KABUL – With tears streaming down their faces, scores of suspected Afghan militants embraced waiting relatives and walked to freedom — just one sign of increasing attempts at reconciliation after 11 years of war.
About 80 men, all wearing white skull caps, were released from jail on Friday at a ceremony inside Pul-e-Charkhi, Afghanistan’s largest prison located on dusty flatlands east of the capital Kabul.
Most had been detained by US-led foreign troops hunting down Taliban militants and were held at Bagram airfield, where the international force (ISAF) is based, before being transferred into Afghan custody.
President Hamid Karzai, who will hold talks with President Barack Obama in Washington this week, has insisted all prisoners are handed over as Afghanistan takes over security ahead of the pull-out of foreign troops in 2014.
But US officials have often expressed fears that some detainees are released only to return immediately to the battlefield.
“It has been 20 months I spent in jail,” one prisoner in his 30s told reporters, declining to give his name. “I was taken in (the southern city of) Kandahar. I don’t know why I was arrested but I was taken by foreign troops.”
He said he had been treated well, but another man said he had been arrested in the northern province of Sari Pol and then abused by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).
“These prisoners released today were not criminals at all. I was accused of being a Taliban man, but I am innocent,” he said. “I spent two and a half years in jail.
“We were treated very badly by the NDS, their behaviour was horrific,” he said as he prepared to leave the jail after a ceremony of speeches and prayers followed by a celebration lunch.
The men were among hundreds of prisoners being freed this month as the government looks to build bridges with opposition groups, including militants who have waged a bloody insurgency against the US-backed government since 2001.
General Gulam Farooq, who took over running Bagram prison from the US last year, declined to say how many of the men were proven Taliban fighters but stressed that all had been carefully vetted before release.
“After many processes of investigation and evaluation by the defence ministry and the High Peace Council (which heads efforts to make peace with the Taliban), a total of 485 prisoners will be freed from Pul-e-Charkhi,” he said.
“They have also signed a pledge not to be involved in any militant activity.”
Such reassurances have failed to convince many analysts, who also point out that if the men are innocent or low-level Taliban they will be unable to encourage insurgent leaders to join future peace talks.
Farooq insisted that US officials were fully supportive of Afghanistan taking unilateral decisions on the releases and added that the policy was in line with national law.
But there are fears that the government in Kabul is taking increasingly desperate steps to kick-start peace moves before the Afghan army and police take on full responsibility for security.
The High Peace Council said it was “premature” to assess the impact of the releases and added that it hoped the men would play their part in the peace process.
Among those being allowed home this month are prisoners who have already been taken back to provinces including Uruzgan, Khost and Kunar, the heartlands of Islamist violence.
The fate of Bagram detainees has become a symbol of Afghan sovereignty for President Karzai, who in November castigated the US for delaying the transfer of all prisoners.
Karzai last year demanded full authority over Bagram prison and its 3,000 inmates as a condition for signing a pact covering Afghan-US relations after the 2014 withdrawal.
Further negotiations on the pact will take place when the leaders meet in Washington, with the number of US troops remaining in Afghanistan to tackle Al-Qaeda militants high on the agenda.
Human rights campaigners have regularly criticised Bagram prison, saying it fails to comply with international norms as some inmates are detained arbitrarily without trial or knowledge of the charges against them.
Pakistan last week released eight Taliban prisoners, including Nooruddin Turabi who was justice minister during the extremists’ 1996-2001 regime, in another move designed to usher Afghan militants to the negotiating table.