‘Free, but not free’: Tortured ex-Bagram inmates struggle to cope

‘Free, but not free’: Tortured ex-Bagram inmates struggle to cope

Karachi, Pakistan – Hamidullah Khan, born and raised in Karachi, was 16 years old, and off on a great adventure.

Days earlier, he had run away from his family while they were on a trip to their ancestral village of Ladha, in Pakistan’s northwestern district of South Waziristan.

Accompanied by a cleric who had mentored him – the two had met at a market near Ladha – he was heading to a madrassa, or religious school, in neighbouring Afghanistan, to, as he puts it, pursue his interest in getting a religious education.

It was 2008, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) armed group was fighting Pakistani forces from its stronghold of South Waziristan, while the Afghan Taliban were – as they still are – battling the US-led NATO coalition in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The war needed soldiers, on either side of the border.

Two days into the journey, Khan was beginning to lose his resolve. They had spent all their time trekking or camped out on rocky mountainsides, with no madrassa in sight, he says.

Suddenly, one night, a helicopter appeared over the village they were camped next to, in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost province. 

Days earlier, NATO forces had shelled the area, and the appearance of the helicopter panicked residents, who began to run out of their homes. Khan fled too and happened upon an Afghan army checkpoint.

“I thought this is my chance to be rid of [the cleric],” he says. “I went to the soldier and asked him how I could get home.”

It would be six years before he made it back to Karachi.

Arrested by the Afghan soldiers at the checkpoint, he was handed over to the US military, and then detained without formal charge, access to legal counsel or recourse to challenge his detention, in the country’s infamous Bagram prison.

Bagram prison
Hamidullah Khan, 26, says he has trouble focusing on tasks since he was released from Bagram, and often has nightmares of his time there. He says he was beaten while in Afghan custody, and subjected to other abuse while held by US forces in Afghanistan

Today, it has been five years since 43 Pakistanis – including Khan – were released and repatriated from the Bagram facility. For many, the scars of the torture and abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of US and Afghan forces continue to haunt them, while harassment by Pakistani security agencies and police under anti-terrorism legislation has crippled their ability to lead a normal life.

Built by the United States in the 1950s, Bagram Airfield, located about 50km (31 miles) north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, was expanded into a large detention facility after the US-led invasion of the country following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

At its height, the facility held more than 3,200 detainees without formal charge or access to legal recourse, most of them Afghans. Those detained included dozens of citizens of other countries, referred to as “Third Country Nationals (TCNs)”, some captured in Afghanistan, others as far afield as Somalia or Iraq.

In 2005, the New York Times obtained a classified US military report that documented the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram due to torture.

Since then, allegations of widespread torture and abuse at the facility – including beatings during interrogations  –  have regularly surfaced from prisoners who were released either during or after a 2014 handover of the facility to the Afghan government.

They would beat me. They would bang my head against the walls while moving me. When they took me for a shower they would beat me or kick me.

Hamidullah Khan, former Bagram detainee

a US Department of Defense spokesperson said since Washington no longer controlled Bagram, this reporter would have to file a freedom of information request for any further details.


For the TCNs, the handover brought the first ray of hope for release that they had seen in years. Legally, the Afghan government ruled it could not hold them without formal charge, prompting most of the remaining 60 or so to be repatriated to their home countries within months of the handover.

Of those, at least 43 were Pakistanis like Hamidullah Khan, according to Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a Pakistani legal aid organisation that represents several former detainees. 

On Wednesday, JPP released a new report detailing the reports of abuse by prisoners, and accounts of how they have struggled to reintegrate since being released.

These Pakistani prisoners were held without charge, for as long as 11 years in one case, with many alleging physical and mental abuse while in Afghan and US custody.

“They took me to a place called the ‘black jail’,” says Khan, now 26, sitting on the floor at his home in Karachi. “It was very harsh. We had no idea of time [there].

“They would beat me. They would bang my head against the walls while moving me. When they took me for a shower they would beat me or kick me,” he says, demonstrating the motions with his hands.

