War & Peace

Innocent, guilty – useful? What’s behind the US-Afghan clash over 88 prisoners from Bagram


The Afghan government announced yesterday (7 January) that it would go ahead with the release of 88 Taleban prisoners from Bagram despite US objections. American politicians, including two senior US senators who visited Kabul in early January, have warned of further damage to US-Afghan bilateral relations if the prisoner release goes forward. The issue has put additional strain on negotiations over the Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) which Washington had wanted signed by the end of 2013 and which President Hamed Karzai has until now delayed. The prisoner controversy is the latest instalment in the ongoing struggle over sovereignty in Bagram prison and over who has the last word in the country as a whole as it heads into elections. The AAN team and guests report, with a particular focus on who these prisoners are and why the Afghan government is so keen on releasing them.

When the US military handed over control of notorious Bagram prison to Afghan authorities in March 2013 (see our earlier analysis here), Afghans and Americans agreed that no prisoner of the now renamed Afghan National Detention Facility (ANDF) whom the US considered a security threat would be released without US consent. The 88 Bagram inmates now being considered for release, however, were designated as particularly dangerous by the US, who held them responsible for killing 35 US soldiers and 70 Afghan security forces personnel, as a high-ranking official in the Afghan ministry of defense told AAN. All of the inmates appear to be Afghans. (There is also a group of non-Afghan prisoners – our analysis on them is here.)

At the time of the handover, the US provided Afghan prison authorities with files on its investigations of each prisoner. Now, the Americans feel tricked by the 6 January announcement of Abdul Shakur Dadras, the head of the Afghan Review Board (ARB) responsible for evaluating the detainees’ files, saying that he did not intend to keep any of the 88 imprisoned because “the documents we have seen so far provide no reason to convict them. Our decision is to release them as soon as possible if there is no incriminating evidence against them”. On 7 January, in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes magazine, Dadras phrased it slightly more carefully, saying that the board had reviewed all of the cases, but that the work was not finished yet. “Those people are not released yet, and we will review their cases again and again,” he said. “If there is any evidence or information found against any of them, they will get prosecuted.”

Why is the Afghan government so keen on releasing the prisoners?

Indeed, the Afghan law requires the release of any prisoner if the authorities fail to bring him to court within nine or ten months—the precise time period is not clear. Most of the Bagram inmates have already spent one or two years in prison without charge or trial, as Abdul Shakur Dadras argues. Under the anti-terrorism law, however, exceptions are possible, a source familiar with the talks said; inmates who pose a serious threat can be held longer and a legal procedure still initiated against them. In July, presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi had told AAN that this law allows for a “special mechanism” and that the government was looking for “more flexibility“ on (longer) detentions (see our earlier analysis on this aspect here).

Initially President Karzai strongly supported Dadras’ view and wanted to free all the prisoners at Bagram – the number of which has never been published but was estimated to be (or have been) in the thousands; keeping count is complicated by new arrivals. As of July 2012, an estimated 2500 prisoners were held in the ANDF. At that time, General Faruq Barakzai, the facility’s Afghan head, told AAN that the Afghan government had released 2353 prisoners from the facility since the initial handover in March 2012 (the facility acquired its new legal basis in March 2013). He also said the majority of them had been freed through the courts, with only 600 to 700 having gone through the review board and an additional “one or two batches” being released each week. Kabul daily Hasht-e Sobh (8 am) recently reported higher numbers, referring to information received from an anonymous ANA official working in the detention centre who claimed that initially there had been 7200 prisoners in Bagram, 5980 of whom have been released, leaving 1220. “In the recent days”, the daily added in its report, “650 prisoners more were released and now only 550 [sic, this should be 570 then] remain”.

A major reason for the releases was pressure by influential tribal leaders who have been queuing in the president’s palace in Kabul for years to plead for the release of close relatives held in Bagram prison. The president greatly depends on the political support of these leaders, especially now with the presidential election imminent. Even though Karzai himself cannot stand for election, since the Afghan constitution does not allow a third term, he has a strong interest in influencing the choice and political course of his successor. To stand firm in his clash with the American ‘Goliath’ would further bolster his standing as a patriotic leader defending Afghan sovereignty and pride. (His move to demand, through a spokeswoman in a Dari radio interview on 7 January, the handover of Afghan prisonsers in Guantanamo can probably be seen in the same light; those prisoners include five high-ranking Taleban – bios here – that were the subject of the abandoned US-Taleban talks in Qatar.) In addition, unquestioned control over all prisoners might give the president a better hand in the negotiations with the so far reluctant Taleban leadership to agree to direct talks with Kabul.

Who are these prisoners?

The names of the 88 have not been released officially. However, Stars & Stripes magazine, in its already quoted report from yesterday, published details on a few of them, obtained in an interview with a “U.S. official with access to the prisoner list“ – including “the crimes U.S. investigators allege they have committed“. The report names four prisoners, among them:

Salam Khan Balach who was captured after being observed placing bombs with three insurgents. Balach’s fingerprints also matched those found on the remains of a bomb that killed two Afghan soldiers and wounded two others in Kandahar province, and DNA evidence linked him to another deadly bombing, according to the official …

(and) Nurullah, who goes by one name, an alleged Taliban commander involved in attacks in Logar province, especially in the volatile district of Baraki Barak. One suicide bombing he is accused of being involved with killed an American servicemember and wounded four others. According to the U.S. official, when Nurullah was captured he was in possession of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a rifle, a shotgun, a grenade, a 60 mm mortar tube and tripod, as well as military-grade explosives and military uniforms. He also tested positive for the explosive TNT.

The 8 am source also provided some identifying details. According to him, one of the prisoners is a Taleb “who placed himself among the National Army soldiers as a cook, put anaesthesia into the soldiers’ meals and informed the Taleban” – who then came and killed 17 of them. He escaped with the Taleban but was arrested in Delaram district in Farah province, identified by his fingerprints found on a box of naswar (chewing tobacco) he had left behind at the crime’s location. Among the already released, there is a prominent Taleban commander, Mullah Abdul Salam, from Badghis province, implicated in the killing of 24 civilians. Victims’ families have identified and testified against him in court. As a result, he was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment by the primary court. The term was later reduced to six years on appeal; he was ultimately released by presidential order.

The Americans, for their part, have increased pressure to block the release of the 88 prisoners. A few days ago, in early January, visiting prominent US Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham even warned Karzai of “an unbelievably negative impact“ and “irreparable damage” (see here and here) to the country’s relations with the US if he allowed people “who have blood on their hands” to go free. They were supported by some Afghan members of parliament, presidential and vice-presidential candidates and human rights activists (here and here).

To settle the matter, Karzai decided to bring the issue to the highest possible level. In the last week of 2013, he called a meeting at the palace with the head of the NDS, a representative of the Ministry of Defense (MoD), the National Security Advisor, and Dadras to discuss the affair. Surprisingly, as AAN learned, the high level group was sharply divided: on one side, the NDS chief, the MoD general and the National Security Advisor were convinced that most of the evidence presented by the Americans on the 88 prisoners was reliable. On the other side, the president and Dadras argued that the fingerprints, gunpowder traces on clothes, weapon finds and other evidence listed in the investigation reports was insufficient. Afghan media, however, yesterday reported via social media that anonymous sources in the intelligence service had confirmed that there was sufficient evidence against 55 of the 88 disputed prisoners.

Karzai gave the NDS one week to go through its files to determine how dangerous the 88 inmates were from an Afghan security point of view. Due to an influx of international visitors to Kabul, the meeting – which should have happened on 2 January – was postponed and has not yet taken place.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace