Asia

Rare look inside Afghanistan's Bagram jail

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Media captionThe US military believes the prison houses some of the most dangerous men on earth, as the BBC's Yalda Hakim reports

The BBC's Yalda Hakim was recently given unprecedented access to Afghanistan's Bagram jail. On the day 65 detainees were controversially allowed to walk free, she describes what she saw.

It is not often that you are given access to a maximum-security prison. A place where "high value targets" who are caught on the battlefield are kept.

Bagram detention facility, on the outskirts of Kabul, has long been considered Afghanistan's Guantanamo Bay.

It was originally built and run by the Americans but was handed over to Afghan control last year.

Up until now, no journalist has been granted this kind of access.

After two years of negotiating, I was finally given access at a critical turning point in the prison's history and Afghanistan's future.

The day I arrived at the prison, the Afghan Review Board (ARB), the committee responsible for the prisoner issue, had announced that it would be releasing some of the inmates.

The ARB said these men could not be prosecuted because of a lack of evidence.

The Nato-led international peacekeeping force (Isaf) quickly came out and slammed the decision, saying the detainees were dangerous terrorists and had "blood on their hands".

'Taliban-making factory'

I wanted to investigate how Bagram prison had become a toxic issue that threatened to derail US-Afghan relations.

Initially I was taken on an orchestrated public relations tour by General Farooq Barakzai, the man in charge of the detention facility.

Such a tour included everything from the laundry to the kitchen and the medical centre. I watched inmates, with their hands and feet shackled, get their teeth cleaned by the local dentist.

Image caption Yalda Hakim and the BBC team were granted exclusive access to Bagram prison near Kabul
Image caption They got to see what daily life was like for the detainees, many of whom have been in the prison for years
Image caption But many told our correspondent they were innocent men who had never been told the evidence against them

Aside from this perceived normality, I quickly realised the true darkness of the place.

Cell after cell contained men proclaiming their innocence; telling me they were farmers who got caught up in American raids on their villages.

I was taken into one cell where a group of about 20 men had gathered to express their grievances.

One man told me he had been held for four and a half years without trial.

He could not tell me what evidence there was against him. He went on to say that after he was captured, he was tortured by the Americans at a place known as the black prison. I could not verify the authenticity of his story.

During the two days I was there, I came across families who were visiting their detained relatives.

Many had made the long journey from the south of the country, travelling on buses for days to get here.

They were allowed about 30 minutes together, often separated by a bullet-proof window.

Each of the family members had numbered placards round their necks. We never got to the bottom of what those numbers indicated but it certainly felt surreal.

It is difficult to know whether these men are innocent or not.

The Americans have accused the Afghan authorities of ignoring forensic evidence.

The Afghans have rebutted these claims, saying their US counterparts have not provided them with sufficient intelligence.

The lack of trust between the supposed allies is clear.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me Bagram is a "Taliban-making factory" where innocent people are indiscriminately mixing with extremists and being indoctrinated.

Now that some of these prisoners have been released - some of them to the most troubled regions where the Taliban hold sway - the question is, will American fears be realised?

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