By MATTHEW PENNINGTON
The Associated Press
Sunday, October 1, 2006; 9:47 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Capt. Amanullah, a former mujahedeen commander, smooths his black beard with his palm and gives a deep and ironic laugh as he recounts his 14 miserable months in Bagram, the U.S. prison for terror suspects in Afghanistan.
"There were lots of stupid questions and accusations with no proof," said the 56-year-old veteran of combat against the Soviet occupation. He insists he was there only because Afghan rivals lied about him to the U.S. Army.
He's far from alone in his assertion of innocence _ or his inability to make that heard for so long. Like many who have passed through the secretive jail set up after the fall of the Taliban regime, Amanullah found himself entangled in a system where he had no protection and no rights, and not even the pressure of public scrutiny that helped inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
"There's been a silence about Bagram, and much less political discussion about it," said Richard Bennett, the chief U.N. human rights officer in Afghanistan.
Originally intended as a short-term holding pen for al-Qaida and Taliban suspects later shipped to Guantanamo, Bagram has expanded and acquired its own notoriety over abuse allegations though attracting much less international attention than the U.S. detention facility in Cuba.
The U.S. plans to turn over the Afghan nationals in its custody to the Afghan government by next summer. They will be sent to a new high-security wing at the Afghan government's main Policharki prison in Kabul _ scene of repeated deadly riots and escapes in recent years. But non-Afghans currently held at Bagram will stay in U.S. custody, officials say.
Bagram's estimated 500 inmates are mostly Afghans, but also are believed to include Arabs, Pakistanis and some Central Asians. They wear the same orange jump suits and shaven heads as the "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo, but lack even the scant legal rights granted to the inmates at that facility, such as the right to appear at military hearings that assess whether they pose a security threat. In some cases, they have been held without charge for three to four years, rights workers say.
New legislation would extend anti-torture protections to all prisoners in U.S. custody. But only those hand-picked by the president or the military would get rights to legal representation and a hearing. So far, that has been accorded to only a handful of men at Guantanamo, and none held at Bagram or in Iraq, where more than 13,000 are in U.S. custody without charge.
At least two of the eight people reported to have died in U.S. custody since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 were at Bagram. At least 15 American servicemen have been charged with prison abuse following the December 2002 deaths of those two Afghan nationals, Dilawar and Habibullah. The heaviest punishment handed down has been five months in jail.
Based on interviews with freed Bagram detainees, rights workers say conditions have gradually improved for the inmates who are housed in communal cages inside a cavernous Soviet-era machine workshop, at what is the main American base in Afghanistan.
Amanullah was arrested at home in Wardak province in a nighttime raid in early 2004, apparently because of his suspected ties with a renegade warlord. He spent 11 months in solitary confinement, then was shifted to a cage shared by 16 other Afghans who were forbidden to look at one another, let alone talk.
He said inmates staged an 11-day protest toward the end of his stint at Bagram, demanding to be allowed to pray together and to have water to clean themselves before praying, as demanded by Islam. Before that they used dust instead. Their request was eventually granted.
The U.S. military points to other improvements. Spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick said that chamber pots have been replaced with internal plumbing and privacy screens for personal hygiene. There are now opportunities for education _ reading, writing, math _ and voluntary work-for-pay.
But the most enduring concern is not prison conditions but the legal limbo of detainees _ and concerns over how many ended up there in the first place.
A Western official, who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, recounted as an example how earlier this year, three armed, plainclothes police were rounded up and dispatched to Bagram after they were stopped at a roadblock in an eastern province during a U.S. military operation.
He estimated that as many as half those incarcerated at the American base, located an hour's drive north of Kabul, shouldn't be there. "Once you're in, the process of getting out is very long and difficult," the official said.
Mubibbullah Khan, 38, at the time a respected district chief in southern Zabul province, was held at Bagram 8 1/2 months after his September 2005 arrest on suspicion he was a Taliban informant _ although he'd spent most of the hardline regime's rule in exile in Pakistan. He believes he was framed by a rival within the provincial government.
Amanullah, who in the 1980s commanded thousands of anti-Soviet mujahedeen, funded by the U.S., claims he was set up by former communists in Afghan intelligence. He said that a sequence of American interrogators in Bagram questioned him, accusing him among other things of concealing a cache of weapons under a cemetery where they alleged his militia had once massacred 1,800 ethnic Hazara tribespeople _ which he maintains is nonsense.
"I have enemies from during the civil war and during the communist time. All these people are giving false information," he said.
Sayed Sharif Yousofy, spokesman for the Afghan reconciliation commission that has assisted the release of about 400 detainees from Bagram and Guantanamo, including Amanullah and Mubibbullah, also said many had been arrested on "wrong information."
But the Western official said for all its legal shortcomings, Bagram offers much better security than grisly Afghan prisons, where conditions _ while improving _ are very poor and Taliban militants have "a well-organized operation for springing people out of jail" through bribery.
NATO nations fighting in Afghanistan are investing in Afghan prisons and now handing over detained insurgents directly to its authorities. Meanwhile Afghan detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo and Bagram are to be shifted to Afghan custody at Policharki prison when a new high-security wing and staff training is complete _ Fitzpatrick says by summer 2007.
Afghan Justice Minister Mohammed Sarwar Danish said each detainee's case would then be assessed by the Afghan attorney general, and they will either be freed or put on trial. Fitzpatrick said some Afghans held for "acts of terrorism against the U.S." could still be held at Bagram.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.