HRW: secret CIA torture center in Afghanistan

Eight men at the American detention camp in Guantánamo Bay have separately given their lawyers “consistent accounts” of being tortured at a secret prison in Afghanistan at various periods from 2002 to 2004, Human Rights Watch has announced. The men, five of whom were identified by name, told their lawyers that they had been arrested in various countries, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Some said they were flown to Afghanistan and then driven just a few minutes from the landing strip to the prison, indicating they were near Kabul.

Detainees called the place the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” and said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap or heavy metal music blaring for weeks at a time.

One detainee, identified as Benyam Mohammad, an Ethiopian who grew up in the UK, told his lawyer of being “hung up” in a lightless cell for days at a time, as his legs swelled and his hands and wrists became numb. He said that loud music and “horrible ghost laughter” was blasted into the cell, and that he could hear other prisoners “knocking their heads against the walls and doors, screaming their heads off.”

The detainees said that they were guarded by Afghans and Americans in civilian clothes and that their American interrogators did not wear uniforms, leading HRW to suggest “the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency.”

US military officials declined to comment on the report. The US has not released the names of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Afghan officials denied any knowledge of secret prisons in Afghanistan. The foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, said that if such things existed, they should be made known to the Afghan authorities.

But midlevel Afghan intelligence officials, speaking to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, said they were aware of several places where US forces currently detain people. One official mentioned Camp Eggers, in Kabul, and the Ariana Hotel, which is close to the presidential palace that CIA officials have occupied since December 2001.

There have been other reports suggesting that the US operated a secret detention center in Afghanistan. One emerged in the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Arab descent who said he was seized at the Macedonian-Serbian border in 2003 and turned over to the CIA, which apparently mistook him for a terror suspect of the same name. Masri said that he was flown to a prison and held for four months in 2004, and that he was told by his captors and fellow prisoners that he was in Kabul.

Human Rights Watch said it had identified 26 people who had been “disappeared” and were believed to be held in secret detention facilities operated by the US.

The detainees said that they were held incommunicado and that they were never visited by members of the Red Cross, the report says.

One detainee, identified by Human Rights Watch only as M. Z. at his lawyer’s request, said he was arrested in 2002 outside Afghanistan and held in the “prison of darkness” for about four weeks. He was in an “underground place, very dark,” in solitary confinement, where there was loud music playing continuously, and was interrogated in a room with a strobe light, and shackled to a ring in the floor. “During interrogations, he says, an interrogator threatened him with rape,” the report said.

Another detainee, identified at his lawyer’s request as J. K., was quoted as saying, “People were screaming in pain and crying all the time.”

Some of the detainees said they were moved from one secret location to another, the report said, and some were eventually transferred to the main US military detention facility at Bagram.

Another detainee, Abd al-Salam Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni, told his lawyers he was kept in the dark prison chained to a wall in 2003. Three others, Hassin bin Attash, Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, told their lawyers that they were held at the prison in darkness, and that they were shackled and beaten, the report said.

“The U.S. government must shed some light on Kabul’s ‘dark prison,’ ” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. “No one, no matter their alleged crime, should be held in secret prisons or subjected to torture.”

A hangar close to the Kabul airport is another suspected detention center. The hangar, covered in a huge tent, has its own entrance from the airfield. Afghan airport personnel reported Americans using the hangar, and bringing aircraft close to the hangar for off-loading until a year ago. Anyone who approached the hangar from the city side was ordered away by guards via loudspeaker, as they are at the Ariana Hotel.

Another possible former detention facility is the so-called Brick Factory that lies not far from the US air base at Bagram, on the New Bagram Road that runs from the industrial east side of the capital. It is not a brick factory, but a huge Soviet-era transport mechanics yard with different workshops, according to a mechanic who worked there in the early 1990’s. After the fall of the Taliban it became a CIA training base, according to an American military official who was based in Afghanistan in 2003.

A sign posted outside now says it is an Afghan military facility, but US and Afghan commanders work there together, and members for the Afghan Rapid Reaction Force of the National Security Directorate, the national intelligence service, guard the entrance to the base. New mud walls, topped with razor wire, run for kilometers around it. Guards said they could not let anyone on the base and referred all questions to the Afghan National Security Directorate. (NYT, Dec. 19)

HRW also singled out Poland as the heart of the CIA’s secret detention network in Europe, with bases there until recently holding a quarter of the 100 detainees estimated held in such camps worldwide.

“Poland was the main base for CIA interrogations in Europe, while Romania played more of a role in the transfer of detained prisoners,” HRW’s Marc Garlasco told the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza Dec. 9.

Garlasco said the CIA had set up two detention centers in Poland, which were closed shortly after the Washington Post published an article about secret prisons last month.

He said the allegations were based on information from CIA sources and other documents obtained by Human Rights Watch. “We have leads, circumstantial evidence to check but it’s too early to reveal them,” Garlasco said.

Polish authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of secret jails on Polish territory, with Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkieicz pledging he would fully cooperate in human rights probes into the allegations. (Reuters, Dec. 9)

See our last posts on Afghanistan, the torture scandal and the secret CIA gulag.