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U.S. leaves legacy of English speakers, damaged souls
By Pam Bailey
Abdul was just 20 years old when he drove his father to the medical clinic one day for an exam. He dropped his father off, then left to run a few errands, saying nonchalantly that he would be back by the time the tests were done. But..he never showed up at the clinic. It was as if he had disappeared into thin air. His family agonized over what had happened to the young man, who – as the oldest son -- had worked as a laborer to support his parents and siblings in the wake of his father’s disability. The family fell into debt as a result, and his brother fell ill. It was more than a year later when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) informed them that Abdul was alive, but in prison, being held indefinitely, without formal charge or trial.
That incident could have been one of the infamous “disappearances” of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime in the 1970s, for which he was condemned, indicted and tried for human rights violations. However, this incident occurred in 2005, in Pakistan. The jailer that kidnapped Abdul Halim Saifullah off the streets of Karachi, then imprisoned him without a word to anyone, access to a lawyer or trial, was the United States. It wasn’t until 2007 that his family was finally told where their son was being held – the infamous Bagram prison, the largest detention facility in the world and known as "Afghanistan's Guantanamo." In January of this year, Afghan investigators accused the U.S. Army of abusing detainees at Bagram, including torture.
Abdul's story was told by his father to a CodePink delegation that traveled to Pakistan to publicize the consequences of U.S. drone attacks in the war-torn region of Waziristan. Many organizations and individuals who have suffered at the hands of Americans sought an “audience” with the group, hoping the participants would advocate for their cause when they returned home. One of those organizations was the “Justice Project Pakistan,” modeled after and mentored by the UK’s Reprieve. JPP advocates for the most vulnerable of prisoners – primarily those facing the death penalty or who are detained beyond the rule of law in secret prisons. Included among the latter are 37 Pakistanis – one as young as 16, who was seized in circumstances similar to Abdul’s at the age of just 14. Although the U.S. handed Bagram over to the Afghan government in September, the transition did not include prisoners from other countries, such as Pakistan, of which there are 52. (A side note: It also did not include more than 600 Afghans who were detained after the agreement was signed in March; they all remain in U.S. custody.)
Sarah Belal, an Oxford-trained lawyer and director of JPP, interpreted for a group of men whose brothers and sons are being held in Bagram. According to the men, some of the prisoners had been visiting Afghanistan for work or education, but others were in their hometowns in Pakistan. Many Americans do not realize that for years, the United States has been running “search-and-seize” operations in Pakistan as well, detaining these nationals for years without formal charge or trial. The longest has been there since 2002.
When Belal asked the men how long they had waited, thinking their relatives were dead, before learning from the ICRC that they were in Bagram, the answers ranged from six months to as long as two years.
“Some have no idea why their son or brother was taken,” Belal said. “Others say their relative was mistaken for someone else, but they haven’t been released. No formal charges are ever filed, except for a label in an Excel sheet given to the Pakistani government, such as ‘suspected member of Taliban’ or ‘IED (improvised explosive device) manufacturer’. ”
Once they learn of their loved ones’ whereabouts, the families are allowed to see them only by video conference, once every two months. They must travel to Islamabad, a long distance for many who live in more distant regions of Pakistan. When they arrive, poor Internet connections often mean the trip is for naught. When they do talk, or send letters, the prisoners are not permitted to discuss how they were seized or under what conditions they are being held.
“We have been told by the few detainees who have been released that when there are first interned in Bagram, the prisoners are exposed to extreme temperatures, and the floors of their cages are covered with two feet of water,” Belal told the CodePink delegates. “It is one to two months before the ICRC is allowed to see them, and then they are moved to their ‘regular’ quarters.” Their lawyers are never allowed direct access.
The Pakistani prisoners are held together, in one big cage divided into small cubicles with only one open toilet for all 37. Teenagers are mixed with the adults. Fazal Karim, who was abducted in 2003 when he was traveling cross country for a business trip, was held in solitary confinement for the past five years. In 2011, the Pakistani embassy in Kabul announced that Fazal had been cleared for release. However, today, he is still in Bagram, with no explanation.
“The Pakistani government has been no help,” the father of 16-year-old Hamidullah Khan told the group through Belal. “We are Pakistani citizens, but we totally on our own, at the mercy of the United States.”
JPP has filed a petition with the Pakistani government on behalf of 10 of the detainees, including Abdul Halim Saifullah and Hamidullah Khan. In October 2011, a Pakistani justice ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit its citizens in Bagram. In February of this year, the High Court in Lahore directed the government of Pakistan to negotiate with the U.S. for the return of the detainees. However, no concrete results have yet been achieved, and on Sept. 25, the JPP proposed a draft memorandum of understanding which would, once signed by the U.S. and Pakistan, order the safe return of Pakistani citizens held in Bagram. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16.
Prisoners’ cases are reviewed behind closed doors every six months, and even when they are told they will be released, it can take weeks or longer before it becomes reality.
“What is unsettling,” Belal said, “is that prisoners often come home speaking fluent English cuss words – with an American accent.”