Inmates of Kunar Prison claim they have served their sentences but were not released. Others say appeal courts ruled in their favour, yet they remain behind bars. Local judiciary officials, the NDS, and the Attorney General's Office, deny any wrongdoing, but something is clearly amiss at this institution. Ahmad Balaal reports.
Not Kunar Prison but a typical cell scene at a provincial jail. One window, several occupants, foul air and anxiety about the future. (Photo: Rahmat Alizada, Main story photo: Zabihullah Ghazi)
Ajmal is wearing a white vest and reclines on a green pillow on the dirt-stained floor. His cell is three metres long and four wide, humid and hot, but there is no electric fan or ventilation. The door is made of timber and the single window, secured with iron bars, is 50 cm wide and two metres high off the ground. Only feeble watery glimmers of light filter through.
The 30-year-old is an inmate of Kunar Prison, a detention centre opened in 2010 in northeastern Kunar Province. Situated on the Kunar-Nuristan Highway at Sagay, three kilometres outside the provincial capital Asadabad, the modern facility holds 177 male and female prisoners. They are serving sentences for various offences, from political crimes to trafficking of narcotics, according to prison officials.
The doors of this facility are rarely opened to outsiders - an Afghanistan Today reporter requested to be admitted several times before permission was granted.
In Ajmal’s cell, some inmates are busy cutting onions and tomatoes while others cook. Other sit by, fanning themselves with anything to hand to relieve the stifling humidity.
Ajmal, a resident of Kunar's Watapur District who was arrested on suspicion of having ties to the Taliban, is close to boiling over himself as he recalls the refusal of the authorities to release him. “I won my case in a primary court sixteen months ago, but I’m still in jail,” he says.
His cellmate Jahnzeeb says he was picked up by police on his way to school two years ago. “Somebody just stopped me and arrested me. I told them I hadn’t committed any crime and they said that I was a Talib and was involved in the insurgency. After going through three courts (the primary court, the appeal court and the supreme court), I was sentenced to two years,” says Jahnzeeb, talking as he cooks. “I’ve spent my two years in this prison. It has now been eight months more than I was originally sentenced to, but I am still here.”
"I won my case in a primary court sixteen months ago, but I'm still in jail." Ajmal, Kunar Prison inmate
Speaking on condition of anonimity, a judge at the Kunar Province Court of Appeals said he was aware that some prisoners who were detained by the NDS are kept in prison illegally, despite the fact they have already won their cases and/or have served out their sentences.
“NDS officials say that these detainees should be kept for questioning so other similar insurgents can be tracked, found, and detained,” explained the judge. “They say it’s a national matter.”
So who has the final word in detention up to and beyond set release dates?
The prison authorities say they don’t have jurisdiction to release prisoners. “The prisoners you interviewed were arrested by officers of the National Directorate of Security (NDS)," Mohammad Yousuf, the deputy head of Kunar Prison, told Afghanistan Today. "Regardless whether they spend months and years in prison, neither the courts nor other similar authorities can release them until the NDS complete their investigations.”
The system needed “as much time as possible to investigate prisoners’ cases systematically and thoroughly,” said the official, who dismissed prisoners’ claims that they were being held unlawfully as “baseless.”
Guards keep an eye on inmates at a crowded jail in Ghazni (Photo: Alizada)
Shafiqullah Tahiri, a spokesman for the NDS, said that his agency does not run prisons and only holds arrested individuals for 24 hours before transferring them to the hands of the Attorney General's Office. The fate of convicted prisoners after their trial is decided by either the police or justice ministry, Tahiri said.
Rahim Daqiqi, deputy minister at the Ministry of Justice, said responsibility for releasing prisoners rests with the Attorney General's Office. "Only it can deal with prisoners who have completed their detention period," said Daqiqi.
“We have heard the same allegations before, but when we investigated, they were wrong," Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari said of the claims of wrongful detention. "When media talk to prisoners, they claim they have passed their detention time behind bars, but in reality they try to attract media attention"
No one can keep the prisoners inside the prison after they complete their sentence, Nazari stressed. "If anybody claims that, I encourage them to come up with a list and we will for sure investigate."
Problems within the Afghan judiciary system have been well documented. In many court cases, the defendant is not afforded a lawyer, and in cases involving ‘national security,’ counsel cannot meet the accused for months.
Inmates interviewed in Kunar Prison insisted that those with money can buy their way out. Many lamented what they see as a two-tier system, whereby wealthier prisoners can get the paperwork to be released in a day, while poorer ones can wait months before they are paroled.
But Kunar’s judicial authorities claim they treat cases fairly, with due diligence and in a timely manner. “All the administrations obey the decisions made by the court,” Judge Mohammad Ashraf Amin, head of Kunar’s Court of Appeals, told Afghanistan Today.
“Each year, 3,500 cases are investigated and decided by the Supreme Court, and this takes time,” said Judge Amin, adding that all court hearings are now public so people know that there is fairness and equality.
The judge added that Afghanistan’s three-tier justice system ensures independence and means that if one court makes mistakes in a case, another court will be able to rectify them.
Walk to freedom. A man is released after serving out his sentence at Nangarhar jail. Others being held in the prison system claim their incarceration is open-ended unless they pay a bribe. (Photo: Mohammad Yasir Sharifi)
Abdul Basir Saboon, a local legal affairs expert, believes no case should take longer than 10 months to resolve. But authorities take far longer and often forget to follow up on a prisoner’s case, he said. A recent decree passed by President Hamid Karzai that aims to put a time limit on deciding cases “could solve such problems.”
It's cold comfort for those who say they are being held indefinitely. Back in the cell, Ajmal is thinking about his family: “Since I was imprisoned, I haven’t heard anything about them. I don't even know where they are and how they live,” says the man, who has still been told nothing about pending decisions the will determine his fate.
Jahnzeeb appears equally desperate. “Where are all the human rights activists who are chanting for justice? What kind of justice is this? What kind of government is this? There is no electricity here and the food is terrible,” says Jahnzeeb. “Nobody cares about us.”
Ahmad Balaal is a pseudonym used for security reasons