Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Wednesday, 26 May 2010 17:17 UK

Inside Afghanistan's most notorious prison

Watch Lyse Doucet's full film from inside Pul-e-Charkhi prison

By Lyse Doucet
BBC Newsnight, Afghanistan

Kabul's Pul-e-Charkhi prison has long been a byword for cruelty and injustice.

In the Soviet era it was notorious for forced disappearances and executions, and for the past three decades it has been the place where the Afghan state has sent its enemies and the men it regards as the most dangerous.

At this moment in Afghanistan's tortuous history there are many Taliban behind the heavily fortified gates, along with convicted murderers and drug traffickers.

Inmate Salahuddin talks about his past as a Taliban commander

We were given rare access to the high security jail, which is Afghanistan's biggest prison, housing about one third of the country's inmates.

Most Taliban prisoners are kept in areas of tight security on the top floors, in a block called The Zone.

We were able to visit the maximum security area, Block D, which only houses detainees accused of links to the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

As we climbed the stairs in the main prison, guards repeatedly warned us to be careful, cautioning that these inmates were dangerous.

But the only sounds coming from a long corridor lined with cells was the sound of Islamic prayers and the gentle hissing of a teapot on a burner in the hall.

Unchanged message

The cells, which measure about eight feet by eight feet (2.5m by 2.5m), were occupied by either one, two or three prisoners.

Bashir Ahmad Qenahat
No Muslim and no Afghan would accept Jews and Christians on this soil. Today even Mr Karzai is having problems with them
Taliban inmate Bashir Ahmad Qenahat

A number sat cross-legged on mats doing bead work. One man, who told me he was in for murder, was threading a red and white bead replica of Islam's most sacred site, the Kaaba in Mecca.

Visitors are rare and many wanted to talk.

Most of them had the same message - that the war would continue until foreign troops left Afghanistan.

Bashir Ahmad Qenahat, a man with a checkered turban and intense staring eyes who is facing a death sentence, called us over to his cell.

His was the most hard-line of messages: "No Muslim and no Afghan would accept Jews and Christians on this soil. Today even Mr Karzai is having problems with them. "

I asked him about the new approach of talking to the Taliban.

"We Afghans are brothers. We don't have a problem with each other. Even our constitution says Sharia law must be practised."

Even in prison, the Taliban sense of purpose is palpable.

'Plotting suicide attacks'

In the office of General Abdul Behsoudi, the prison's director general, we were shown cupboards full of mobile telephones smuggled into the prison, as well as long knives and other weapons made from beds or any other material the prisoners could get their hands on.

"They were using the phones to call many places, including the Pakistani city of Quetta, where their leaders are based, to organise suicide attacks," said Gen Behsoudi.

Pul-e-Charkhi prison recreation ground
Pul-e-Charkhi houses one third of Afghanistan's prisoners

Now security is exceptionally tight. Visitors must pass through at least five checkpoints to enter.

We saw guards stirring pots of meat stew, prying open shoe heels, even inspecting bread for hidden mobile telephone SIM cards and money.

Last November, a little publicised violent riot ended in a number of deaths and injuries, but the accounts differ. One official told us seven prisoners were killed in the disturbances, Taliban sources put that figure much higher.

Prisoners say they were protesting for their rights. Prison authorities say the Taliban and other prisoners have too many freedoms.

Prisoners in charge

On the top floor in The Zone, we met a Taliban commander, Salahuddin, described by other prisoners as one of the leaders.

Exuding confidence, he boasted about his exploits on the battlefield, although he refused to give details.

His discretion seemed to have little to do with the guards who stood around us. He wanted to make it clear he was still a man in control:

"They're in charge of keeping us here, but we're in charge of our affairs inside. We choose how we live and they can't interfere in that," he said while several guards looked on.

Afghan inmate accuses judges of corruption

The prison director Gen Behsoudi told us that there was even a Taliban court and a sign for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in one block.

Salahuddin invited us to attend their religious education class. The prison provides classes, but on the top floor of The Zone the Taliban organise their own.

At dusk they pray together in the open corridor.

Many told us they had also spent time in the US-run detention centre at Bagram, north of Kabul, and complained of abuse there.

However, there were few complaints about physical conditions here.

Their main complaint was not knowing when their cases would be heard, a lament frequently heard in Pul-e-Charkhi.

Many prisoners remain in prison beyond the length of their sentences because of what they condemn as an ineffective and corrupt system of justice.

Renovation under way

The new mantra at the prison itself is reform and rehabilitation.

With the help of foreign aid the buildings are being renovated and expanded to tackle overcrowding.

A madrasa inside the prison
Inmates can attend classes to study the Koran

Inside its walls, behind watchtowers and trenches, there is now everything from aerobics classes to outside recreation - which actually translates as sunbathing.

Some prisoners take that literally, slathering their bare backs with lotion under a hot sun in the courtyard.

A class to study the Koran and a makeshift madrassa spill down the hall across an entire floor of the main prison.

"To have a peaceful society, people who disobey the law and society's standards must be punished, rehabilitated, and then returned to the community as sound members," said Gen Behsoudi.

If all this talk of talking to the Taliban prevails, some of the inmates from The Zone may be included in the group being allowed to one day walk free.

Watch Lyse Doucet's film in full on Newsnight on Wednesday 26 May 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.



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