Parwan detention center reviews suspects’ cases, but finds neither guilt nor innocence in a war zone

Ghullam Sarwar Jamili shows scars from his civil war wounds during an interview in his Kabul home on Nov. 13. Jamili was released from the U.S. detention facility in Bagram in September after 3.5 years.

Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 21, 2011

KABUL — It would be easy to take Ghullam Sarwar Jamili at his word — that this smiling and dedicated family man has survived a hard life swept up in his country’s endless travails.

Behind his glasses, one lid is closed over a missing eye. Jamili’s leg, hidden beneath his traditional Afghan cloak, bears battle scars from almost 20 years ago, during the civil war. His scarred and ruined arm does not fully extend.

Jamili’s family sits around the soft-spoken man with the salt and pepper beard and jokes easily, quick to defend this 59-year-old patriarch who raised nine children as a refugee outside his native Afghanistan, educating them through college and beyond.

But there is another, more menacing portrait of Gullam Sarwar Jamili — that of an Islamic revolutionary committed to violent struggle for Afghanistan and accused of recruiting young militants to fight against U.S. and Afghan forces. That is the man whom U.S. soldiers say they imprisoned in 2007 and held behind the concrete and razor wire walls of Afghanistan’s most secretive prison, the U.S. detention center at Bagram Air Field in Parwan province, for three and half years.

Throughout his detention, Jamili held fast to his declarations of innocence, while American officials and some observers familiar with the case insisted the suspicions against him were warranted.

But even after he was released last September, the truth remained hidden. Jamili, like most of the thousands of detainees held in Bagram since 2002, or the new Parwan facility nearby, found himself consigned to a legal purgatory, never found guilty of any crime, but never quite cleared, either.

U.S. officials say they have no choice but to hold suspected Afghan militants like Jamili without formal charges. In a time of war, they say, it’s the only way to keep dangerous enemy fighters off the battlefield.

But Afghan government officials looking to the Americans to help them build a law-based state, where due process in a courtroom is the basis for incarceration, are instead being presented with a very different, extra-judicial example based on the laws of armed conflict.

For Afghan prosecutors, who receive vague case files from U.S. officials at Bagram, there is skepticism that the right people are landing behind bars because the detentions are based more on confidential intelligence than on releasable evidence.

Meanwhile, human rights groups, along with the Bagram detainees themselves, say their inability to adequately refute the claims against them breeds bitter contempt against the Americans.

“Once you are in Bagram, it doesn’t matter what country you came from or how you got there,” said Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network that represents dozens of Bagram detainees, though it has never had access to them. “You are in a black hole. You have no legal recourse anywhere in the world.”

Human rights groups complained for years that detainees at Bagram languished with little or no knowledge of the accusations against them, no rights to challenge their detentions and no legal representation. In the early years of the war, two detainees were killed in Bagram and several U.S. soldiers were convicted of or pleaded guilty to abusing inmates.

More recently, conditions have improved. In the past year, the U.S. replaced the old facility with a pristine new complex dubbed the Detention Facility in Parwan and moved the detainees there. It has roomier housing, space for family visitations and, most importantly, new detainee review boards that allow detainees to receive some information regarding the suspicions against them. Suspects can also rebut those accusations and call witnesses to appear on their behalf.

The facility, which many still refer to as Bagram prison, also opened its gates to visits by human rights groups and journalists, who are permitted to attend hearings.

“Part of the goal of our command was to increase transparency,” said Michael Gottlieb, a State Department attorney who advises the year-old Task Force 435 that runs the complex. “Stories of people disappearing and families not knowing where there their relatives were, especially in the 2004 to 2007 period, were a common gripe.”

Nevertheless, rights groups say that the system remains fundamentally flawed. Detainees still don’t have lawyers, and there is no threshhold of proof to keep them indefinitely behind bars. Information gathered through intelligence remains secret. And a determination that a detainee poses a threat is enough to extend his detention.

“They might have improved buildings, they might have made it prettier, they might have improved their own internal proceedings,” Foster said. “But nothing has changed regarding the rights of these people.”

A history of violence

Jamili’s story is the story of Afghanistan, a chronicle of strife and displacement that began more than 30 years ago.

It was 1979 and Soviet forces were assisting their client government in Kabul to fight U.S.-backed mujahadeen rebels.

Jamili, then an educated 27-year-old, said he spent a year in prison for his anti-communist views. In 1982, he said, he fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, with his wife and three young children, and ultimately settled at the Shamshatu refugee camp run by the Islamist Hezbi-e-Islami movement of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, or HiG.

