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The forgotten suspects - inside an Afghan prison

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2002


ith each step deeper into the ground, the air grows colder and staler.

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The stairs give way to a dark basement corridor, where a guard unlocks a door, revealing some of his keep: shivering Pakistani men, piled eight or nine to a space fit for two or three, in a bare cement cell that's as cold as a meat locker.

The cell has no washroom or latrine, and the stench of sour milk, unwashed clothes, and fear hang heavily in the air.

While European politicians and human rights groups protest the treatment of 158 Afghan detainees in tropical Cuba, little attention is being paid to some 4,800 men being held here in Afghan prisons.

Like the men in orange jumpsuits held at Guantanamo Bay, they are considered part of Afghanistan's in ternal conflict, which means that they are not "prisoners of war" under the Geneva Convention. They were not sent in as the soldiers of a sovereign nation at war with Afghanistan. This dilemma of definition is complicated by the fact that Muslims from around the Islamic world sent themselves to Afghanistan - whether to wage holy war or to get weapons training from groups such as Al Qaeda. About 30 percent are foreign nationals, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with Pakistanis making up the largest subgroup.

In short, these detainees are facing Afghan law - both the official and traditional versions. But since the courts and government itself exist in name only, there is still almost no indication of what the law actually is.

"We're just waiting for the legal system to operate," says Michael Kleiner, a spokesman for the ICRC.

The wait, it seems, is opening up the possibility of falling back on traditional ways of solving such problems: setting a price on a prisoner's release, payable by his family. Already tribal leaders and other emissaries from Pakistan have been quietly making their way to Kabul and other places, according to one international legal expert, to inquire about the cost of setting the captives free. Such dynamics help explain why many senior Taliban and Al Qaeda people have already been able to escape from their southern Afghanistan redoubts unharmed: they paid their way out, a route seen by local governors and warlords as a legitimate a way to raise cash.

But the men who run the interrogation center in Kabul say they aren't interested in pay-for-prisoner deals or political amnesty. The country's deputy intelligence chief, who gave the Monitor rare access to the lock-up, says Afghans are looking "for revenge" for those lost in the war.

"These men were with the Taliban when we arrested them, and they were armed, so they will have to be tried under Afghan law," says Abdel Qayoum, the chief of the investigations department. A gracious middle-aged man with a teapot that he heats on the the woodstove that warms his office, Mr. Qayoum blames the prisoners for Afghanistan's troubles. He is angry at them over the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood in particular, and at foreigners in general for having prolonged the war.

"How can anyone ask us to send these prisoners back to Pakistan? How could they have sent them here in the first place?" asks Mr. Qayoum. "Before the end of the war, Pakistan always denied that there are Pakistanis fighting here, but now we see that there are, and that they were liars."

Keen to appear evenhanded, he corrects himself. "It has nothing to do with their nationality," he says. "We're just against those people who destroyed our country and hurt the Afghan people. We will treat them according to human rights standards. But as long as Al Qaeda exists, I don't think they should be released. They'll only go out and create more terrorism in the world."