U.S. May Ease Afghan Prisoners' Isolation
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
For years, the U.S. military has been criticized for running a secret detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The military says the men held there are enemy combatants with links to the Taliban or al-Qaida. Some advocacy groups questioned the credibility of those claims.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also questions how detainees are treated there. Bagram's roughly 650 prisoners live in isolation, unable to see their families. But that could soon change, thanks to a new video call program.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kabul.
(Soundbite of creaking door)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The door to the small trailer opens. All eyes turned the Red Cross worker Ajab Gul(ph) who steps inside.
Mr. AJAB GUL (Red Cross Worker): (Speaking in foreign language)
BAFURJAN(ph) (Shopkeeper): (Speaking in foreign language)
NELSON: The worker calls out a name, but not Bafurjan. The 45-year-old shopkeeper is disappointed. He says it's hard to wait.
Mr. BAFURJAN: (Through translator) I really want to see him. He's my life, my body, my brother.
NELSON: The person Bafurjan wants to see so badly is his younger brother Mohammad Hussein(ph). Bafurjan says his brother was arrested by U.S. forces at the family compound in eastern Khost province four years ago. He says he doesn't know exactly what Mohammad Hussein was arrested for. But he, like the rest of the Bagram relatives in this trailer, say the Americans are mistaken if they think most of the detainees they are holding are Talibans.
(Soundbite of crowd chatting)
NELSON: The waiting relatives claim any tip saying their loved ones are Taliban or al-Qaida must have come from Afghans holding a grudge against their families. They say it's an unfortunate but common practice among Pashtuns these days - one fueled by the money Americans reportedly pay for such tips.
In New York, the advocacy group Human Rights First agrees that such allegations often appear unsubstantiated. A report the group released on Thursday says evidence against former Bagram detainees and others who have been prosecuted in secret trials here does not pass international muster.
But at this point, Bafurjan and other relatives in this trailer don't care about righting any wrong. They simply want to see the detainees. That's something the U.S. military has refused to allow.
The military and International Committee of the Red Cross have, for now, come up with a compromise that has brought Bafurjan and hundreds more from far-flung provinces to the Red Cross compound in Kabul. That compromise is for relatives to talk to Bagram detainees for 20 minutes by wireless video call.
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)
NELSON: Finally, the moment Bafurjan has been waiting for is here. He and his mother, father, and two brothers cram into a plywood booth. In front of them is a big black box with a video screen and phone handset.
The seconds leading up to the call are too much for the mother who breaks down. Bafurjan puts a hand on her shoulder and reassures her. Suddenly, Mohammad Hussein appears on the screen.
Mr. MOHAMMAD HUSSEIN (Bagram Air Base Detainee): (Speaking in foreign language)
NELSON: Another brother picks up the phone and says hello to Mohammad Hussein. He then hands the phone to his father. He asks him how he's doing and jokes about how long his beard is. It's the first time he's seen his son since his arrest. Bafurjan said the only other contact they've had was two letters from the detainee delivered by the Red Cross.
One of Mohammad Hussein's brothers, Khadi Mullah(ph), says the video-calls are great even if they lead to tears.
Mr. KHADI MULLAH (Mohammad Hussein's Brother): (Through translator) There's more pleasure in seeing him than in reading a letter. You can see whether he's healthy. He looks good.
NELSON: Red Cross spokeswoman Graziella Leite Piccolo says the agency is still working on getting the U.S. military to allow face-to-face visits. But she adds the video-call program has been a huge success. Since January, more than 400 of the detainees have spoken to their families; some of them twice.
Ms. GRAZIELLA LEITE PICCOLO (Red Cross Spokeswoman): Imagine that some of these people have been without this visual and allowed voice contact for over three, four years. So, for them, it's just a moment to get together again.
NELSON: The U.S. military declined to be interviewed on air for this story, nor would military officials discuss individual detainees. But in a written statement, a senior military spokesman here says Red Cross recommendations are taken into consideration and acted on whenever possible.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
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