US-Taliban deal raises hopes for Afghan prisoners

Al Jazeera spoke to some of the inmates whose names are on the list of Taliban prisoners slated to be released.

Afghan prisoners prepare to be released from Pul-e-Charkhi prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, June 14, 2018. The Afghan president pardoned 185 prisoners loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former wa
The US-Taliban deal, signed on February 29, committed Kabul to releasing up to 5,000 prisoners [File: Rahmat Gul/AP]

On a cold late night in March 2016, hours after the Taliban fighters left Jan Mohammed’s [name has been changed to protect identity] house in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, security forces barged into his mud house and took him away.

The night before, the Taliban had forcefully entered Mohammed’s house in Sherzad district, demanding food and water after escaping an ongoing gun battle with the Afghan security forces.

“We could not stop the Taliban fighters. How could we dare do that? We were totally helpless against those gunmen,” he recalled the night that changed his life forever.

Mohammed, a farmer, was arrested for backing the Taliban – a charge he denies.

“I cannot forget how my children started crying when they [Afghan forces] dragged me out of my house. I heard my daughter saying, ‘please kill me instead and spare my father’s life’,” Mohammed, who was sentenced to 12 years in jail for helping the Taliban, told Al Jazeera from the prison.

He was thrown in the notorious Pul-e-Chakrhi prison, a high-security facility outside the capital Kabul known for its poor conditions. The prison has a history of violence and torture, with mass graves discovered dating back to the time of Kabul’s Soviet Union-backed governments in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Mohammed is one of the 5,000 prisoners slated to be released as part of an agreement signed between the US and the Taliban armed group, touted as the deal that will end the US’s longest war.

According to the deal, signed in the Qatari capital Doha, the US will pull its troops out of Afghanistan after nearly 19 years in return for a security guarantee from the Taliban group. The Taliban has also agreed to participate in intra-Afghan talks aimed at establishing peace throughout the country.

The prisoner deal has been clouded by uncertainty as the Western-backed government in Kabul called for a phased release – a proposal rejected by the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the government would free 1,500 prisoners in the first phase and demanded guarantees that the prisoners would not return to fighting.

The Taliban, however, said the deal with the US required Ghani to free all 5,000 prisoners at once with no conditions.

The disagreement over the release and a political feud at the top level of Afghan government between Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, who also claimed the presidency following a disputed election, have stalled the US-driven peace process.

“I am seen as Taliban’s political prisoner, the Taliban are asking for my release because I helped their fighters once by feeding them that night. In reality, I had no other option because those fighters were armed,” Mohammed told Al Jazeera from his prison cell.

“I will never forgive those Taliban fighters who entered my house by force, and I will also never forgive those Afghan forces who raided my house.”

‘Broken limbs and skulls’

The list of 5,000 prisoners, seen by Al Jazeera, includes the name of Muslim Afghan, who is serving 15 years in Pul-e-Charkhi for “carrying explosives”.

Afghan was arrested in 2015 from Salam University, Kabul, where he was studying law. He alleges he was tortured while in custody.

“During interrogation, my toenails were pulled out, and I was given electric shocks every day. I would be put in cold water ranging from 10 minutes to half an hour during winter season. I would pass out. When I gained my senses, I would realize I was laid down in the cold and freezing underground basement with a light blanket covering me,” Afghan told Al Jazeera.

“In cold and freezing winters of Kabul, I was asked to stand all night long in the hallways of the prison, my hands tied up and every time I moved or passed out, they kicked and punched me to wake me up. This went on until the next morning,”

“They continued to torture me because I wouldn’t confess because there was nothing to confess!”

Sources in the Afghan government and police who wish not to be named told Al Jazeera that Afghan’s uncle is part of the Haqqani Network – a Taliban affiliate – designated a terror organisation by Washington.

Afghan admitted his uncle’s links to Haqqani Network, but said he and 18 members of his family who were arrested at the time had no links to his uncle. Other members of his family were released after spending 3-4 years in prison.

“My brother Muslim [Afghan] and other 18 members were arrested just because our uncle, who we don’t have any links with, is with the Haqqani network. I went to university, my brother did, we were seeking education and working in reputable places,” Afghan’s brother Sangin Ahmed told Al Jazeera.

“Why are we paying the price of someone else’s wrongdoings?

“They have tortured my brother and have sentenced him to 15 years for no crime committed. My mother cries every day and fasts and prays for his release,” Ahmed said.

Last week, Human Rights Watch expressed concerns over the “fundamental problems” in the Afghan justice system.

“Although Afghanistan incorporated war crimes and crimes against humanity as part of its 2017 penal code, its investigations have focused only on attacks by Islamic State [ISIL] groups – not alleged crimes by government forces or the Taliban,” the statement said.

“This failure to investigate has created a major problem for potential prisoner releases. Officials trying to ascertain whether convicted Taliban identified for possible release may have committed war crimes won’t get any guidance from the vague charges under which many are held.”

The statement also said the government is imprisoning many people under the “overly broad terrorism laws” that may make it difficult to determine serious crimes committed by a prisoner.

“And secret trials and torture to coerce confessions may make it impossible to determine which convicted prisoners actually committed serious crimes,” it said adding that international humanitarian law encourages amnesties at the end of hostilities, but neither the release of war criminals nor prolonged imprisonment on “dubious charges will bring Afghanistan closer to justice”.

Unresolved dispute 

Unable to convince Ghani and Abdullah to end their political feud that was jeopardising the US-led peace effort, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday his government’s decision to cut $1bn of the US aid Afghanistan receives.  

On Wednesday, the Afghan government said it would meet Taliban representatives to discuss the prisoner release.

If the Ghani-Abdullah dispute continues, it risks weakening the government further and derailing the possibility of an intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban.

Last week, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said the coronavirus pandemic added urgency to prisoner releases, advising they take place “as soon as possible”.

The prisoner release will now begin on March 31, the Taliban announced on Tuesday after holding talks with Afghan government officials.

Back in Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Mohammed said he prays to be back with his family every day.

“How I hope that God will listen to my prayers and that peace will come to Afghanistan,” he said.

“Yes, there are Taliban fighters in this prison, and they proudly say that we are with Taliban, but there are innocent people like me as well here, and they need to be released.”

Source: Al Jazeera