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.
ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
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.
"Moreover, it should be noted that the detention system in Afghanistan, unlike the system in Iraq, is not operated even nominally in compliance with the Geneva conventions. The detainees are never given an opportunity to see any independent tribunal. There is no legal process whatsoever and not even an attempt at one. The entire system operates outside the rule of law. At least in Iraq, the US is trying to run a system that meets Geneva standards. In Afghanistan, they are not."
A human `sifting station'
An hour's drive from Kabul, on a dusty plain beneath the snow-topped Panjshir mountains, sits Bagram airbase.
Outside the heavily guarded and sandbagged main gate a gaggle of small boys hustle DVDs of The Passion of the Christ and a Baywatch satire, Son of the Beach, to GIs. Fleets of trucks delivering fuel to the base wait in the sun for clearance to enter. Built in 1976 to Bagram house Soviet forces, it consists of three main hangars, a control tower and various other single-storey buildings, of which the detention center is one.
Prisoners describe the cells as 5m by 10m, with a large bucket serving as a toilet in the corner of each cell and blankets for beds. The cells, which each house between 10 and 15 prisoners, are separated from each other with wire fencing. They occupy the middle of what one detainee called a "factory-like" space, with armed US guards in corridors on each side. Prisoners are taken from the cells to an interrogation facility, where they are interviewed by both military and CIA personnel and, according to one detainee, are filmed during this process and watched by other interrogators in another room.
Some of the detainees are released after a few weeks, others stay for many months. Some are transferred to Guantanamo Bay, still others are subjected to what is referred to by one human rights organization as "RPing," or "Rumsfeld processing." These are the prisoners whom the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge, and whose names do not appear in the records kept at Bagram. Sometimes, according to this organization, the detainees may be "rendered" to Egyptian intelligence or other foreign services for interrogation.
Well before the establishment of the interrogation facilities at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq, there had been an acknowledgement within the Pentagon -- as early as October 2001 -- that America's war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban might lead to the use of torture. Soon after the start of the Afghan war, lawyers at the Pentagon who were specialists on the Geneva convention, international law and interrogation were asked to explore the legal issues involved in the prosecution of this new war.
"There was a kind of sub rosa [secret] thought process during at least the first few months" of the war, a former Pentagon official told an interviewer. Legal experts began quietly discussing what methods could be used to extract information from captured fighters in Afghanistan. "It did not include electric probes in the genitals. But there were certainly a range of psychological measures," the official said.
But that was approved in the upper echelons of the Pentagon. In Afghanistan, military intelligence officials were developing their own rules.
In those early stages of US intervention in Afghanistan, it was never envisaged that America would preside over a large prisoner population there. Bagram was supposed to be a human sifting station, with a swift turnover of detainees. Its primary aim was to provide immediate battlefield intelligence, and to select a relatively small number of detainees thought to have strategic information about al-Qaeda, who would be sent on for more detailed interrogation to Guantanamo.
In practice, Bagram has become a more permanent facility, a repository for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects, but also a dumping ground for people who ended up there often because an enemy had maliciously told the authorities that they were al-Qaeda or Taliban members. The gathering of intelligence has proceeded extremely slowly.
"Once we were there six months, people began saying, `We don't have Osama bin Laden, we don't have Ayman al-Zawahiri.' All of a sudden it was like, `We are going to pressure interrogators,'" said a retired senior military intelligence official. When the US went to war on Afghanistan, it had a severe shortage of experienced interrogators, and it was desperately short of Pashtun translators.
But the Pentagon demanded results. Interrogators were set a target number for completed interrogations, and advised to limit each session to under an hour. "Unless you were going to come out with a good report that you were going to find a nuclear bomb in the desert or Osama bin Laden in a cave, they really didn't really want to devote the time," said the official.
During the second half of 2002, Captain Carolyn Wood of the 519th military intelligence battalion was the officer demanding results.
Wood, who was in charge of the Bagram Collection Point, the main screening area, was redeployed to Abu Ghraib last year, where she was also in charge of interrogations. US military spokesmen have said she laid down the same procedures that had been established at Bagram.
"In Afghanistan, they had some interrogation rules of engagement. When they deployed to Iraq, she brought those rules with her," one spokesman said. "Those rules were modified to make sure the right restraints were in place." Last month, Pentagon officials described to the Senate Armed Services Committee Wood's instructions for interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a supposedly more moderate version of her guidelines for Bagram. The captain's rules of engagement included sleep and sensory deprivation, painful "stress positions," dietary manipulation and the use of dogs.
Attorneys for soldiers charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal believe that Wood was instrumental in setting policy for interrogations at the Iraqi prison -- just as she did in Afghanistan.
"We do think she is an important element in this case," said Gary Myers, the lawyer for Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, who goes on trial in Baghdad this week. "She was present, and we are thinking she has knowledge."
However, a former member of the 205th military intelligence brigade, which was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison at the time of the abuse, said an officer of Wood's rank would not have had a free hand in setting policy either at Bagram or Abu Ghraib, but would be following orders from a higher command. An army spokeswoman said yesterday that Wood was on an advanced course at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, the training center for US military interrogators. She faces no charges in connection with the Abu Ghraib scandal, but she has been assigned a military lawyer in connection with the abuses.