Jamili said he spent the next 10 years working for HiG political agencies, first in the refugee section in Shamshatu and later as a party communications officer in Tehran. He taught his children to speak and teach English, and the family was well known in the camp.

Jamili said he followed the mujahadeen briefly to Kabul in 1994, and that he was wounded when his car got caught in the crossfire of warring parties. He was shot in the arm and in the head, a life-threatening wound that cost him an eye.

After recuperating in Pakistan, Jamili said, he spent four more years as a principal of a madrassa, or religious school, in Iran, and returned to Shamshatu in 2000.

By then, the Taliban was in control in Kabul, and HiG had aligned itself with the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan. When al-Qaida terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Jamili said, he was no longer involved.

Jamili’s eldest sons supported the family. Javid, the oldest, was a journalist. Anwar, who went to medical school, brought home extra money by playing a part on a popular BBC radio soap opera. Both later moved to Kabul, where Anwar worked with USAID and then an affiliate charity where he ultimately became country director.

In July 2007, the Jamili clan gathered in Kabul for a niece’s wedding. Anwar was about to set his parents and youngest siblings up in Kabul permanently. Life was good.

Then, on July 11, Jamili said he was walking down the street with his son and son-in-law when an unmarked car pulled up alongside them. An undercover officer declared that Jamili needed to come with them.

At the police station, Jamili recalled, two Americans took his photograph. The hours passed, and he said two U.S. soldiers blindfolded him and cuffed his arms and legs. They took him somewhere where he could hear helicopter rotors.

And then he found himself in a cell in Bagram.

‘A pretty robust process’

The Americans in charge like to describe the detainee review boards as the real change. Detainees get to appear and answer questions regarding the accusations against them. Each is assigned a uniformed U.S. soldier familiar with the case who is tasked with helping to defend the detainee. Witnesses also may be called on a detainee’s behalf.

“It’s a pretty robust process,” said Gottlieb. “We’ve had over 1,300 Afghan witnesses testify before the board this year.”

Across Afghanistan in 2010, U.S. forces detained more than 5,000 suspected combatants, Gottlieb said. Of those, 1,000 were sent to Parwan, where each came before a detainee review board.

Review boards last year ruled that 60 percent of those being held met the minimum criteria for detention and should remain in custody, Gottlieb said. Eleven percent did not meet the criteria and were released. An additional 10 percent were found suitable for reintegration; that is, they met the criteria for being held but the board decided to release them. And 10 percent were handed over to the Afghans for prosecution. Gottlieb did not account for the remaining detainees, but said some were foreigners who were found eligible for extradition to other countries.

A detainee review board is not a criminal trial, the military says, and it is not intended to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, its purpose, based on evidence and intelligence, is to determine whether a detainee continues to pose a threat.

“The purpose is to remove an insurgent from the battlefield during a time of hostility,” Gottlieb said, “not to ... prove an individual’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Military officials say that the process is the only way to protect intelligence they gather on suspected insurgents or terrorists. But that’s a sticking point for rights groups.

“There may have been devastating intel for these detainees — we just don’t know,” said Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan analyst with Human Rights Watch. “As a counterinsurgency strategy, the U.S. wants to be seen as a fair actor. As long as they keep this process secret, it is very difficult to show Afghans that they are getting a fair process.”

‘Not even No. 100’

At first, Jamili believed he would be released quickly. But when days turned to weeks, then months, Jamili resigned himself to his detention.

Physically, he said, he was treated well.

“It’s enough if you are in a cage with no link to the outside world,” Jamili said, “and no certainty about your future and no connection to your family.”

In the old facility, he said, detainees were shackled together in a chain gang to go outside and exercise. But that stopped once they moved to the new facility, he said. If prisoners misbehaved or protested, Jamili said, guards took away everyone’s blankets and mats.

Occasionally, Jamili said, if a prisoner taunted a guard, there were beatings, but they were rare.

Jamili’s description matched those provided by other detainees who spoke during a recent release ceremony at the facility.

“No one is mistreated, but if one detainee makes a problem, all the detainees are punished,” said Mullah Abdul Rauf, a madrassa teacher from Paktiya province who said he was held in Bagram for two years.

Throughout his more than three years in detention, Jamili steadfastly denied that he’d played any role in the insurgency.

But an officer with one independent international organization that monitors detentions, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his agency be identified, said that Jamili was “a dangerous man,” a recruiter who solicited young Afghan refugees to fight against the Afghan government and U.S. soldiers.

U.S. officials won’t comment on reasons for holding or releasing individual detainees. But one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Jamili’s detention was not an accident. He’d been reviewed repeatedly and review boards continued to find reason to hold him, the official said.

