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III. Afghanistan: Impunity for Systematic Abuse

Since the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, U.S.-led forces have arrested and detained at least one thousand Afghans and other nationals, some during military operations, others with no apparent connection to ongoing hostilities. The U.S. also used its facilities in Afghanistan as staging points for the transfer of detainees captured in Pakistan and, reportedly, Southeast Asia. U.S. officials have told journalists and Human Rights Watch that U.S military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan employ an interrogation system that includes the use of sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and forcing detainees to sit or stand in painful positions for extended periods of time.55

Among the earliest images of the treatment of prisoners from the Afghan war were pictures of John Walker Lindh, a young American captured in December, 2001, held naked, bound by duct tape to a stretcher. According to an affidavit filed in U.S. court by his attorney, U.S. soldiers “blindfolded Mr. Lindh, and took several pictures of Mr. Lindh and themselves with Mr. Lindh. In one, the soldiers scrawled ‘shithead’ across Mr. Lindh’s blindfold and posed with him. . . . Another told Mr. Lindh that he was ‘going to hang’ for his actions and that after he was dead, the soldiers would sell the photographs and give the money to a Christian organization.”56  According to legal documents filed on his behalf, Lindh was flown to a Marine airbase in the Afghanistan high desert dubbed Camp Rhino. According to a statement provided in government discovery, a Navy doctor claims that a U.S. Special Forces officer told him at Camp Rhino that “sleep deprivation, cold and hunger might be employed” while Lindh was interrogated.57

The United States has failed to adequately address charges of mistreatment of detainees by U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch warned U.S. officials repeatedly about these problems in 2003 and 2004.  In a March report, Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of mistreatment of detainees at various detention sites in Afghanistan, including extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and severe beatings. 58 Detainees complained about being stripped of their clothing and photographed while naked. Some of these abusive practices during interrogation were similar to those recently reported in Iraq. These allegations are consistent with other allegations received by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and numerous international journalists.59

As early as December 2002, the Washington Post had reported that persons being held in the CIA interrogation center at Bagram airbase who refuse to cooperate “are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, according to intelligence specialists familiar with CIA interrogation methods. At times they are held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights—subject to what are known as ‘stress and duress’ techniques.”60

Many of those arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan have been detained for indefinite periods at U.S. military bases or outposts. While held, these detainees have no contact with relatives or others, although some detainees receive visits from the ICRC. Detainees have no opportunity to challenge the basis for their detention. Some detainees were sent to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, while others have been kept in Afghanistan. Many have ultimately been released without being charged; but some detainees in Afghanistan have been held for over two years.

The U.S. military maintains some twenty detention facilities throughout Afghanistan. The main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan is at the Bagram airbase, north of the capital Kabul. Other detention facilities in the country include bases in Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Asadabad. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is also holding an unknown number of detainees, both at Bagram airbase and at other locations in Afghanistan, including in Kabul.

Afghans detained at Bagram airbase in 2002 have described being held in detention for weeks, continuously shackled, intentionally kept awake for extended periods of time, and forced to kneel or stand in painful positions for extended periods. Some say they were kicked and beaten when arrested, or later as part of efforts to keep them awake. Some say they were doused with freezing water in the winter. Similar allegations have been made about treatment in 2002 and 2003 at U.S. military bases in Kandahar and in U.S. detention facilities in the eastern cities of Jalalabad and Asadabad.

The United States has still not provided any adequate explanation for four, and possibly five, suspicious deaths of detainees that took place in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. The first two deaths, which took place at Bagram airbase in December 2002, were ruled homicides by U.S. military doctors who performed autopsies. In the case of 22-year-old detainee Dilawar, the military maintained for months that he had died of a heart attack. However, the military changed its position when the New York Times obtained copy of Dilawar’s autopsy report, prepared by U.S. military physicians, concluding he died from “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.” The mode of death was determined to be “homicide.” Two Afghans arrested with Dilawar told the New York Times that they were held in isolation cells, black hoods were placed over their heads, and their hands at times were chained to the ceiling. They also alleged that they were forced to strip naked in the presence of female soldiers.  A military spokesman at Bagram told the New York Times that the death of the other detainee, 30-year-old Habibullah, was ruled a homicide by a military pathologist, the cause being “pulmonary embolism [blood clot in the lungs] due to blunt force injury to the legs.”61

Military officials in the Army Criminal Investigative Division told Human Rights Watch in late 2003 and early 2004 that investigations into the two homicides were “ongoing.” But in April 2004, Human Rights Watch received credible information that preliminary results of a military investigation into the two deaths were in fact completed in early 2003, and that some disciplinary actions were taken against U.S. personnel, although no prosecutions were initiated. U.S. military officials have repeatedly refused to explain to Human Rights Watch the circumstances of the third detainee death, which took place in Asadabad, in eastern Afghanistan, in June 2003.

In March of this year, Human Rights Watch again called on the United States to release the results of its investigations into the three deaths. These requests have been ignored.

The deaths of two other detainees in Afghanistan are under investigation. On June 21, 2003, Abdul Wali, held at Asadabad died under suspicious circumstances; according to the Associated Press, his death is under investigation by the C.I.A.’s inspector general.

