‘I wake up and scream’: Taliban’s secret prisons terrorize thousands

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan – The Taliban’s prison is a dilapidated house, a cave, a dirty basement in an abandoned house, or a village mosque. Beatings or worse are a certainty and the sentence is indefinite. Food, if any, is stale bread and cold beans. A bed is a dirty floor or carpet. The threat of death, shouted, shouted, sometimes inflicted, is always present.

Malik Mohammadi, a 60-year-old quiet farmer, watched the Taliban kill his son Nasrullah, a 32-year-old army officer, in one of those prisons. During a nine-day period last year, Nasrullah, an epileptic, was rejected by his captors. Food was denied. His father saw blood leaking from his mouth and bruises from blows. On the tenth day, he died.

“The Taliban beat him,” Mohammadi said quietly. “I saw the murder of my son.”

This repression is part of the Taliban’s control strategy in the territories under their rule. While the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Qatar speak at times of meeting for talks, even as the idea of ​​real peace recedes, the reality is that insurgents already control much of the country. An approaching US withdrawal, coupled with a weak Afghan security force that can barely defend itself, means the group is likely to maintain this authority and its brutal ways of invoking submission.

One of the Taliban’s most fearsome tools to do so is a flexible network of prisons, a makeshift archipelago of mistreatment and suffering, in which insurgents impose harsh summary trials on their fellow Afghans, arbitrarily detaining them on the road. Most of them are looking for soldiers and government workers. The government has also been accused of ill-treatment in its prisons, and the United Nations recently found that nearly a third of prisoners in the Afghan army have been tortured.

In the case of the Taliban, detainees are locked up in hidden makeshift prisons, a universe of incarceration in which hapless defendants are often transferred, day after day, from a dilapidated house to an isolated mosque, and vice versa. not knowing how long the detention will last. The approach is anything but discriminatory.

“It keeps coming back to me while I sleep,” said Sayed Hiatullah, a 42-year-old shopkeeper in Faizabad. Last year, Hiatullah was falsely accused at a Taliban checkpoint of working for state security. He was jailed for 25 days.

“I wake up and scream,” he said. “It was the darkest and bitter period of my life. I was in shock for six months, ”Hiatullah said.

“I relive my memories 100 percent, every second, every minute,” said Atiqullah Hassanzada, 31, a former soldier captured last year on his way to a military hospital in Kabul, speaking on the floor of his home. “They hit me on the back of the thighs and on the shoulder,” he said.

Faizabad, a city in the far north of Afghanistan and the capital of Badakhshan province, is inhabited by numerous former Taliban prisoners, as insurgents control many of the roads from here to the capital Kabul. Taking that trip means exposing yourself to the Taliban checkpoints and capturing them.

In Faizabad, the Taliban’s technique is to imprison and punish first and ask questions later. There is no judge or court. Local villagers are forced to provide food. While thousands of Afghans have been detained in this way, there are no statistics. Afghan special forces said they recently released more than 40 detainees from a Taliban prison in Baghlan province, an incident not uncommon in local news. On Monday, 23 more were released in Kunduz province after being “extensively tortured” by the Taliban, the Afghan Defense Ministry said.

The effect of these arbitrary imprisonments is one of terror. “I begged them, crying, to release me,” Hiatullah said. “They would hit me even more.”

“The Taliban stopped the vehicle and arrested me,” Naqibullah Momand said, as he was traveling to his home in Kunduz province last year. “They put their hand on my heart to control my heartbeat,” said the 26-year-old television host.

For the Taliban, a quick hit would have indicated guilt; Mr. Momand forced himself to stay calm, but still ended up spending 29 days locked in a two-room house with 20 other people, sleeping on a dirty carpet on the floor, with a single light bulb on all night, before his captors admitted that he was not a member of the Afghan army.

The capture is only the beginning of the torment. Local commanders, often very young, have unlimited control over their prisoners.

“The behavior of low-level Taliban members is very bad,” said Fazul-Ahmad Aamaj, an elderly semi-official mediator in Faizabad, the best known of about 15 in Badakhshan. People whose relatives have been captured often turn to Mr. Aamaj for help. He has secured the release of dozens of the group’s captives through negotiations involving family members, tribal elders and money.

Rahmatullah Danishjo, a university student captured on the road to Kabul, on his way from Wardak province in September 2019, was tied up and taken to a village mosque. As with other prisoners, the holy place hardly turned out to be a sanctuary.

For local commanders, the mosque is an ideal jail. “It is the only central place in town; in many villages, the mosque is synonymous with the Taliban, ”said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups, which has extensively studied Taliban justice. “It’s the way they enforce the behavior.”

The Taliban also operate a parallel network of civil courts in which religious scholars judge land disputes and family disputes. These courts, with their fast sentencing, have earned a kind of reputation for efficiency and are welcomed by many Afghans, especially compared to the corrupt government judicial system. The Taliban courts also try killings and alleged moral and religious offenses. Here the emphasis is on “punishment”; the system “is based on beatings and other forms of torture,” Human Rights Watch said in a report last year.

Crimes perceived as political, such as working for or fighting for the Afghan government, inhabit a different universe. There are no courts for such crimes. Local Taliban commanders have absolute authority “to arrest anyone they deem suspicious,” Human Rights Watch said.

Mohammed Aman, 31, a government engineer, said one afternoon in November last he was stopped on the Ghazni-Kabul road, handcuffed and taken to a mosque. “There were 10 or 11 others, handcuffed to a chain, inside the mosque,” he said. “We were praying, early in the morning. They came and beat us, ”said Mr. Danishjo, who was detained in another mosque.

“They beat us with sticks for about five minutes. They hit us on the back, ”he said. “They were beating us on the hands.”

“One of the Taliban beat us in the courtyard of the mosque,” said Abdel Qadir Sharifi, 25, who was captured when his military base was invaded. “I thought they were going to kill me.”

Death is the ubiquitous threat, sometimes inflicted but most often used as a fearsome bargaining chip to get what the Taliban want: money, a prisoner swap, or a painfully drawn promise to resign from government service. Deliberate, often slow, execution of captives also occurs.

Summoned together with the village elders to negotiate the release of his son in exchange for Taliban prisoners, Mohammadi was able to see his son three times during Nasrullah’s brief captivity.

“They tried to seat him. But it kept falling, ”Mohammadi recalled. The Taliban yelled at him: “’Do you see what is happening to your son?’ ”

The next day, the Taliban moved Nasrullah to a dilapidated house. By the ninth day, he had lost consciousness. It was dirty, covered in urine and excrement.

His captors allowed Mohammadi to wash him with cold water. But it was too late. “He was dying,” his father said. “The last time I saw him was in the yard of the destroyed house,” he said.

After his son’s death, the Taliban tormented him. “Why don’t you cry?” they asked. “I told them, I don’t want to cry in front of the trees and stones,” Mohammadi said.

“I cried alone,” he said.

His other son, Rohullah Hamid, 35, a lawyer in Kabul, who participated in the failed effort to free his brother, said: “Every day, dozens of Afghans are killed by the Taliban. The Taliban are enemies of humanity. “

Najim Rahim contributed reports from Faizabad, Taimoor Shah Taimoor Shah of Kandahar and Farooq Jan Mangal by Khost.

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