The policeman's story
The journey to Syed Nabi Siddiqi's home in the village of Shaikhan, about 60 miles south of Kabul toward the Pakistan border, passes the tanks of foreign forces on the outskirts of Kabul, past Kochi nomads' camels strolling languidly across the highway, past cemeteries with traditional green, purple and yellow banners, through almost biblical scenes of 10-year-old goatherds and their charges, past the mine-clearers whose long blue armored tunics and helmets make them look like medieval warriors, through the Tera Pass and into the crowded, dusty chaos of Gardez, a city that has seen regular warfare for much of the past 25 years.
Siddiqi, who has nine children, had a job as a police officer -- he offers proudly to change into his uniform -- and had been promoted to deputy head of the crime department in Gardez and supervised patrolmen at the time of his arrest. However, he had had problems with his senior officers. The day before his arrest, he said, he had a meeting with his superior that turned into an argument.
"I said that there should be no corruption," said Siddiqi, offering tea and raisins. "I said that every week there should be a visit to the jail, which is under the control of the security commander." Siddiqi said that this local commander "knew nothing of how to deal with prisoners. He was an illiterate man; he put people in prison because he got money [bribes] to do so."
When he returned to work the following day, he was told that he was dismissed and was arrested by four soldiers, two Afghan and two foreign troops. He told the troops that he had a breathing problem for which he needed medicine, so he was taken to a pharmacy where the pharmacist was promptly arrested, too, for no other reason, insists Siddiqi, than that they spoke to each other. Both men were blindfolded and taken to the foreigners' detention center in Gardez, one of 20 such centers across the country.
An interpreter wearing a mask then told him to cooperate and asked him if he knew Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan. He said he did, but had not seen him since he returned to his village. He was then asked if he knew Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the founder of the Islamist party, Ittehad-e-Islami. "I said I had heard about him but had not met him."
After three or four days, he was taken away blindfolded by a group of Americans. "They were kicking me and beating me and shouting like animals at me. They took off my uniform. I requested them several times, `If you don't respect me, please respect my uniform.' I showed them my identity card from the government of President Karsai. Then they asked me which animals -- they made the noise of goats, sheep, dogs, cows -- I had had sexual activities with.
They laughed at me. I said that such actions were against our Afghan and Islamic tradition, but they again asked me, 'Which kind of animals do you want to have sex with?' Then they asked me to stand like this (he indicates being bound to a pole) and beat me with a stick from the back and kicked me. I still have pains in my back as a result. They told me, `Your wife is a prostitute.'"
"All the time I kept saying, 'Why are you doing such things?' and they laughed," he said. He and other prisoners were then placed in a 25m by 2m structure. Siddiqi demonstrated how they were made to kneel with their hands handcuffed behind their backs in great discomfort. "I saw many other people -- young, old, different ages." After he had been detained for 22 days, an American soldier wrote the number 22 on his hand. He was told to make sure the number was not erased or he would not be released. They were taken outside, where he and other prisoners, still handcuffed behind their backs, were dumped face-first into two helicopters, some piled on top of prisoners already in the helicopter, he said. "I asked for water and my medicines and they kicked me again."
They were flown to Kandahar, where, once they had been taken out of the helicopters, he begged again for water. "I was saying, `Oh, mister, give me some water!' Nobody cared. At the back of every detainee there was an American standing.
"Then they brought dogs close to us, they were biting at us," he said, demonstrating how he and the other prisoners had cowered and tried to protect themselves from the dogs. "Then we were taken into another room and they took off our trousers. Then they just beat us.
They took off my watch. In another room, they took our photographs without any clothes on. They asked me, `Are you al-Qaeda or Taliban?' I said, `No, I am a policeman.' Then they gave us a blue uniform. They blindfolded me and shackled my hands and legs.
It was very painful. Again they started kicking me. Then they began to open my legs and my arms." He demonstrated being spreadeagled. He said he was beaten with a stick.
After his blindfold had been taken off, he found himself with around 15 to 20 other prisoners, aged, he said, from teenagers to the elderly. The prisoners were not allowed to converse, but one man told him that he was an Afghan soldier who had been wrongly reported as being a member of a Pakistani militia. They were told that they had to go to the toilet in front of everyone else and American troops jokingly threw stones at them while they did.
"One American soldier said, `Why are you ashamed to show your backside? Why are you so shy? See my backside.' and he showed it to us." Here he paused. "You know that we are Muslim. According to Muslim tradition, if a person tells lies, he is not a real Muslim. Everything I say is true."
Siddiqi said that they were made to roll over in the night every 15 minutes or so in order that they could not sleep. Then the interrogations started again. "It was always, `Are you Taliban or al- Qaeda?'"
A civilian interrogator, whom Siddiqi described as wearing black jeans, treated him sympathetically. "He was a nice man. I told him that I am an innocent person and he told me I would forget what had happened. I said I would not forget it."
After 12 days in Kandahar, he was taken by helicopter to Bagram. He was again made to lie on the floor, he said, once again demonstrating how his face was forced on to the ground. "Then an American asked, `Who is the policeman?' and they got me up and took my blindfold off. I saw computers and American flags on the wall."
This is part one of a two-part series. The second part will run in this space tomorrow.
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