Prisoners released from Bagram say forced to strip naked, deprived of sleep, ordered to stand for hours
"I couldn't say anything. I was so frightened. I didn't know what they would do next," Saif-ur Rahman told The Associated Press two weeks after his release from U.S. detention in Afghanistan (news - web sites).
Rahman's account and that of another recently freed Afghan gave a rare firsthand look into interrogations of prisoners held by the United States in the war against terrorism. Human rights groups have criticized U.S. interrogation methods as abusive. Two prisoners died in December after being beaten at a prison in Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military defended its methods and insisted that they do not constitute torture, specifically challenging the accounts by Rahman and another former prisoner, Abdul Qayyum.
Access to the sprawling two-story prison compound at Bagram, north of Kabul, is closely guarded. A 10-foot-high external wall and coils of barbed wire on the ground ring the building. Sheet metal and wood slabs cover the windows.
In separate interviews conducted by AP, two prisoners Rahman and Qayyum offered similar accounts of their time at Bagram's detention center. They complained of sleep deprivation, of being forced to stand for long periods of time, of humiliating taunts from women soldiers, screaming abuses at them through closed doors.
Rahman spoke slowly, explaining with gestures. Sometimes he would stop, look away seemingly embarrassed to talk about his nakedness, about how he was forced to lie spread eagle on the dirt floor while his interrogators placed a chair on either hand and on his feet.
For 20 straight days Rahman was handcuffed. At meal time his hands were tied, but the constraints more relaxed. Qayyum said he was held in a large hall with around 100 prisoners 10 people to a cubicle cordoned off from other similar cubicles by sheets of mesh. He was held for two months and five days and throughout that time he was forbidden to talk to his cell mates.
At Bagram on Friday, U.S. Military Spokesman Roger King denied much of Rahman's and Qayyum's allegations.
"Some of the stuff they are saying sounds like partial truths, some of it's completely bogus," he said.
"They were stripped naked probably to prevent them from sneaking weapons into the facility. That's why someone may be stripped," King said. He also dismissed the charge of mistreatment with cold water.
"We do force people to stand for an extended period of time. ... Disruption of sleep has been reported as an effective way of reducing people's inhibition about talking or their resistance to questioning," King said.
A "common technique" involves either keeping lights on constantly or waking inmates every 15 minutes to disorient them and keep them wondering about the hour of the day, he said.
"They are not allowed to speak to one another. If they do, they can plan together or rely on the comfort of one another," King said. "If they're caught speaking out of turn, they can be forced to do things like stand for a period of time as payment for speaking out."
Human rights organizations have criticized the detentions and conditions at Bagram and Guantanamo, Cuba. An Afghan human rights worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, interviewed more than 20 Afghan former detainees who said they were stripped and ordered to sit and kneel naked in awkward positions for hours while they were questioned.
Last week, U.S. military coroners ruled the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10 as homicides. The men had been beaten and one had a blood clot in his lung. As yet, no charges have been brought.
Amnesty International called the methods "humiliating and degrading."
"It is very clear that all of those treatments prolonged restraints and sleep deprivation that results from leaving the lights on while it might not always rise to the standard of torture, it certainly is humiliating and degrading," Alistair Hodgett, spokesman for Amnesty International in Washington, told AP in a telephone interview on Friday.
Hodgett said the U.S. State Department's report on Human Rights last year criticized Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for similar treatment of prisoners.
Both Rahman and Qayyum were both taken prisoner in the northeast province in Kunar Rahman in December, Qayyum in August.
Qayyum was captured in a widely publicized arrest of Haji Ruhollah Wakil, a leader of small religious party, and 13 others. Wakil is still in Bagram, along with his lieutenant Saber Lal, said Qayyum. Rahman was arrested even though he had been a prominent supporter of U.S. troops in Kunar since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Both were flown out of Kunar by helicopter, their hands tied and eyes covered.
In Rahman's case, the helicopter first landed at Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. It was there that he was stripped naked and doused in ice water. His interrogators two men with two dogs were American. After 24 hours he was sent to the two-story detention center at Bagram where Qayyum was also held.
For the first 20 days Rahman was alone in a room on the second floor of the building. On the first floor, Qayyum was held in the larger room, divided by wire mesh into cubicles. Each prisoner was given a red suit to wear, two blankets and a carpet on which to sleep. The lights were always on. Prisoners were allowed to wash once a week for five minutes. The toilet was a bucket.
Qayyum said interrogations were carried out on the second floor, where prisoners were led hooded and handcuffed.
At one point Rahman said his interrogators threatened to send him to Guantanamo, Cuba.
"One of them brought me 50 small stones and said 'count these stones.' When I finished he said, 'We will send you there (Guantanamo) for 50 years.'"
"I was sad (about being arrested) because I was the enemy of al-Qaida and Taliban. I was not the criminal. I fought the Taliban," Rahman said. After the Taliban's fall, Rahman along with his brother Malik Zareen, a prominent commander in the U.S.-allied northern alliance seized control of Kunar for the allies in their war on terror.
Now he says he is too embarrassed to say he was arrested by the U.S. forces.
"I tell everyone I was in Kabul to visit Karzai. I don't tell anyone I was in Bagram," he said. "They would laugh at me. At Bagram, Taliban prisoners would shout at me, 'These are your friends. This is what happens to friends of the Americans.'"
Upon their release, Rahman and Qayyum said their captors told them the same thing: "We are here to help you. The Taliban and al-Qaida are your enemy. They destroyed your country."