On November 6, 2003, detainee Abdul Wahid died while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. His death is attributed to multiple blunt force injuries that were complicated by a muscle condition. According to military death certificates released by the Pentagon, his death was ruled a “medical homicide,” which means that the person died in connection with the actions or influence of another person. It does not necessarily mean a crime occurred.

A fifth incident, in which an Afghan detainee died due to hypothermia after he was doused with cold water and left shackled in an unheated cell overnight, has emerged in the press. According to the Los Angeles Times, this case was referred by the CIA to the Justice Department, but no investigation results have been made public.62 While conditions at Bagram seem to have improved, especially in the last few months, serious concerns remain about other U.S. detention facilities in Afghanistan. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)—an autonomous institution within the Afghan government—has collected complaints alleging torture and mistreatment made by recently released detainees and families of persons still detained. The AIHRC also received numerous complaints about abuses by U.S. troops in 2003 and 2004 at its local offices in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. military operations occur regularly. The commission repeatedly raised concerns about abuses with U.S. officials in 2003 and 2004, as did local government representatives and officials with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The violations of detainees’ rights are exacerbated by the almost complete opacity maintained by U.S. officials about the Bagram facility and other detention facilities in Afghanistan. The United States refuses to allow access to detainees’ families, lawyers, or advocates, or to journalists or representatives of nongovernmental organizations (other than the ICRC). While the ICRC has access to the Bagram facility, none of the other U.S. facilities are currently monitored by outside observers. On May 10, 2004, the AIHRC formally requested access to U.S. detention sites in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has also made formal requests to visit U.S. detention sites in Afghanistan through 2003 and 2004, none of which received any response.

Almost nothing is known about U.S. investigations or prosecutions of U.S. military personnel for alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Afghanistan. Simply put, the United States operates its detention facilities in Afghanistan in a climate of almost total impunity. As noted, the Department of Defense has not even released the results of its investigations into the deaths of Afghan detainees at Bagram and Asadabad and has yet to explain adequately the circumstances of these deaths. Nor have U.S. officials adequately responded to inquiries about alleged mistreatment and torture by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The military intelligence unit that oversaw interrogations at the Bagram detention center where at least two prisoners’ deaths were ruled homicides was later placed in charge of questioning at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.63 Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, who served at Bagram from July 2002 to December 2003, brought to Iraq interrogation procedures developed during service in Afghanistan, according to Congressional testimony.64 It was apparently Capt. Wood who wrote the interrogation rules posted on the wall at Abu Ghraib.

One member of the 377th Military Police Company told the New York Times that the fact that prisoners in Afghanistan had been labeled as “enemy combatants” not subject to the Geneva Conventions had contributed to the abuse. “We were pretty much told that they were nobodies, that they were just enemy combatants,” he said. “I think that giving them the distinction of soldier would have changed our attitudes toward them. A lot of it was based on racism, really. We called them hajis, and that psychology was really important.”65

Military (but not necessarily CIA) detention facilities in Afghanistan are the subject of a “top-to-bottom” review by Brigadier General Charles Jacoby, the deputy operational commander of Bagram airbase. Gen. Jacoby’s mandate is to ensure that procedures at all coalition detention facilities in Afghanistan “are in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions,” according to the official CENTCOM press release announcing his assignment on May 24.  The U.S. military has announced that only “some of the key conclusions” of Gen. Jacoby’s report would be made public, but that findings regarding specific techniques and incarceration practices would be kept classified.66

[55] U.S.: Systemic Abuse of Afghan Prisoners,

[56] Seymour M. Hersh, “Chain of command; How the Department of Defense mishandled the disaster at Abu Ghraib,” The New Yorker, May 17, 2004.

[57], p.18

[58] See Human Rights Watch Report, Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan

[59] For  testimony from Afghan detainees gathered by Human Rights Watch, see

[60] Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, “U.S. decries abuse but defends interrogations,” Washington Post, December 26, 2002.

[61] See Human Rights Watch, “Enduring freedom: Abuses by U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” March 2004,

[62] Bob Drogin, “Abuse Brings Deaths of Captives Into Focus,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2004.

[63] Douglas Jehl and David Rohde, “Afghan deaths linked to unit at Iraq prison,” New York Times, May 24, 2004.

[64] A senior Army lawyer, Col. Marc Warren, stated at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 19, 2004, that members of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion from Fort Bragg, NC, including Carolyn Wood, “had served as interrogators in Afghanistan, where the American military runs detention centers at Bagram Air Base and at a site in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan,” and that the 519th was one of the several units that brought to Iraq “their own policies that had been used in other theaters.” Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “The reach of war: The interrogators; Afghan policies on questioning landed in Iraq,” New York Times, May 21, 2004.

[65] Douglas Jehl and Andrea Elliott, “Cuba base sent its interrogators to Iraqi prison, New York Times, May 29, 2004.

[66] Associated Press, “U.S.  General: Details in probe of Afghan jails to stay secret,” June 1, 2004.

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