In a room with florescent lights and cheap Chinese furniture the United States turned a page on its controversial detention policy today, facilitating the first trial of detainees held in an American detention facility.
The United States has long been dogged by allegations of mistreatment and indefinite detention inside its prisons in Afghanistan, and today's hearing was part of a massive effort to transition control of detention over to the Afghan government.
The trial was held inside the new $60 million Parwan Detention Facility, designed to improve conditions in the largest American prison and present a kinder face on one of the most contentious aspects of the American presence in Afghanistan.
Afghan judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys ran the trial, which concluded with the conviction of two brothers for making roadside bombs and the acquittals of a third brother and their father.
The trials are twinned with new efforts to reconcile hundreds of Afghan prisoners back into mainstream society. More than 100 detainees have been released from the Parwan facility and handed over to elders in their communities, and American officials are expanding new programs that teach detainees literacy and job skills.
American officials see the trials, the improved prison and the reintegration efforts as a way to remove what has been a powerful insurgent recruiting tool.
"The perception in the past has unfortunately been toxic. A lot of Afghans haven't trusted the U.S. detention system. There's been a perception that it's been unfair. There's been a perception that people have been abused. And those perceptions have fueled [the] insurgency," says Michael Gottlieb, the senior civilian representative in Joint Task Force 435, which oversees detention.
"Increasing Afghan control over this process is something that increases the legitimacy of the Afghan government, something that hands the process back to the people and it shows them that there's not arbitrariness, that the process is fair, transparent," Gottlieb said.
Last fall Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, included a scathing review of American detention policies in an early assessment of the war. "Hundreds are held without charge or without a defined way ahead," he wrote, referring to the Parwan facility's predecessor. "This allows the enemy to radicalize them far beyond their pre-capture orientation."
Soon after the Defense Department created Joint Task Force 435 to raise the threshold for detention, transition control to the Afghan government and begin to reintegrate prisoners.
Part of the task force's job was to ensure detainees were not held indefinitely. In addition to the more than 100 who have been released, an additional 100 have been transferred to Afghan control. And as of today, four have been put on trial. About 800 detainees are housed in Parwan.
The two-day trial was held in a nondescript room deep inside multiple layers of security around the Parwan facility. The detainees were brought in by Afghan guards and sat behind a short barrier in one corner. A few feet away, beyond a group of visiting reporters, four defense attorneys and two prosecutors sat behind cheap Chinese-made desks. At the front of the room, three Afghan judges presided over the hearing in matching black jackets.