|'Yes, there was torture and people were certainly beaten': Afghan warden
|The Ottawa Citizen
Prisoners were tortured at Sarpoza Prison in Afghanistan, but not in nearly the numbers alleged this past week by a Canadian diplomat, the prison's chief warden has told Canwest News Service.
"Yes, there was torture and people were certainly beaten," chief warden Col. Abdullah Bawar said Saturday during an interview conducted inside the prison's heavily guarded walls. "Hands and legs would be tied and they would be beaten with cables. I even remember one man who broke his leg from a beating." Although his timeline was a bit fuzzy as to when such abuses stopped, Bawar estimated that "around 100 prisoners" from a population of about 1,100 had been physically abused during 2006 and 2007, which he referred to as "this dark period." The information Bawar offered makes it nearly impossible to say how many -- if any -- of the abused prisoners would have been handed over by Canadian troops. A rough estimate suggests it may have only been as many as a dozen.
That's a stark contrast to the picture painted by Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, who alleged in testimony before a parliamentary committee this past week that all prisoners captured by Canadian troops who were suspected of being members of the Taliban were tortured after they were handed over to Kandahari authorities in 2006 and 2007.
Bawar strongly contradicted Colvin's testimony that all Taliban prisoners had been beaten. Of the 100 prisoners that had suffered abuse, many were from other wings of the prison rather than the area where several hundred political prisoners were held, he said.
These other prisoners would not have been originally detained by or transferred to Afghan authorities by Canadian troops.
The soft-spoken jailer said that he had never heard of Colvin or of his accusations and that he was "totally unaware" that the alleged torture of Taliban prisoners at Sarpoza had become an issue in Canada.
Bawar's recall of events could be regarded as somewhat self-serving as he worked in "a lower position" at Sarpoza starting in 2005 and only became warden when his predecessor, Col. Abdul Kadar Popal, was sacked after a spectacular breakout involving hundreds of inmates that followed a Taliban attack on the prison in June 2008.
The previous warden, Popal, "communicated with Canadian soldiers," when they would stop by, Bawar said. "We saw them go to the warden's office, but we had no contact with them. He did." Bawar was unable to provide a precise breakdown of how many of the different category of prisoners at Sarpoza had been abused, and several factors complicate any attempt to estimate how many prisoners handed over by Canadian forces may have been abused.
Many non-political prisoners were beaten, and of the political prisoners, many would have been arrested not by Canadians, but by Afghan authorities.
The warden took issue with Colvin's claim that many of the political detainees taken by Canadian troops in 2006 and 2007 and transferred to Afghan custody had been innocent.
"That may be true (of many of the political detainees) today," he said. "More were guilty before." However, Bawar did not gloss over Sarpoza's shortcomings before he took over. Inmates "did not have access to hospitals and there was no medicine," he said. "When the (International Committee of the Red Cross) would bring supplies such as blankets, only half of them reached the prisoners." The reason some prisoners were singled out for harsh treatment when Popal was warden had nothing to do with their politics or the crimes they had committed, Bawar said. They were simply caught up in an extortion scheme, and those who could not pay up were abused.
"There was no political sense to this at all," the jailer said, speaking in a flat, phlegmatic tone. Beatings were initiated "to get money. They would look around and say, 'Let's single this one out.' They'd beat him and then demand money.
"I remember they were actually selling minutes with their families on cellphones for those could pay. It was done very secretly. Who knows, maybe they talked to the insurgents?" Colvin, a top Foreign Affairs official posted in Afghanistan in 2006-07, told a House of Commons committee Wednesday that the Canadian government and the military turned a blind eye to what was happening to their captives once they were surrendered to Afghan control.
Moreover, he said, the government imposed a "wall of secrecy" after he wrote and distributed reports about the Canadian military routinely and haphazardly handing over prisoners and then failing to follow up on their fate.
The jailbreak at Sarpoza Prison in June 2008, in which Bawar lost a son and a nephew who worked with him, was the result of anger over the extortion and torture, Bawar said Saturday.
The breakout was a success because "Taliban insurgents had been communicating with political inmates," he said.
Bawar said he had "strongly condemned" the abuse of prisoner and that he and some other guards had tried to stop the practice.
"But the (previous) warden was not listening," he said. "If we mentioned one word we were told to go and sit on a chair, stay quiet and not mention this." Kandaharis had Canada to thank for a dramatic change for the better in the situation at Sarpoza since the federal government sent correctional services guards to mentor guards at the prison, he said.
"I appreciate every Canadian citizen who came to Kandahar," he said. "You left your homes and spent your money to help us." More than anything else, Correctional Service of Canada mentors had emphasized prisoner's human rights, he said during the interview, which was conducted in a room where a sign on the wall listed 28 points that guards must remember.
"Any type of torture, ill-treatment and threatening behaviour against prisoners is strictly prohibited. All prisoners will be treated humanely," was the first point on the list.
"Before CSC came, our guards knew nothing," Bawar said. "Since the training, everyone knows how to speak with prisoners and what are his rights. It is the same for visitors and how to transfer prisoners. They know how to search a cell and an inmate." During a tour that Bawar gave of the prison, he lauded Canada for building several watch towers, fortified gates and walls to stop suicide bombers, as well as refurbished quarters for juveniles and women. Canada had also supplied radios, generators and three vehicles and work was about to begin to rebuild the criminal and political wings of the prison.
But the key to improving Sarpoza has been Canadian-backed mentoring and literacy programs for guards, Bawar said.
Speaking of the four Canadians who made regular, unscheduled visits to teach and to observe at the prison, Bawar said: "We have a very strong relationship. We trust each other. If Canadians hadn't help Sarpoza Prison, we would have remained very backward. That is a very, very big thing." During an impromptu visit to the wing holding Taliban prisoners, a bearded man approached an iron gate to speak. He gave his name as Abdul Qalik and said he was "a political inmate" serving 12 years for an offence that he declined to speak about.
"They are treating us well right now," he said as other Taliban crowded around him. He knew of no instances of inmates being tortured, he said.