Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Same shame, different site: the Afghan gulag

We know about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib but, until now, Bagram and America's secret network of Afghan jails have come under little scrutiny. Investigation reveals a familiar pattern of violent abuse and sexual humiliation

By Duncan Campbelland Suzanne Goldenberg  /  THE GUARDIAN , Afghanistan

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Former police officer Syed Nabi Siddiqi, 47, is lying with his face pressed to the floor, his arms stretched painfully behind his back. He is demonstrating one of the milder interrogation techniques that he says he endured after he was arrested by foreign troops in Afghanistan last year as part of the US' Operation Enduring Freedom.

During the course of the next hour he will recount how American soldiers stripped him naked and photographed him, set dogs on him, asked him which animal he would prefer to have sex with, and told him his wife was a prostitute. He will tell also of hoods being placed over his head, of being forced to roll over every 15 minutes while he tried to sleep, and of being kept on his knees with his hands tied behind his back in a narrow tunnel-like space, unable to move.

Interviews with former Bagram prisoners, senior US military sources and human rights monitors in Afghanistan have uncovered widespread evidence of detainees facing beatings and sexual humiliations and being kept for long periods in painful positions. Detainees, none of whom were ever charged with any offence, told of American soldiers throwing stones at them as they defecated and of being stripped naked in front of large groups of interrogators. One detainee said that in order to be released after nearly two years' imprisonment, he had to sign a document stating that he had been captured in battle when in fact he had been arrested while driving his taxi with four passengers in it.

At least five men have died while under US detention in Afghanistan, and three of these cases were classified as homicides. Two deaths at Bagram airbase have been classified as homicides, and autopsies have indicated "blunt-force injuries." An investigation into allegations of abuse and into the deaths in custody has just been completed by Brigadier General Chuck Jacoby, the second-highest-ranking US officer in Afghanistan, and parts of it are due to be made public next month.

While the treatment of prisoners at the US facilities in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has been noted by the international media as well as by US investigators and, belatedly, by their superiors, Bagram and the network of 19 US detention centers and "fire bases" around Afghanistan have largely avoided official review or scrutiny. Until recently, human rights groups investigating allegations of abuses in Afghanistan were not even sure how many of the secretive US facilities existed. While Bagram is visited regularly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, witness testimonies suggest that much of the abuse took place at satellite bases.

Siddiqi's story and others like it involve incidents from the end of the 2001 war to the present day. The number and duration of these cases indicate that what has been happening in Abu Ghraib was not an isolated occasion of rogue junior soldiers acting independently, but was part of an apparent interrogation strategy that was in place long before the invasion of Iraq.

"In some ways, the abuses in Afghanistan are more troubling than those reported in Iraq," said John Sifton, the area's Human Rights Watch representative. "While it is true that abuses in Afghanistan often lacked the sexually abusive content of the abuses in Iraq, they were in many ways worse. Detainees were severely beaten, exposed to cold and deprived of sleep and water.

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