Bagram prison
A general view of the Bagram prison compound before a ceremony handing the facility from US to Afghan authorities [File: Omar Sobhani]

For Haleem Saifullah, who was captured by Afghan police in 2005 in the eastern district of Zabul while on his way home to Karachi from collecting a family debt, the abuse was even worse.

“They beat me with guns, gun butts, with ropes and other things,” he says, recalling how he was interrogated by Afghan forces at a US-run facility in Zabul district. “I was beaten for 10 days … I was in such bad condition that I was praying to Allah for death.”

After being handed over to US forces, Saifullah alleges that he was subjected to sleep deprivation for more than 10 days.

“The Americans, they would not let us sleep,” he said. “They would keep me standing, and pour cold water on me … they would make noise [to keep me awake]. They had a metal bar which they would strike against the bars of the cell in order to keep us awake.”

We are free, but we are not free. We have only stress. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to still be in Bagram.

Haleem Saifullah, ex-Bagram detainee

At Bagram, both Khan and Saifullah said aside from physical abuse, they were forced to live in difficult conditions and were often mistreated by guards.

In cramped communal cells housing more than 20 detainees, they said, the guards would keep the rooms extremely cold in the winter through air conditioning, and so hot as to be “unbearable” in the summer.

“It used to be so cold that my bones would hurt,” said Khan.

If someone complained, former detainees told they would be given a disciplinary report and sent to solitary confinement in a cell no larger than a moderately sized coffee table, a practice called “segregation”.

“When they took us to segregation, it would be for 40 or 45 days,” said Saifullah. “The minimum time was for 28 days, for completely mundane things.”

US military regulations state that the duration of segregation for detainees “[would] not normally be for a period longer than 30 days”, according to 2013 US Department of Defense memo on detention operations in Afghanistan.

No recourse, no hope

Saifullah, Khan and Fazal Karim – another Pakistani detainee who was released and repatriated in 2014, told they were not informed of their rights or the specific charges against them until years into their detention.

“There was nothing,” says Khan, simply, when asked if he knew what law or system he was being held under. “They would never talk about our release, nor would this enter our minds.”

Lawyers representing former detainees in Pakistan and other countries say the November 2001 executive order signed by US President George W. Bush that authorised the US to hold “enemy combatants” without charge provided few rights for detainees or rules on how they were to be handled.

Sarah Belal, the executive director of Pakistan-based JPP, called the resulting legal memos and policies that flowed from that document “a freakish manifestation of whatever was left over of the law”.

“International humanitarian law and international [conflict] law categorically failed in this scenario,” she told  “All these exceptions were carved out, and compromises were made.”

By categorising the war in Afghanistan as a “non-international armed conflict”, for example, large sections of the Geneva Conventions were not applicable to those detained by US forces in its so-called “Global War on Terror”, including the areas that guaranteed rights, protections and liveable prison conditions.

There is no legal system. There’s nothing. This is not a court, this did not have prescribed rules.

Sarah Belal, executive director of Pakistan-based JPP

For detainees, this meant that they often heard the accusations against them for the first time years into their detention, when they were finally presented before US military constituted Detainee Review Boards (DRBs) that, theoretically, offered them a chance of proving their innocence.

“About four years after I had been arrested, I was told during a [DRB] that the Afghans had told the US forces that I was captured in a battle,” says Khan.

Khan alleged that local translators had mistranslated a written statement made and signed early in his detention. That statement was written in Pakistani Pashto, a different dialect from the version of Pashto spoken in Afghanistan.

“When we would say that we have not done something, [the translators] would say that we are confessing,” said Khan. “What I had written, he translated it as me confessing to being captured in battle.”

In 2011, he says, he was finally able to gain access to translators who spoke his dialect, who then verified to US authorities that his “confession” as translated into English was not accurate.

At this point, he had already spent three years being detained and interrogated by US officials, who, based on that document, believed him to have confessed to being a member of the Afghan Taliban. 

Saifullah, held for nine years, said he had a similar experience with mistranslated statements that made it appear that he had confessed his guilt.

