The forgotten suspects - inside an Afghan prison

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

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."

Mohammed Zubair doesn't imagine himself to be a terrorist. A round-faced, short man whose deep redwood skin tone kept him from blending in with the Afghans, he came from the Punjab region of Pakistan. Two years ago he was studying in madrassah, or religious Islamic school, when the mullah at the mosque said that all able men should go to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad.

This, he was told, was his religious duty. He learned that it would be a crime if he didn't help his fellow Muslims fight the Russians and then the American invaders.

When Mr. Zubair got here, he was disappointed to find that the Afghans were not fighting infidels in any jihad. They were simply fighting among themselves.

"It was propaganda," says Zubair. "When I got here, I realized it was all Muslims, and I didn't want to fight against them, but I stayed anyway," he says. He came for jihad, he says, but he was not a member of Al Qaeda. Now, he just wants to get home to his wife and daughter.

Nasar Ahmed Zarif, one of the interrogators, guides Zubair back to his cell and shuts the steel door. "Listen," he says when the door is shut. "Whether they admit it or deny it, all these men were members of Al Qaeda."

Some of the men in the cells look a bit old, too old to be toting guns in Al Qaeda training camps. Do not be fooled, the interrogators say. Many of them were mullahs who preached for Al Qaeda and motivated the men to fight.

Others look very young, like Mohammed Ishfaq, who came from Lahore to open a hotel in Kabul.

"I was looking for a job for two or three days when I got arrested," says Mr. Ishfaq. "They said, 'Where are you from?' I said 'Pakistan,' and they arrested me."

Mr. Zarif, the investigator, lets out a laugh and shakes his head. "He's lying because you know that all of the people in Afghanistan have to go to Pakistan to work, not the other way around." Though this has normally been the direction of the labor flow, international observers here say it is possible some of the prisoners could actually be innocent Pakistanis swept off the streets.

"They have no evidence to prove that I was a fighter before," whispers Ishfaq. "I miss Pakistan very much. It's very cold here. My parents are very old and they need me. God knows what will happen. I hope to be released."

"They say different things, but some of them were arrested with weapons. We know that none of them were civilians. We've proven that already," says Ahmed Jawed, another investigator here.

"Most of them say they came here for work. They try to absolve themselves like this. If they don't admit their crimes, then we will force them," says Jawed, noting that "some pressure" may be used on them. He is not sure whether he will have to resort to the use of "instruments."

Zarif, his partner, agrees. "Once we start investigating them, they will say why they came. It takes time to get them to tell the truth," he says. When the investigations are done, he says, the detainees will be sent away to a regular prison facility.

"I don't think it's worthwhile to be angry at them," he gestures back toward the locked rooms. "But if there was a war in your country for all these years and you had a chance to catch the criminals..." he stops, and starts again. "If you lost many family members in that war, how would you feel about these people?"

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