Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ghazni provincial governor Musa Khan Akbarzada. (Photo: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan/Flickr)
Leaders of a militia force established to fight Taleban forces in Ghazni province in Afghanistan have set up private prisons where they torture and extort money from local people, an IWPR investigation has found.
More than 50 villagers have told IWPR of abuses they have suffered at the hands of pro-government paramilitaries at three detention centres in Ghazni’s Moqor district.
Officials including the provincial governor say they are powerless to close the facilities or stop the abuse because they understood the militia was backed by Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate for Security or NDS.
Interviewed by IWPR, the three top militia commanders in Moqor district freely admitted to torturing detainees, justifying this by describing them as Taleban members or contacts.
In April 2012, residents of Qadimkhel, a village in Ghazni’s Andar district, organised a militia to defend them from the Taleban, who had forced schools and clinics to close and blocked reconstruction work.
Similar units appeared in other districts, and the Ghazni forces became known collectively as the National Uprising Movement. They were initially popular since they brought a degree of security and made it possible for education and health services to resume.
It was never clear how much official support and assistance these forces received. Asadullah Khaled, who headed the NDS before he was injured in a December 2012 suicide attack, hinted during his tenure that the Ghazni militia was under his agency’s control.
The paramilitary commanders in Moqor district say they received regular payments from Kabul until Asadullah Khaled left Afghanistan for medical treatment in the United States.
Officials told IWPR earlier this year that the National Uprising Movement needed to be disbanded and its members enlisted in the police force. Some paramilitary commanders complied, but many others refused. (See Afghan Local Militias Demand Support.)
ABDUCTED AND BEATEN
In the Moqor district, the paramilitaries began with 40 men in April 2012 and now have around 180. According to district government chief Saheb Khan, makeshift jails operate at three militia bases in this district, in the villages of Bara Khan Khel, Qala-e Godam and Qala-ye Khanadar.
The main commanders in Moqor are Sayed Ali, Faizol and Ghias. According to Faizol, “We have 180 men in three groups. We are armed with Kalashnikovs, rockets and [other] rifles.”
IWPR interviewed residents in a sample 15 of the 200 villages in Moqor district and found 55 people who said they had been tortured at these bases.
They also said they were forced to pay over money to obtain their release. For this group of 55 people, the ransom money totalled 70,000 US dollars.
Market trader Asadullah, 22, said that in early May 2012, armed men under Faizol’s command came to his shop in the Moqor bazaar where he sold solar energy equipment.
After beating him badly, they stole eight sets of solar panels and then took him off to their detention centre.
He says his captors tortured him for four days and nights and repeatedly demanded money. He eventually managed to secure his release through the intervention of his uncle, a senior officer in the Afghan National Army.
After he was freed, Asadullah closed down his shop for fear of running into further problems. He has been unemployed ever since.
“Faizol still owes me 60,000 afghani [1,000 dollars] for the eight solar panel sets,” he added.
Another man, Nasrullah, from the village of Chorian, told IWPR that as he was returning home from the mosque one morning in June 2013, six men rode up on motorbikes. They had drawn their turbans over their faces and had Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. The men seized him and beat him up before taking him to the militia base in Qala-ye Godam.
Nasrullah, a former teacher, said that when the men uncovered their faces, he recognised them all as relatives of commander Faizol.
“Commander Faizol lashed me with a cable for three days and nights in a basement at the checkpoint, but he didn’t tell me what I had done,” he said.
The “cable” is a specific instrument of punishment used by the Taleban when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. It consists of a short wooden handle and flexible length of electrical cabling.
According to Nasrullah, 15 other men were imprisoned alongside him in the same basement, in a building originally used to hold livestock.
“Faizol’s men would lay five or six of us face down and naked on the ground, and lash us 30 to 40 times with the cable each time,” he said.
Nasrullah said he was released after three days of torture and allowed to return home. During his imprisonment, his brother had paid Faizol the equivalent of 1,200 dollars.
Fearing further action from Faizol’s men, Nasrullah left Chorian and now lives hundreds of kilometres away together with his family.
Asked about this case, Faizol confirmed that Nasrullah had been imprisoned but denied taking any money.
“Perhaps Commander Sayed Ali or Commander Ghias received money from Nasrullah,” he said.
Faizol did not deny that villagers were tortured by his troops, arguing that this was part of their remit. He told IWPR that all the villagers who had complained of abuse were either members of the Taleban or had contact with them.
Sayed Ali, commander of the Bara Khan Khel militia, told IWPR that he had tortured many men over the past 18 months and had taken money from them.
“All the individuals I have tortured were in contact with the Taleban,” he said.
The third commander, Ghias, also told IWPR that some villagers who lived in the area under his control had been imprisoned and tortured. However, he attributed most cases of torture to men serving under Faizol and Sayed Ali, adding, “Commander Faizol is crueller.”
LOCAL AUTHORITIES POWERLESS TO ACT
The authorities in Ghazni say they are aware of these ongoing abuses, but insist there is nothing they can do to prevent them or bring justice to the victims.
“People have complained a lot to me about the cruelty of these commanders,” Ghazni’s provincial governor Musa Khan Akbarzada told IWPR.
He recounted one incident in late August when a man called Mohammad Zaher, from the village of Khanadar contacted him and said Ghias’s men had abducted two of his daughters from their home at gunpoint.
The girls were then forced into marriage with the commander’s son and nephew, who serve as his bodyguards.
The governor said all he could do was refer the incident to a local jirga or assembly, because he himself lacked the powers to arrest Ghias and hand him over for investigation.
Akbarzada said the militia was supported by the NDS, and he could neither arrest suspects nor close down the private prisons.
“It’s beyond my authority” he said.
Moqor district governor Saheb Khan added that the jirga had been unable to do anything about the abduction because when it convened to deal with the matter, Mohammed Zaher was too frightened of Ghias to attend. The case remains unresolved.
Ghias had a different version of events. He told IWPR that the two girls had taken refuge inside his militia base, complaining of mistreatment from their father and brothers. Marrying one of the girls to his son and the other to his nephew was his way of helping them, he added.
Moqor’s district government chief Saheb Khan said he had informed the authorities in Kabul about the privately-run prisons on a number of occasions, but was told that he had no right to interfere in the militia’s activities.
He declined to say which government agency he had spoken to.
“Basically, I am not authorised to interrogate the commanders, and closing their private prisons is out of the question for me, because [NDS head] Asadullah Khaled created and armed them,” added Khan.
Commander Faizol told IWPR that the NDS no longer provided his force with any support.
Before Khaled was injured in late December 2012, the Moqor commanders received a monthly payment of 230,000 afghani (4,000 dollars), to be divided amongst their men.
After the attack, this support stopped abruptly.
IWPR approached the NDS chief for Ghazni province, Masud, and his subordinate Hajji Eqbal, NDS head in Moqor district, and for interviews. After learning that the topic was private jails, both officials declined to speak to the reporter.
Abdul Hamid Ezzat is an IWPR-trained reporter in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
This report was produced as part of IWPR’s Afghan Critical Mass Media Reporting in Uruzgan and Nangarhar project.
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