Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Jailed Taleban Face Uncertain Fate

Former fundamentalist fighters holed up in jail controlled by General Dostum hope he will let them go in the end.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

A sign on the Shebargan prison wall reads, "If you don't have the strength to win, find the strength not to submit".

Group of released former Taleban fighters
General Dostum in Shebargan prison on the amnesty day
General Dostum in Shebargan prison on the amnesty day
Former Talaben fighters in the rain
Former Talaben fighters in the rain
Taleban fighers from Pakistan in the Shebargan prison
Taleban fighers from Pakistan in the Shebargan prison

The slogan scarcely seems appropriate to these weary, scrawny men, most of whom want no more than to go home to their families.

Some 2,900 former Taleban fighters are incarcerated in the jail, controlled by the northern commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Apart from about 807 Pakistanis, most of the inmates are Pashtun Afghans.

The number of captives was greater before Hamid Karzai, head of the provisional government, pardoned Afghan Taleban members to mark the New Year holiday of Nawroz on March 21.

About 260 men were released under the terms of the amnesty. Prison governor Commander Jorabaig said the youngest detainees, aged 17 to 20, were given priority, along with the elderly, the seriously ill and the wounded.

Prison guards in Shebargan say the authorities handed over 11 Uzbek members of the pro-Taleban Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, to the US authorities, who sent them to Guantanamo prison in Cuba.

The guards said the Uzbek fighters begged not to be handed back to Uzbekistan. "They cried because they were scared they would be killed immediately if they returned," the guard added.

According to Said Noorullah, head of the Afghan ministry for foreign affairs in the northern provinces, the US received about 150 Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Russians, Chechens, Tatars and Uygurs from China, as well as several European nationals.

Some came from Shebargan. The rest were allegedly sold to the Americans by Afghan commanders who captured them. Noorullah said the going rate for Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners ranged from two to five thousand US dollars, and the "the Arabs were the most expensive".

Many of the Afghan detainees who benefited from the recent amnesty say they were forced to join the Taleban and looked forward to returning to ordinary life.

Abdul Yusuf Abdul Shukoor, 18, a Pashtun from Kandahar, said he was pressured into fighting for the student militia. "I was forced to fight on the Taleban side and I'm grateful for my release," he said. "I'll never fight again. I'll go back to Kandahar and go into trade."

The Pakistan nationals said they only joined up by accident. "We're not guilty, allow us to return to our homeland," they said, though they failed to explain their motives for leaving their home country in the first place.

However, Mohammed Anwar, 22, from Iran, admitted that he had wanted to fight a holy war, or jihad. "America is crushing the Muslim states," he said. "I did not come to fight the Afghan people but against America, which rules the world."

The prisoners said they had not been tortured or humiliated but complained that their living conditions were miserable - up to 70 of them are crammed into cells designed to hold 15 at most, and the food rations are tiny. "We get one bowl of soup to share between two people and one piece of bread per day. We're kept hungry and in a cramped cell," they said.

Commander Jorabaig admitted four prisoners had died in captivity over the last four months, though he claimed the deaths resulted from war wounds, not inhumane conditions.

General Dostum, who visited the jail on the day the prisoners were released, said his forces did not deliberately set out to kill any of the Taleban fighters they had captured.
"We transported them (to jail) and about 100 of them died of their wounds, including a senior adviser to Osama bin Laden named Abdul Aziz," he said. "I wanted to help him, but he died from his wounds.

"It is cramped in the prison and there isn't enough room or food, but we're not receiving any financial aid to support them from Kabul. No one, I assure you, has laid a finger on them."

The fate of the Taleban prisoners in Shebargan remains unclear. Because no judicial system functions in Afghanistan, there is no legal process to establish their individual guilt. The prerogative of mercy lies with General Dostum, in whose territory the prison lies.

He insists he will release them all in the end. "Yes, I'll free them, even the Pakistanis," he said. "What am I going to do with them - what do I need them for?"
Parents of remaining prisoners cluster round the jail gates each day. The guards rarely let them see their loved ones. "My son isn't guilty, he didn't do anything wrong," said one woman in tears.

On the day of the amnesty, one father wept when he saw his son emerge from the jail without warning. The release was nothing short of a miracle to him, as he knew nothing of the pardon. The old man and the young ex-Taleban fighter embraced in t?ars. The other parents can only wait - and hope - for a similar outcome.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan