Dancing With Death In The Dark, and Jack Still Waits

This is a piece by John Thomas and Mohammed A written on Dec 6th. If you want an idea of what it is like in Pulecharke then read this in its entirety. Jack Idema and his men are rotting in jail though they have been cleared of any charges. The US government has ignored the plight of three men who do not deserve the treatment they are getting. We leave no one behind and this fight will continue until we can free Jack and his men.

Go to Cao’s Blog to get contact information to help free our guys.

By By[sic] John Thomas with Mohammed A. Tuesday December 6, 2005 at 09:24 AM

(Pulecharke Village, Afghanistan) Pulecharke Prison—it is one of the most infamous prisons in the world. For the last 47 days it has been under a complete blackout, imposed by President Hamid Karzai directly. No running water, no drinking water, no electricity, and barely enough food to feed a few hundred, not the thousands huddling in the dark filthy concrete cells trying to survive just one more day until help arrives. From where, no one knows.

It is estimated that more than 25,000 people have died there, or been murdered, or hung as their fellow inmates watched them dangle from ropes in the center courtyard.

The hangman’s gallows are gone, destroyed by the Northern Alliance when they seized Kabul in November 2001. Many times the other prisoners watching Pulecharke convicts dance at the end of a Soviet era hemp rope cutting slowly through their necks were their children, brothers, wives, or other family members, who were also political prisoners. That usually meant members of the United Front—military strongman Ahmad Shah Massoud’s coalition often referred to as the Northern Alliance. Members of that group, including men, women, or children, were rarely spared by the Soviets or the Taliban.

It was not to be unexpected that Massoud’s Northern Alliance would quickly liberate and destroy Pulecharke prison in November 2001 as the Taliban fled, driving Massoud’s tanks through the gates and walls and firing rockets through almost every Taliban guard house in immense complex. Nor was it surprising that Northern Alliance factions would also seize permanent control over a primary symbol of oppression which their commander despised. Had Massoud not been killed by Osama bin Laden assassins, shortly before September 11, 2001, some believe he would have razed Pulecharke to the ground. Knowing that background, it is obvious why the Northern Alliance has refused to give up control of Pulecharke and other prisons in Afghanistan

Under the kind, compassionate, and paternal rule of Hamid Karzai, a president put in place by the US State Department, and then elected in a vote which almost no one actually argues was not fixed, rigged, and/or illegal, Pulacharke has become a different prison.

No longer are there daily hangings, beatings, or screams of tortured prisoners permeating the night. No, this is Karzai’s kinder, gentler, more humane version of death and despair. A place where the prison administration and Ministry of Justice fight the Karzai administration every day for food, water, electricity, and even to release Northern Alliance prisoners whose sentences have long expired, but still await release papers.

Over the last 60 days prison officials, most of who make barely enough to feed their own families, have fought day and night to save 3,000 starving, dying, disease ridden, and freezing prisoners.

An officer, guard, soldier, makes roughly $45 a month. One bag of rice to feed a family of four for a month, costs $45. To cook the rice it takes wood—7 kilos costs $1; it takes $50 a month just to cook rice and bread, but you can’t cook bread because you have to buy wheat, and that will cost you another $48 for a month’s worth. You can’t cook any of this without a can of oil. That will cost you $18. Another $40 for sugar, salt, and some rotted meat three times a month. Do the math. A family of four—most Afghan families are eight or more—needs $201.00 a month to live, and that doesn’t include the rent of your one or two room mud hut. Tea, socks, a blanket, medicine?

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Forget about it. This is a country of despair, pain, and misery, for Afghans, but not foreign aid workers and private military companies. While NGOs— Non-Governmental Agencies— like the Red Cross, the UN, and a thousand others like Global—throw lavish parties, rent palace like guest houses, and run open bars all night long—the local people live in tragedy and suffering.

A Colonel with 25 years of service to the Northern Alliance earns the same salary in one year that a DYNCORP, Halliburton, or Brown & Root guard makes in a single day. American and British PMCs—Private Military Companies—live even more lavishly that the NGOs, but at poverty level compared to American diplomats and Embassy workers.

That same Colonel in the Ministry of Justice makes just $85 a month; a General earns approximately $120 per month. Yet they are responsible for tens of thousands of prisoners, most convicted in illegal courts by judges who are either completely illiterate, or barely qualified to hear a dispute over the ownership of two sheep, no less the life of man accused of not paying his $1 taxicab bill. Take Mohammed Rahimullah, accused of not paying 45 Afghanis (less than one dollar), he received a sentence of 16 years, which he now serves in a concrete cell without a mattress, blanket, heat, or water.

Yet Pakistani terrorists, bombers, and militants captured on the battlefields, or in the act of murder, have all been set free and released back to their country where they cross back over the border and join the Taliban resistance again. All this in a secret deal by Hamid Karzai, referred to by locals as the pro-Taliban “Mayor of Kabul.”

