By Joshua Partlow and Julie Tate
Saturday, November 28, 2009; A01
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.
At the beginning of his detention, he was forced to strip naked and undergo a medical checkup in front of about a half-dozen American soldiers. He said that his Muslim upbringing made such a display humiliating and that the soldiers made it worse.
"They touched me all over my body. They took pictures, and they were laughing and laughing," he said. "They were doing everything."
He said he lived in a small concrete cell that was slightly longer than the length of his body. Food was tossed in a plastic bag through a slot in the metal door. Both teenagers said that when they tried to sleep, on the floor, their captors shouted at them and hammered on their cells.
When summoned for daily interrogations, Rashid said, he was made to wear a hood, handcuffs and ear coverings and was marched into the meeting room. He said he was punched by his interrogators while being prodded to admit ties to the Taliban; he denied such ties. During some sessions, he said, his interrogator forced him to look at pornographic movies and magazines while also showing him a photograph of his mother.
"I was just crying and crying. I was too young," Rashid said. "I didn't know what a prison looks like or what a prison is."Lengthy interrogations
Mohammad, a vegetable farmer from the Arghandab district of Kandahar province, said he was arrested around March, also during an American military raid. He said he spent 14 days in a solitary cell before being moved to group quarters at the main Bagram prison, which he described as a separate area. During those initial two weeks, he recalled, interrogation sessions lasted hours, with one man "yelling at me and also punching and slapping my face."
"He kept asking me, 'Tell us the truth.' I told them the truth more than 10 times. That I'm a farmer, my father was a farmer, my brother was a farmer," Mohammad said. "But they said, 'No, help us with this case. Tell us the truth.' That's why he was slapping me."
Similar living conditions, particularly the lengthy sleep deprivation and intense cold, were also described by two other former detainees, Malik Mohammad Hassan, a tribal elder from the Jalalabad area, and Mohammad Mukhtar, a former teacher. They said they were arrested last year and held for some time in the "black" prison. They said they were not beaten but still described their treatment as "torture."
"This is something nobody can bear. It's extraordinary," Hassan said. "They treated us like wild animals."
Conditions inside the main Bagram prison have been kept hidden from the American public for most of the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. Detainees are held there without charge, sometimes for several years, and are denied access to lawyers. In the early years, the prison was notorious as a place where aggressive interrogations and severe sleep deprivation were regularly used. Two detainees died there in 2002 after being beaten by U.S. soldiers.
The Special Operations facility at the Bagram base has been even more carefully shielded, with the identities of detainees kept secret even from the International Committee of the Red Cross. But in the summer, the military agreed to notify the Red Cross within 14 days of the identities of detainees brought there.
The U.S. military is now reforming detainee policies at Bagram, and the captives are expected to be transferred to a new $60 million detention center by year's end. The facility is intended to provide better living conditions and prepare detainees to re-enter society. On a tour of the unoccupied prison this month, U.S. military officials touted the changes: rooms for family visits, vocational classes, recreational areas and medical checkups. The detainees will live under natural light, have access to regular hearings with an appointed U.S. military representative, and get a mattress, two blankets, a prayer rug, a prayer cap and a Koran.
"I want to be clear that there is no harsh treatment at all," Col. John Garrity, a commander at Bagram, said at the time.
Tate reported from Washington. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.