Postcard from Parwan

After years of alleged abuse, a new U.S. prison in Afghanistan aims to improve conditions for its detainees. Trying for a better kind of justice

  • Adam Ferguson / VII Network

    Officials have taken great pains to make the Parwan detention center the anti-Bagram

    Please take a pair of safety glasses," said the tour guide. "Sometimes the prisoners throw feces at us. I don't think that will happen, but to be safe ..." I was traveling through the new U.S. detention facility in Parwan province, just north of Kabul. As the tour wound along a series of concrete walkways supported by steel girders, the slap of a basketball drifted over from a nearby court: a pickup game among the detainees.

    It's the type of thing you never would have seen at the old prison, located a mile (1.6 km) or so away across desert scrub at Bagram airfield. As "humane and transparent" as the new detention center at Parwan is supposed to be, the old facility at Bagram is its dark doppelgänger. As recently as November 2009, reports circulated of detainees there being subjected to sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and beatings. Housed in a former hangar and in use since shortly after U.S. forces set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, Bagram saw its share of controversies: it was a bad place where bad things were done to people in the name of fighting al-Qaeda. Two detainees died there in 2002 after being interrogated, and the prison was off-limits to the press. When I last visited in 2005, I wasn't allowed inside.

    In January 2009, President Obama ordered a review of detainee operations, and Parwan, which cost $60 million, accepted its first prisoners last December. The facility is to be part of a larger complex called the Parwan Rule of Law Center, where trials involving national-security threats will be conducted. By January, the process of handing the facility over to the Afghan government will be under way, says U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert Harward, commander of Joint Task Force 435, which oversees Parwan's operations. Under the Obama Administration's new rules, Afghan authorities must be notified of a prisoner's detention within 24 hours. "This was a complaint of all Afghan citizens and the Afghanistan government," says Harward. "They had no idea which citizens were being detained."

    To get out of Parwan, detainees appear before a review board for a meeting that the rules stipulate must take place within 60 days of their detention. Within the first 30 days, they are assigned a U.S. military officer who advocates for their release by gathering information, reaching out to families about the process.

    "The new system at [Parwan] is a significant improvement over past U.S. practice," wrote Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch. "Those detained at least [have] the chance to show up and be heard." Eventually, Afghans will be able to decide these cases in their own courts of law. In June the first Afghan court trial was held at the facility, and four insurgents were found guilty, two for building IEDs.

    Fifty-six common cells hold about 24 men each (there are about 800 detainees on site), and parts of the Parwan facility have the feel of a new suburban YMCA. The facility is outfitted with a library and offers medical services, literacy training and instruction in agricultural practices and tailoring. I entered a room where biometrics--photographs, fingerprints and iris scans--are collected from prisoners. This information is loaded into a database and cross-checked against other biometric information from across Afghanistan. This forensic activity, says Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, seems to be having a desired chilling effect as insurgents discover that colleagues are being arrested at checkpoints.

    Despite the improved conditions and attempts to win over Afghans, it's important to remember that this is still a facility that holds prisoners deemed to have some affiliation with al-Qaeda or the insurgency. At one point during the tour, we stood outside a small, well-lit intake booth monitored by audio and video feeds. Inside sat a Pakistani man who made no movement indicating that he was aware of our presence. It was then I realized the window was made of one-way glass. The tour guide mistakenly opened the door and quickly shut it, flustered. Something snapped to attention in the air, like the feeling you get when opening a live trap, the feeling you might get bitten.

    Global Dispatch

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