S. forces at Bagram are thought to include Arabs, Pakistanis, and some Central Asians. But most are Afghans.

Their heads are shaved and they wear the same orange jumpsuits as detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But at Bagram, they lack even the limited legal rights granted to Guantanamo inmates -- such as the right to appear at military hearings to assess whether they pose a security threat.

Challenging Times

Sam Zia Zarifi, a researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says some Afghans have been held without charge at Bagram for three to four years.

Zarifi says legislation awaiting the signature of U.S. President George W. Bush will make it even more difficult for detainees in Afghanistan to defend themselves against false charges.

"People who are at Bagram and other places lose their right to bring a habeas corpus petition. That means that they can be held indefinitely without any proper charge. In Bagram, an Afghan can't challenge his or her detention anymore."

Meanwhile, in Washington this week, lawyers have been trying to win the release of 25 Afghans held at Bagram without charge. They have filed a petition in a federal court asserting that those detainees have been wrongly accused.

The head of the Afghan Reconciliation Commission, Sebghatullah Mujadidi, says the fate of all Afghans in U.S. custody will be discussed with U.S. officials when a delegation from Kabul visits Bagram on October 7.

Back To Bagram

Mujadidi says his commission has mediated in the release of 462 innocent Afghan detainees from Bagram during the past 18 months -- including Amanullah -- and 17 from Guantanamo Bay.

"We are sending our delegates to Bagram again," Mujadidi says. "It has been agreed that this delegation will be allowed to look at the case files of all of the Afghan detainees. Those who are innocent will be released."

Mujadidi says most Afghans still in detention at Bagram are expected to be transferred to Afghan custody by the summer of 2007. By then, a new high-security wing and staff training should be completed at Kabul's Pul-e Charki prison.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, says some Afghans being held for "acts of terrorism against the United States" could still be held at Bagram.

NATO Takes Charge

NATO today took over the command of security operations across Afghanistan -- including counterterrorism missions by U.S.-led coalition forces in the east of the country.

But despite the command handover, the U.S. military remains in charge of the Bagram prison and other smaller detention facilities at forward operations bases across the country.

(Contributors to this story include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Hamid Pazhaman in Kabul and Sharafudin Stanekzai in Herat.)