2 Afghans allege abuse at U.S. site

By Joshua Partlow and Julie Tate
Saturday, November 28, 2009

KABUL -- Two Afghan teenagers held in U.S. detention north of Kabul this year said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban.

The accounts could not be independently substantiated. But in successive, on-the-record interviews, the teenagers presented a detailed, consistent portrait suggesting that the abusive treatment of suspected insurgents has in some cases continued under the Obama administration, despite steps that President Obama has said would put an end to the harsh interrogation practices authorized by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The two teenagers -- Issa Mohammad, 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he is younger than 16 -- said in interviews this week that they were punched and slapped in the face by their captors during their time at Bagram air base, where they were held in individual cells. Rashid said his interrogator forced him to look at pornography alongside a photograph of his mother.

The holding center described by the teenagers appeared to have been a facility run by U.S. Special Operations forces that is separate from the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, the main American-run prison, which holds about 700 detainees. The teenagers' descriptions of a holding area on a different part of the Bagram base are consistent with the accounts of two other former detainees, who say they endured similar mistreatment, but not beatings, while being held last year at what Afghans call Bagram's "black" prison.

A Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Wright, said that the military does not respond to each allegation of detainee abuse, but that all prisoners are treated humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law.

"Department of Defense policy is and always has been to treat detainees humanely. There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions in those cases," he said.

Jonathan Horowitz, who works on detention issues in Afghanistan for the Open Society Institute, said: "These allegations of physical and mental abuse at a secretive facility are, if true, patently unacceptable and must be investigated."

There have been reports about the existence of an interrogation facility at Bagram that is run by Special Operations forces, but little has been disclosed about living conditions or interrogation methods there. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have not been permitted access to the detainees at this facility. The site has continued to operate under the terms of an executive order that Obama signed soon after taking office, which forced the closure of secret prisons run by the CIA but not those run by Special Operations forces.

Mistreatment such as beating, lengthy sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation is prohibited during interrogations under the Army Field Manual, and it is illegal under the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005.

'The hardest time'

The two teenagers were interviewed Wednesday at the Afghan-run Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Kabul, where they were transferred after their detention at Bagram and a brief stay in an Afghan adult prison known as Pul-i-Charkhi. They sat together on a bench outside the building and told their stories in succession, as did a third teenager, Sayid Sardar Ahmad, 17, who also spent time at Bagram.

"That was the hardest time I have ever had in my life," Rashid said of his interrogation. "It was better to just kill me. But they would not kill me."

Rashid, a woodcutter from the Sabari district of Khost province, said he was arrested in the spring with his cousin and father during a U.S. military raid. After being kept at a base in Khost, he said, he was flown to Bagram.

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