Thousands of POWs held in appalling conditions in Afghanistan

By Peter Symonds

8 January 2002

Thousands of captured Taliban fighters, many of whom have been detained

since mid-November, continue to be held in terrible conditions in jails

and makeshift prisons across Afghanistan. Access to the POWs is 


limited but reports have begun to emerge of overcrowded and unsanitary

conditions, lack of food and medical care and the use of torture.

According to a US spokesman in Pakistan, by late December about 7,000

Taliban prisoners were being detained. While the International 


of the Red Cross (ICRC) has had access to the jails, it has only been 


to register some 4,000 of the POWs. The organisation raised concerns 


the conditions of detention after a prisoner fell ill and died last 


at the Shibarghan jail in northern Afghanistan.

The prison built to house 800 holds nearly 3,500 POWs. Dozens of cases 


dysentery have been reported. According to one account, half a dozen 


too weak to walk, one screaming with pain, were carried out of their 


to a clinic where medics set up intravenous drips. Many were sick or

wounded when they were transported to the jail over a month ago.

While US officials claim they bear no responsibility for the treatment

meted out to the prisoners, the POWs are being held at Washingtons 


As the Taliban regime collapse was underway in November, US Secretary 


Defence Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly insisted that there would be no

negotiated deals and that foreign Taliban, in particular, would either 


killed or taken prisoner.

Many of those held at the huge Shibarghan jail were taken prisoner 


the fall of Kunduz. They include survivors of the US-led massacre of

hundreds of POWs inside the Qala-i-Janghi prison near Mazar-e-Sharif in

late November. Shibarghan is the base of the notorious Uzbek warlord

General Abdul Rashid Dostum who was in charge of the surrender of 


and the thousands of captured Taliban.

Many of the prisoners were transported to Shibarghan in sealed metal

containers. According to a witness cited in the New York Times, troops

opened fire on some of the containers as the convoy halted overnight at

Qala Zeina outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The source said he had 


three or four bullet-ridden containers and blood running from them. 


Dostums own intelligence chief Usman Khan admits that 43 died en route

either of asphyxiation or wounds.

According to Afghan authorities, any delay in releasing the POWs was 


to US demands to interrogate the prisoners. Teams of CIA, FBI and other 


officials have been engaged in systematically grilling the thousands of

Taliban held in Afghanistan and also Pakistan to identify those to be

interrogated further. The procedure openly flouts the Geneva 


which provides that POWs are obliged to give only their name, rank, 


of birth and serial number.

The Bush administration tacitly admits its breach of international law 


referring to the prisoners only as detainees not as POWs, who would 


rights prescribed under the Geneva Convention. The term, however, only

begs the obvious questionif the detainees are not being held under the

Geneva Convention then on what basis are they being imprisoned?

The Bush administration deliberately blurs any distinction between the

Taliban and Osama bin Ladens Al Qaeda network. By implicitly branding 


POWs as terrorists, Washington seeks to justify the abrogation of even 


basic rights granted to the prisoners under the Geneva Convention. But

many of the foreign Taliban held in detention are anything but hardened 


Qaeda members as a series of interviews with prisoners at Shibarghan

published in the New York Times makes clear:

* Muhammad Ibrahim, 22, was a Moroccan who lived with his family in 


He came to Afghanistan five months ago at the suggestion of a friend. 


spent a month in Kabul before being sent to Kunduz. I just sat on the

front lineI did not fight for three months. There was nothing much else 


do. I just came here because I had a problem with my family. There is

nothing to say about the Taliban. In the end they were a big 


* Abdul Salam, 17, who worked in a store in Saudi Arabia, came with a

friend to Afghanistan to take part in the holy war. I was here only two

months, one month in Kabul and one month in Kunduz, he said, adding 


he never did any real fighting before being captured.

* Tursam, 30, a Muslim Uighur from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, 


he had come to Afghanistan to settle but had been forced to join a unit 


fighters from Uzbekistan. I did not come here to fight but the Taliban

took us to Kunduz to fight... When they captured me, the soldiers said 


would be handed back to China. They will shoot me in China. What can I 


The use of torture

The US denies using torture to extract information from the POWs. But 


US interrogators are working in tandem with their Afghan allies who 


no such qualms. Abdul Qayum, the governor of one of Kabuls 22 detention

centres, baldly declared to the Guardian newspaper: At first we use

Islamic and humanitarian behaviour towards them [the prisoners] to get

confessions and if that doesnt work then we use physical force. That 


possessed guns and not passports or identity documents was proof of Al

Qaeda membership, Qayum said, but the confessions were needed to clinch

their guilt.

A Northern Alliance soldier, Aghai Gul, in charge of a checkpoint on 


northern outskirts of Kabul had kept one prisoner locked in a metal

container for four weeks. Mahammed Rahim, 40, had been arrested in the

capital for allegedly helping the Taliban and kicked, punched and hit 


a stick. They beat me so much they had to take me to the hospital, then

they took me here. Im still sick but they wont bring me a doctor, he 


Gul openly admitted the use of violence. Of course we beat him; 


it is the only way to get the truth out of them.

Neither US nor Afghan officials will say what the fate of the POWs will

be. To date, 339 POWs have been singled out and handed over to the US

military, which is holding most of them at a makeshift prison at near

Kandahar airport. According to the Pentagon, the first group of about 


prisoners are to be flown to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in 


where they will be held in complete isolation. None of them have been

charged with any crime.

The future of those who remain in Afghanistan is just as uncertain.

General Dostum said that he would not free any Taliban prisoners under 


control at the Shibarghan jail until he had determined whether they had

committed any crimes.

The US-based Human Rights Watch has already raised concerns that 


militants who are returned to countries such as Russia, China, Egypt 


Saudi Arabia will face torture and possible execution. In a statement 


month, the organisation noted that the Convention against Torture, to

which both the US and Afghanistan are signatories, specifically 


persons from being expelled to a country where there are substantial

grounds for believing they will be subject to torture.

General Dostum has already forcibly returned at least 10 Uzbek 


to neighbouring Uzbekistan at the insistence of its president Islam

Karimov. The prisoners, who are allegedly members of the outlawed 


Movement of Uzbekistan, had said that they faced almost certain death 


Karimovs hands and wanted to seek political asylum in Afghanistan. 


Dostum apparently did not bother to consult the interim government in

Kabul, it is inconceivable that his decision did not have the approval 


the US military which had been interrogating the prisoners.


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