In my last visit to Pulecharke Prison, just on the outskirts of Kabul, I was horrified. Having once been there during the Taliban rule, the prison was a place of brutal human rights abuses stemming from the whip, the cable—a half-meter twisted metal wire—and the stick, all used to beat prisoners on a daily basis. You’re only way out was hanging, and many preferred that option over their daily beatings.

The new Karzai prison system, in my opinion, is more brutal, but behind the curtain. While Ministry of Justice officers don’t even slap a prisoner, no less beat them, the torture and human rights abuses come from outside the prison walls.

Illegal Karzai/Taliban Judges

Illegal former Taliban judges appointed by Karzai himself, hand down extraordinarily harsh sentences to anyone whose family fought against the Taliban, yet Taliban Commanders or political party members, receive a long sentence at their public trial, and are then secretly ordered released just months or weeks later, often in the middle of the night.

Hundreds of prisoners are scheduled for release for petty crimes, but no one can be released until they “pass the third court,” according to Minister Sarwar Danish, the Minster of Justice. There lies the Catch-22. Karzai’s Third Court only calls “former” Taliban members to trial, usually lasting ten minutes, whereupon they are released. As to the others, even if the Third Court upholds their sentence, they are still eligible for immediate release in most cases.

In the case of some, like Azim Laehaha, his sentence expired three months ago, but until he appears in the Third Court his release papers cannot be signed. Laehaha’s family admits that if the prison commander releases him without the signature of a “Karzai judge” the commander will undoubtedly take the prisoner’s place in one of the sub-freezing concrete cells.

Prisoners are not the only victims. Even a cursory walk through the prison makes it difficult to ascertain who is suffering the most, the prisoners or the guards. The guards are freezing right alongside their charges. Most of the guards look less fed than the average street urchin in Kabul. Few, very few, have coats; none have gloves, and most lack socks. I was asked by a colleague how I knew that most lacked socks. Seven out of ten boots have barely a sole left and most of them have more than one hole. Match that with pants that are threadbare and above the ankle and the observation becomes fairly self-apparent. The guards burn garbage not for sanitation, but for heat, and stand around shaking and longing for the days when the Mujihideen were in power.

Is there light at the end of their dark tunnel? All of the guards told me the same thing. “God will bring the Parliament soon, and then Karzai and his ministers can no longer starve us.” They shine with the typical Afghan belief that God could not possibly allow their suffering to continue. Allah may not wish to, but Karzai has now delayed the new Mujihideen controlled Parliament to be delayed on seven different occasions, and for more than three months.

Most observers admit they would be quite surprised if this new elected Parliament ever meets, and each week, another assassination or assassination attempt of an elected anti-Karzai Parliament member occurs.

The Palace

“The Palace” as the Karzai administration is often referred to—suggestive of a “Downing Street” reference as the seat of power in Britain—is clearly engaging in severe human rights abuses. It is alleged that Karzai personally, or through a close family member, had the power at Pulecharke Prison diverted to a foreign construction company just down the dusty gravel road in Pulacharke village. One official in the construction company, admitted under anonymity, that they had paid a $100,000 bribe to a “friend” in the Karzai family for 24 hour electricity, saying, “this is the way it is done here.”

More disturbing is the allegation that the construction company is doing work for the United States Embassy and that US Consular officials put pressure on Minister of Energy, Ismail Khan to divert energy from Pulecharke Prison to the Embassy’s needs. If true, this indicates that American politicians and diplomats place their comfort and DVD players above the lives of Afghans. Calls to the United States Embassy were rebuked with denials of any involvement in Afghan internal affairs. Questions regarding the Regradation Construction Company (one of those “Afghanism’s” such as “Demo-Crase-Ey”) in Pulecharke were politely answered by consular affairs officers, who refused to divulge their names, with “no comment,” right before the phone went dead without so much as a “good day.” [new information also points to the US Embassy’s involvement in putting pressing on the Energy Ministry to divert power to a US State Department funded pro-Karzai radio station and terminate electric power for the prison]

According to General Zaradin Zoreedeen, the former commander of Pulecharke, who just recently became Chief of Control for all prisons in Afghanistan, Ministry of Justice officials, Generals, and reconstruction Colonels have been fighting a desperate battle with the Ministry of Energy and the Karzai palace to return electricity to Pulecharke Prison. Like most efforts of this nature in Afghanistan, those arguing for justice and common sense walk a razor thin tightrope. If they don’t complain and work hard enough to fix the problem, they face prison for incompetence. If they complain to loudly, or at too high of a level, they face prison for insubordinate insolence or political subversion. Where is that decision made? Usually at “the Palace.” Who carries out Karzai’s policy of retribution? Usually the NDS, or National Directorate of Security. Funded solely by the American FBI, the NDS has absolute power to make arrests and carry out extraordinary interrogation, often resulting in death, at a secret underground prison in Kabul.