Others backed Jamili’s claim of innocence. Ghairat Baheer, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and a spokesman for HiG, was in Bagram at the same time. He recounted how his jailers questioned him about Jamili.

“When he was captured, they told me that they had captured a senior person in HiG,” said Baheer, who has since been released and was reached by telephone in Pakistan. “I said he’s not No. 2, No. 3, No. 10, not even No. 100.”

Outside the prison walls, Anwar, Jamili’s son, reached out to everyone he could. He hired an Afghan lawyer and contacted Foster at the International Justice Network. He called the U.S. Embassy repeatedly. Meanwhile, Javid, who had moved to Paris, contacted rights groups there.

When the brothers appeared before a review board for their father last summer, Anwar said he confronted the Americans.

“We told them, ‘How could we be al-Qaida when we are working with the government, the educated?’ ” Anwar recounted.

When Jamili was released from U.S. detention in September, it was not to be set free. The U.S. military handed him over to Afghan prosecutors, who were asked to determine whether to put him on trial.

Problematic handover

The U.S. military has been negotiating with the Afghan government to eventually transfer the prison at Parwan to Afghan control.

But that process is fraught with problems. Afghanistan’s judicial system is steeped in corruption and its jails are known for torture, creating a dilemma for international armies wishing to hand over suspected insurgents or terrorists.

Hoping to create a model for a new justice system, the U.S. military is building an entire judicial complex near the prison, training judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors and setting up a crime lab that includes equipment for forensics and DNA analysis.

“One of the reasons we built the judicial complex in Parwan is because we know corruption is endemic in the Afghan justice system,” said the State Department’s Gottlieb.

When Jamili was finally handed over to Afghan custody in September, his case file was incomplete. Afghan prosecutors said they found no indication of insurgent activity, and they allowed a reporter to go through the file.

Though Jamili was held until September 2010, his file ends in July 2008, making reference to just three interrogations and three polygraph tests.

Jamili stuck to his account throughout, stating that “he hated the Taliban,” and that he knew the camp in Pakistan was run by HiG, but “... when you do not have a place to stay or eat from, you would do anything for your family,” according to the file.

After each recorded interview, the American representative would make an assessment.

“The detainee did not show indication of deception and was willing to cooperate,” wrote one, noting that Jamili might have more information to reveal if asked the right questions.

“The detainee, in my opinion, remains a moderate threat to U.S./coalition forces and would not continue to be a part of the HiG group,” the representative concluded. Still, he recommended that Jamili remain in detention.

Afghan prosecutor Maulavi Saddiqi said he believed that someone likely framed Jamili.

“The main problem is with our own people — they give bad reports to the U.S. Army because of personal conflicts,” Saddiqi said. Saddiqi’s team decided there was no case against Jamili and six weeks later, they released him.

The stigma remains

At the time of his father’s arrest, Anwar Jamili was at first relieved when he heard that his father was in American hands.

“I said at the time that if we went to the coalition, he will be back in 10 days. If it were Afghan forces, it could be longer, but these were the Americans.”

But as time went on, the family grew angry. Anwar went to the American Embassy and asked them what he should do.

“I told them we can’t go back to Pakistan because I work with a U.S. NGO. You think we are al-Qaida. What should we do?”

Foster, from the International Justice Network, said Jamili was one of the lucky ones. He and his family were educated and able to navigate the complex system.

“The thing that was most helpful at his [Detainee Review Board hearing] was his ability to present witnesses who were sympathetic to folks who detained them,” she said. “They spoke English, were modern, had Western attitudes.”

Still, the stigma of detention remains, she added.

“It’s impossible to clear your name after having been captured by the U.S. government.”

Jamili might very well have been a terrorist recruiter who used his intellect and education to fight Americans. Or he could have been an educated Afghan refugee swept up in the turmoil of a conflict that has taken a terrible toll on his country.

In mid-November, Jamili’s family members gathered for their first Eid holiday together since the patriarch’s release. Jamili sat surrounded by his eight sons and his daughter, who is in law school, and shook his head.

“This is the reason that after 10 years the American people cannot win against the Taliban and al-Qaida,” Jamili said. “They are always preaching about human rights and respect for religious cultures. But in reality, they are not doing this, and it just increases the hatred of the people.”


Ghullam Jamili, left stands with his sons as the butcher prepares a sheep for slaughter ahead of the Eid holiday on Nov. 16. From left, Jamili, his son Javid, his son Hamid, son-in-law Atikullah Atiq and his son Anwar, far right.
Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes


comments Join the conversation and share your voice!  

see more

special publications

  • What's Up Rhein Main


  • Welcome to the Pacific


  • Transition Guide


  • Best of the Pacific