The interrogator sat behind a desk, expressionless. The torturers stood in the back of the room.
Abdul Malik Sadiq says he sat in his chair, quietly awaiting his fate.
"I want you to tell us right here that you were a member of Hizb-I Islami, that you were part of a coup attempt to kill President Karzai, and that you are against the US forces in Afghanistan," the interrogator told Mr. Sadiq, his voice rising into a shout.
For days, Sadiq says, he was beaten and tortured in the underground interrogation center of Afghanistan's feared national security service, Amniat.
He was just a car salesman from Jalalabad, he says he told the interrogators, an ethnic Pashtun with a long beard who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He told them that he supported the war on terrorism, hated the Taliban, supported the government of Hamid Karzai, and liked Americans. After all, it was Americans who had given him guns to fight against the Soviets a decade ago.
But Sadiq's answers didn't satisfy the interrogator. Two men wearing rubber gloves placed a small alligator clip in the flesh between Sadiq's middle and ring fingers, and then flicked a switch.
The experiences shared by Sadiq and 300 other Pashtun men, picked up by Afghan intelligence agents on April 12, say human rights experts, is an unsettling sign of how little Afghanistan has changed. On paper, the Constitution guarantees civil rights such as the right of a fair trial, and freedom from torture. But in practice, there is a strong tension between the modern pro-Western promises of Afghanistan's transitional president Hamid Karzai and the practices of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, Amniat, with its mandate to protect the president from Al Qaeda attacks.
Officially, this sort of treatment of Afghan citizens is illegal. In late April, President Karzai ordered Amniat a Soviet-trained agency modeled on the KGB and other police and intelligence agencies to furnish proof of a crime before conducting arrests, a revolutionary step forward in Afghan civil liberties. But Amniat officials are abiding by this rule grudgingly, if at all.
"The constitution of Afghanistan is very clear; nobody can arrest somebody without a warrant, and if the intelligence agency does this, they are criminals themselves," says Abdul Iqrat Wasil, dean of Kabul University's department of law and political science. "But the problem is that nobody takes care of these things."
Amniat's deputy chief, Aman Khan, counters that as long as there are terrorists on Afghan soil trying to overthrow the government, Amniat should have extraordinary tools to stop them.
"If the situation continues in the same direction as Karzai has declared, where nobody can be arrested without proof, then the problem will grow more and more," warns Khan. "Al Qaeda has only been removed from the surface; now they are underground, and that makes them more dangerous."
Sadiq, a devout Muslim, with a chest-long beard, gray vest, and white prayer cap, admits that he looked out of place in post-Taliban Kabul, where most businessmen his age are wearing close-clipped beards and suits, if not baggy American blue jeans.
On the basis of his traditional appearance, apparently, Sadiq was pegged by Amniat as a member of Hizb-I Islami, a Pashtun-dominated party from the 1980s. The Hizb had largely collapsed after the departure of its leader, the radical fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Lately, Afghan intelligence reports have said that Mr. Hekmatyar has returned to eastern Afghanistan. Officials suspect his involvement in a Kabul bombing last week.
But on that cool April morning, when Sadiq was picked up, the Afghan intelligence agency had received a tip, warning of an assassination plot against President Karzai in the capital.
Sadiq says he was there trying to find another Pashtun in Kabul who owed him money. "I was looking for a friend who lived next to the Saudi embassy," says Sadiq, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. "Then a white Toyota Corolla with tinted windows stopped in front of me. Three men in police uniforms got out. When I said, 'What is the problem?' in Pashto, they forced me to get in the car."
At the intelligence headquarters in Kabul, Sadiq was taken to a cramped cell. Three men were already inside, sitting on a cot.
Every day, a guard would open the door and growl one of the cellmates' names, and take him away. Afterward, the interrogators would lead them back to their cell, telling them, "Today was easy, tomorrow it will be harder."
"I was 100 percent sure they would kill me, because of their language, their attitude, their hard beatings," says Sadiq. "And every night I was dreaming about my children, my mother, my wife. I have no brothers, nobody to look after them if I am gone."
Initially, Sadiq was beaten with wire cords and sticks, he says. After that, the torturers used electricity first to his fingers, then on the tip of his tongue, and finally to his genitals.
On the 23rd day of his captivity, the beating stopped. Guards took the four men out of the cell told them to sign some documents. "I thought that I'm signing the last words of my life." But the document said, "I swear by God that I will serve the government, and I will not work against the Northern Alliance... so I signed it."
Five days later, the men were lined up with nearly 150 other men.
"There is pressure on us from the international community, from human rights groups in the US, and that is why we are releasing you," the warden said, reading from a statement. "Otherwise, we would never have let you out of jail."
Sadiq took a taxi to Jalalabad, arriving at 1 a.m. His wife met him at the door with a scowl.
"Where have you been?" she asked. "You told me you would be gone for a week."
After spending the last four weeks telling his enemy the truth, Sadiq told his wife a lie. He wanted to spare her from further worrying. "I went to Kandahar to buy some cars," he said. "It took longer than I thought."