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.
Americans Barely a Presence in Afghan Trials of Insurgents
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.
At first, no American officials were in the room, and the soldiers who work in the offices just outside do not wear uniforms.
The attorneys all said the trial functioned similarly to any Afghan trial, which is to say that it started highly structured but became more freewheeling as the judges, prisoners, and attorneys all questioned each other at various times.
The prosecution presented a case against each member of the Gul family: brothers Ghazni, Rahimi, and Misri, and their father, Bismillah. As the prisoners thumbed prayer beads, a prosecutor accused them of being members of the Haqqani group, a terror organization connected with the Taliban and al Qaeda that regularly targets United States troops in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan.
Terror Trial Evidence Lost in Translation
Prosecutors accused the family of setting bombs, storing weapons in their home, even protecting and transporting suicide bombers. The defense attorneys -- one for each detainee -- questioned some of the details but focused on challenging the very basis of the trial and the American presence in Afghanistan.
They argued American forces are illegally arresting people inside their homes, where Bismullah and Rahimi were arrested. They also argued Americans were illegally interrogating prisoners without prior Afghan consent, and that the Gul family had every right to keep weapons in their house because of a strong insurgency in their home district.
In the end, most of their arguments were overwhelmed by an American forensics expert who presented fingerprint evidence. She brought two boxes into the middle of the courtroom and laid out fragments of IEDs and close-ups of fingerprint matches on the judges' desk. Other than a female reporter, she was the only woman in a room of nearly 30 men.
Her testimony dominated the afternoon session, and American officials admitted that Afghan forensics experts were being trained to be able to present evidence but were not yet ready to do so alone.
There were other obvious signs that the effort to hold Afghan-led trials was just beginning. At first, the detainees, who speak Pashto, were not provided anyone to translate the proceedings, which were held in Dari. The prosecution and the American forensics expert contradicted each other on multiple points, a sign either of a lack of preparation or a lack of coordination between American and Afghan officials. The translator who walked into the court with the American forensics effort left out many points she made. And the Afghan judges were clearly skeptical of fingerprint evidence -- having never seen anything like it.
"We've been using fingerprints for over 100 years, and there's no doubt this is the same person," the American forensics expert said eventually, somewhat exasperated.
"It was a good start, but there were problems," said Sayed Musa Zafar, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who was invited to watch the proceedings. "One of the main problems was that prosecutors were presenting evidence from international forces. They had nothing of their own. And that's why they sometimes contradicted themselves."
Primarily based on the fingerprint evidence, the judges sentenced Misri and Rahimi Gul to 10 years in prison for facilitating IEDs against American troops. Their brother Ghazni and their father Bismullah were both ruled not guilty. Both sides can appeal to separate three-judge panels.
American officials, although acknowledging the problems, seemed pleased with the result and hoped the first trial would help prove their intention to transition authority to the Afghanistan government.
"The intent is to take individuals who've committed serious crimes -- that cannot be easily forgiven by any society -- to deal with them under the law and under the Afghan law in a way that is legitimate and is seen as legitimate by the people," says Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the West Point and Oxford-educated deputy commander of Joint Task Force 435.
Martins cited a Dari expression to describe the trials and the rest of the task force's efforts at Parwan: "You build a house brick by brick." "That's what we're doing here," Martins says. "We are helping them build their own house."