Afghans see little gain in U.S. prison changes

KABUL Tue Sep 15, 2009 5:05am EDT

Afghan men sit and chat in a tea house in Istalif, north of Kabul September 13, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Afghan men sit and chat in a tea house in Istalif, north of Kabul September 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

KABUL (Reuters) - Noor Raqeeb, a former prisoner held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, laughed when told Washington would allow detainees held for years at the Bagram jail to challenge their detention through a U.S. military panel.

His reaction to the decision, announced this week, recalled an Afghan proverb which says: "You can't be a prison keeper, judge and executioner at the same time."

"We won't accept an American to deal with the issue of assessing prisoners' cases," said Noor, a 30 year-old doctor from Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province.

The United States is holding about 600 prisoners at Bagram, a giant former Soviet air base north of Kabul that it has used as a makeshift prison since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.

Prisoners there, some of whom have been held for years, have even fewer rights to challenge their detention than those held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

U.S. President Barack Obama's government said Monday it would allow prisoners to challenge their detention. U.S. officials would be provided to help them gather evidence but they would still be denied access to lawyers.

Noor and his brother Abdul Raqeeb were both held at Bagram.

Abdul was asleep when U.S. forces arrested him in a raid at his home, suspecting the 37-year-old was chief spokesman for Taliban guerrillas. In a similar operation days later, U.S. soldiers seized Noor in the province's rugged Kama district.

Noor was held on suspicion of organizing suicide bombings and roadside blasts against foreign and Afghan forces in Nangarhar, a stronghold of the resurgent Taliban. He was lucky compared to his brother and was freed 10 days later.

Abdul, a father of six and a mosque leader in his village, was held for two years before the military decided he was not the man they were after and was freed last month. Both said they weren't mistreated, unlike some former detainees.

Bagram is just one of the numerous prison sites that sprang up across the world after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that Obama has inherited from the previous administration of President George W. Bush.

It has had an ugly history: two prisoners died there in 2002 after being beaten by U.S. troops. U.S. authorities say treatment has improved and they plan to replace the 8-year-old, makeshift site with a new $60 million prison in coming months.

NEW RULES

Under the new rules, inmates will have their detention reviewed roughly every six months, U.S. officials said, part of efforts by the Pentagon to improve the image of its forces.

Each detainee would be assigned a U.S. military official who would have the authority to look for evidence, including witnesses and classified material, to challenge detention. Challenges would be heard by a military-appointed review board.

"We will accept if it is done by a neutral party. I am not hopeful," said Toor Khan, whose cousin Khan Mohammad has been held at Bagram for six months.

Khan, a villager from Logar south of Kabul, has spoken to Mohammad at the prison via video phone link organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only means of direct contact between prisoners and their relatives.

"He was telling me that he was taken to Bagram on charges of cooperation with al Qaeda and did not know how long he will be there for," Khan said.

Sediq Muslim, a member of an Afghan government-appointed body dealing with U.S. forces on the prisoners, also agreed that the review of cases needed to be assessed by a non-American official.

"Their (relatives') concern is plausible," he told Reuters.

Some people were arrested by U.S. forces on false information provided by rival armed groups or tribes, some happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and some were caught red-handed on the battlefield, he said.

These cases needed to be sorted out so the innocent could be released quickly rather than languishing for years, Muslim said.

Acting Afghan Attorney General Fazl Ahmad Faqiryar said the government would prefer to be included in the review board.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Paul Tait)

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