A former detainee at the notorious Afghan prison outlines the plight of Pakistanis detained in Afghanistan.
Truck driver Umran Khan spent nine years in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison, where he says he suffered beatings, sleep deprivation and a sustained campaign of mental disintegration—despite committing no crime.
Accused with a friend of transporting bombs in 2005, he has maintained his innocence—and an official record shows his captors suspected the same. Now the 32-year-old, one of six Pakistanis released last November, has spoken out against his treatment at Bagram in a case rights groups say underlines the need for more scrutiny of the prison, opened in 2002 and often compared to Guantanamo Bay.
The Afghan authorities took over the jail, renamed Parwan, in 2013 but the U.S. remains in charge of foreigners—including around 34 Pakistanis. Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International, said the case “demonstrates the persisting secrecy surrounding U.S. detention policies.”
“[It is] a significant problem given cases like this where individuals with no apparent involvement in hostilities happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he added.
Khan’s ordeal began one night in Peshawar, where he and his friend had traveled from the Khyber Agency to visit a cousin in hospital. There, he met two Afghans, “Saifoo” and “Lalzir,” who had brought their sick grandmother to the same facility. The men became friends and the Afghans promised the Pakistanis a sightseeing tour in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and the chance to pick up some informal work.
“The first day we arrived we wanted to go out, and they refused saying we have to wait for a friend, wait until tomorrow,” said Khan, a tall, light-skinned man with a long beard and a prayer cap. After days of waiting, Khan said he decided to take a bus back to Pakistan, but Saifoo and Lalzir insisted it was their duty as hosts to escort their guests in a taxi.
It was then that things took a turn for the worse, with the car searched at a checkpoint by the Afghan army. They were allowed to go, but were stopped again further up the road and detained.
The two Afghans were later freed but Khan and his friend were taken to a U.S. base and questioned about explosives found in the car’s boot. “They asked us, ‘Is this yours?’ And we told them we had no idea,” Khan said. A few days later, he was taken to Bagram airbase and given a new identity: prisoner ISN 2422.
Detainees at Bagram had no access to lawyers, but records on them were released following a freedom of information request by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009. Khan’s file tells of a man with a consistent account of events who cannot be linked forensically to the explosives found in the car and with no known connections to militant groups. Despite the fact he was captured in a taxi with IEDs, “there is no fingerprint evidence linking him to these IED components” nor “evidence of exposure to explosive materials,” the file said.
The U.S. investigation concluded that “based upon the evidence and testimony … the continued interment of [Umran] is not necessary” and noted the “strange” circumstances surrounding his capture.
Despite being given a low threat assessment, Khan says his captors held him in solitary confinement and regularly subjected him to sleep deprivation. “They wouldn’t let us sleep. If they wanted to punish you, for example if you spoke to another prisoner they would put you in a star position for 30 minutes to an hour,” he said. “They had metal bars fitted into the doors of our cells. When they saw people were sleeping they would run a stick along it to make a loud noise.”
Later, as the jail became more crowded, inmates were moved to shared cells and given prayer mats and the Quran, but Khan said even that was used against them. “They would pick it up and throw it around just as psychological pressure. They would grind it down with their feet,” he said.
He said he developed breathing problems from the tear gas he said guards used to quell unruly inmates. He also recalled beatings at the hands of soldiers, once after he complained about repeated cell searches that upended his meager possessions. “They wanted us to never have a moment’s peace, day or night. By the time we left, they wanted our minds to be destroyed.”
A U.S. defense spokesman declined to comment on the details of the case but said they did not tolerate the abuse of detainees. “Although there have been substantiated cases of abuse in the past, for which U.S. service members have been held accountable, our enemies also have employed a deliberate campaign of exaggerations and fabrications,” the spokesman said.
On Khan’s nine years in custody, the spokesman said decisions regarding “third-country nationals” involve “sensitive diplomatic discussions, which often take a considerable amount of time.”
The Justice Project Pakistan has taken the Pakistani government to court to push for the remaining detainees’ liberation ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of 2014. Campaigners fear the detainees may be caught in legal limbo if they are not repatriated before the deadline.
Tasneem Aslam, a spokeswoman for Pakistan’s foreign office, said negotiations were under way and they hoped for more releases in the coming months.
Khan now works in construction in Khyber and wants to get on with his life. He recalled the day last November when he was released. As he left Bagram, he says a U.S. colonel apologized to him. “I replied: ‘Why are you asking forgiveness after nine years and after destroying our lives? Didn’t I tell you I’m innocent all along?’,” Khan said. “He just said, ‘Forgive us, you were right.’”