“In the beginning, we had no idea [what was in our files],” he said. “We would deny something and [the translator] would say we confessed to it during interrogations.”

Asked if this allowed Khan or Saifullah any recourse to demand release at the time, Belal said there were no rules for that under US detention policy.

“There is no legal system. There’s nothing. This is not a court, this did not have prescribed rules,” she said.

Another lawyer, who represents three TCNs who were held at Bagram, confirmed the unclear and unfair process.

“When they were held by the US, they did not need to be charged with a crime,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“They were just held without hearing.”

It “was not clear” what constituted fair grounds or evidence for detention or release by US forces, the lawyer said. 

For many, however, even when release came, it was not without cost.

From prison to poverty

Haleem Saifullah, now 35, sits on a small bed, the only piece of furniture in his two-room apartment in an illegally constructed working-class settlement in Karachi’s Metroville area, his clothes stained with sweat.

“Since I have returned, I have driven a rickshaw, I have run a push-cart, sometimes doing this, sometimes doing that, but because I am on the Fourth Schedule everything is disturbed,” he says. “They can call me at any time. They track my mobile location. It’s difficult for a man to work.”

The “Fourth Schedule” is part of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act, which gives police wide-ranging powers to detain, question and restrict the movements of people suspected of links to armed groups. Most of those detainees repatriated from Bagram to Pakistan in 2014 were placed on the Fourth Schedule, and several served prison sentences on their return, ranging from several months to up to three years.

Saifullah spent six days in police custody without charge, as recently as this month, he says, a result of tightened security following threats by armed groups in Karachi. Such detentions, he said, were “routine”, and made it impossible to find any regular work.

Sometimes I would call out ‘cell guard!’ when I wanted water. My family members would laugh, saying this isn’t Bagram, you are home.

Haleem Saifullah, ex-Bagram detainee

Other former detainees also said it was difficult to make ends meet when they could be called up to report to the police at a moment’s notice.

Hamidullah Khan says his scars from Bagram run far deeper than affecting his ability to earn a living for the family of six he supports. He has nightmares, he says, and often finds himself forgetting what he is doing, where he is, or why.

His father, the patriarch of the family, passed away soon after his return home. The experience left him shaken.

“I had never known in life how much sugar costs, how much flour costs … it was a huge burden [to support the family],” he said, pointing out that he had been detained when he was just 15.

“I have to take care of everyone, I have to run the whole house. And often I would think maybe it would be better to be in [Bagram], where I had a certain kind of life.”

For Saifullah, he found it “very strange” to adjust back to being a free man, after nine years in detention.

“Sometimes I would call out ‘cell guard!’ [when] I wanted water,” he says, of the months after his release. “My family members would laugh, saying this isn’t Bagram, you are home.”

At night, he would dream of Bagram.

“Sometimes when I was sleeping I would dream that I was in Bagram, and that that was my home. It was very strange, this stayed with me for a long time,” he says.

“Sometimes I felt like I was dreaming, that none of this was real.”

Bagram prison
The brother of Shah Khalid, a 16 year old who was detained by US forces and held without charge at Bagram for seven years, looks through medical records. Khalid died in 2017 from cancer

For others, the cost Bagram has extracted is even higher.

“Before he went [to Bagram], he was perfectly fine,” says Fazal Naeem, Karim’s younger brother. “[When he returned] it was somewhat bad, but now [his mental state] has gotten much worse.”

Karim speaks erratically, flitting from subject to subject and often repeating himself. He chews on tobacco as he speaks, talking one moment about how he “wants to forget it all”, and in the next narrating stories of abuse or how he attempted to escape the prison.

His brother Naeem sits next to him, watching for any sudden violent movements, he says.

For all three former detainees, the inability to find steady work seemed an abiding concern.

Sitting in his dilapidated flat, green paint peeling off the walls, Saifullah spoke of how he had accrued more than 300,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,900) in debt since his release.

He married soon after his return, fathering four children. Each of them, he says, died because he was not able to afford hospital treatment for them when they were ill.

“We are free, but we are not free,” he says. “We have only stress [in our lives]. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to still be in [Bagram].”

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