Karzai’s director of the Afghan NDS is Armullah Saleh. He speaks perfect English. He looks and dresses exactly like former FBI Director Louis Freeh. If you didn’t already know, you would never expect he was Afghan.

Last year, three Americans arrested for running a private jail, but later found to be working directly for the Minister of Defense and Afghan Defense Intelligence Agency, claimed to have been electrocuted, beaten, and tortured at the NDS prison along with several Afghan government employees who were arrested with them. One Afghan, a major in the Ministry of Defense with 16 years of service, still points to the electrical burns on his hands present after he was released one year ago when his family produced his official MOD identification card.

The Red Cross privately admitted that the torture occurred, but have refused to issue any report or statement claiming that all Red Cross inquiries and matters are confidential. Red Cross Chief of Delegation, Philippe Spoerri, in Kabul, refused to comment on the record, but did not deny that the Red Cross had confirmation of multiple murders at the NDS facility run under Hamid Karzai’s direction. Spoerri said that if the Red Cross were to make their findings public, “the palace” would eject the delegation.

Such is the way of Afghanistan.

Calls to Hamid Karzai’s Spokesman, Karim Rahimi at “the palace,” were a mix between dealing with former Ugandan military ruler Idi Amin Dada and Nikita Khrushchev—simultaneously.

At first Rahimi refused to give his name, position, or admit we had reached the palace. Further questioning established that the number was a special number for complaints by the public and the press was not “authorized by the president to complain.”

Finally, Rahimi referred us to the president’s secretary, who promptly refused to comment on any matter dealing with a malfunctioning government or human rights abuses. Since Rahimi was Karzai’s spokesman, it seemed strange that he would want, or even let, others to do the talking.

Another call to the Deputy Spokesman, “Shariff,” at the palace said our story should wait until Mr. Karzai returned from his trip abroad—a trip to Europe where we learned he was staying in $1800 a night suites and making ample use of the hotel mini-bars. Shariff who also refused to give his last name, saying it was “confidential.” Three more calls to palace numbers reached Shamsudeen, and several other high-level Karzai aides, all of who gave different excuses and stories.

Finally, I reached Karim Rahimi again and demanded answers or he could read “NO COMMENT” in my article the next day. When asked about starving and freezing prisoners at Pulecharke Prison, the “official Karzai response” was that it was the responsibility of the Red Cross to care for the prisoners. The Afghan government did not have the financial ability to feed, clothe, or care for them. Therefore, as Rahimi concluded, after rejoining the conversation, if anyone died at Pulacharke, it was the clear responsibility and fault of western donors who were not sending the president enough money.

The conversation ended abruptly when I inquired into the multi-million dollar houses several ministers were building in Afghanistan, and asked if Rahimi could explain why former Minister of Interior Ahmad Ali Jalali, also an American citizen, had just purchased a three million dollar house in Boca Ratan, Florida, after resigning abruptly.

My last call to a private number for Karzai’s top aide, “Dawoodzai,” turned into an interview of me. He wanted to know which guest house I was staying at in Kabul, and asked for my address, saying that Amniat (Afghan language for NDS) needed my address to confirm my identity and the length of my stay.

In a country famous for its’ Burkas and veils, where women still go to jail for showing their ankles in some villages, and where one American journalist still rots in prison after almost two years, and finally, where a well respected newspaper editor was sentenced to hang for writing an editorial stating women should be allowed to divorce husbands that beat them (his sentence was later reduced to two years after demonstrations in Kabul), I knew I had worn out my welcome.

I thanked Dawoodzai for his time, and said, “I wish I had time to meet and thank you, unfortunately I have to stay at Bagram airbase tonight since the British Army has graciously given me a seat on their 6am plane to London.”

Then I reminded him my name was Peter Jennings, J-E-N-N-I-N-G-S, on assignment for ABC and BBC, and politely ended the call, before I found myself in darkness on a concrete slab, waiting to my turn for the dance of death in the darkness.

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2 Responses to “Dancing With Death In The Dark, and Jack Still Waits”

  1. Cao says:

    Disturbing, isn’t it? Fortunately, Jack and his men are not languishing in a mud cell–but have Officers Quarters in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. They have been recognized by the Afghan government as “political prisoners”, due in part, to the State Department’s appeasement of terrorists strategy.

    Jack and his men stood firmly in the way of appeasing the Taliban, and that reason (among others) is why they are still incarcerated.

    But luckily, the Northern Alliance is now in control of Parliament, and we anxiously await the press conference exonerating and freeing them.

    I can hardly wait.

  2. Wednesday’s Update: Jack Idema 12/21/2005

    Cao has been doing a very good job following this story about Jack Idema. Some people, however, seem to wish to defame her.