Khad in Action
KhAD was known to Afghans for house searches, arrests, torture, and execution. While leaving a detailed account of those activities for my prison memoirs, here I would like to describe each briefly.
To imprison a person, armed personnel from the Department of Operation would go into action. For them it was like a hunting expedition, even if the accused was to be picked up from a government office. In a serious case the locality of the accused would be cordoned off, sometimes by armored vehicles. In such a situation KhAD would detain not only the person for whose arrest a warrant had been issued but also anyone who happened to be with the accused person at the time. Also, anyone coming toward the cordoned house would be arrested. Those who were arrested without warrants were detained on the assumption that they might be members of the group to which the accused was considered to belong. Speed was of the utmost significance, and KhAD provided its personnel the means to carry out its mission as quickly as possible. The houses of the accused were searched by personnel from the Departments of Interrogation, Prosecution, and Police. These personnel were at liberty to search the house for as long as they wished, regardless of whether the accused was present.
The search of the apartment of Fahima Nassiry, a schoolteacher, was typical. “They cracked open the walls with the bayonets of their automatic rifles. They cut open all the mattresses. They broke the toilet. They poured out the cooking oil from the jars in her kitchen and tipped over bags of rice.” In a larger house search many more things were usually looked into. Anything that could incriminate the accused would be confiscated. Books—particularly the works of Sayyed Qutb and Mao—would be taken as proof of the accused person’s “guilt.” Under Khalqi and Parchami rule, private libraries were also confiscated. In most cases whole libraries were taken away; fortunately, my own library was spared. In 1973 the Parchami police had set the precedent of confiscating private libraries. At that time they confiscated the entire library of former Prime Minister Maiwandwal; among the works in the library were seven volumes in Maiwandwal’s handwriting on Afghan history.
In contrast with the Khalqi period, when detainees were treated violently during their interrogations, in the Parchami period torture became “part of a scientific system of intelligence rather than just a form of sadistic punishment.” Interrogation and torture were prolonged with the intention of forcing the detainee to implicate others. In theory, the interrogators were not to break detainees physically but to hurt them psychologically, breaking their personalities so they would admit to the crimes of which they were accused. In practice, though, interrogators did not observe these limits, sometimes going so far as to kill detainees. Among those who lost their lives under torture was the famous poet and journalist Ghulam Shah Sarshar Shamali, who, while under interrogation in Sadarat in 1982, was kicked to death.
In the city of Kabul detainees were taken to one of eight detention and torture centers, four of which were known as the KhAD-e-Sadarat (the Central Interrogation Office in the Prime Ministry), KhAD-e-Shashdarak (the KhAD Office in the Shashdarak district), KhAD-e-Panj (the KhAD Office Number Five in Darul Aman), and KhAD-e-Nezami (Military KhAD). These were the main detention centers. The remaining four were in two private houses near the Sadarat building, the Ahmad Shah Khan house, the Wazir Akbar Khan Maina, and the KhAD office in the Barikot district. When a large number of people were detained, they were taken directly to the Pul-e-Charkhi concentration camp. Also, every provincial city had one or more detention and torture centers and a prison. The provincial prisons of Qunduz, Mazar, and Kandahar were the major ones. The Soviets also detained and tortured detainees in their army units before handing them over to KhAD. In Kabul the detainees were kept in the main detention centers until their interrogations were complete or almost complete.
Investigations often took weeks or months before the detainees were taken to Pul-e-Charkhi and then to the courts. Our group of professors was detained for nine months in Sadarat. This phase of detention was agonizing, since everything imaginable was likely to happen to the detainee, especially in Shashdarak. Of those detained in Shashdarak, I have neither met nor heard of anyone who was not tortured. Pul-e-Charkhi was a haven by comparison. Almost every one was taken to Shashdarak at least once for different periods of time. I was detained there for only an hour before I was transferred to Sadarat. Even during this short time I saw the Soviets in droves.
Some detainees were held in a small cell in a group of a few each, while others were herded into rooms where they could hardly move or sleep because of overcrowding and the swarms of lice. Some were held in solitary confinement, each in a cell of two and one-half meters square. Mohammad Osman Rustar, a member of our group of professors, was detained in such a cell for six weeks. He was transferred there as a punitive measure, apparently because he complained to the information officer, Rajab Ali Saighani, about the insufficiency of food. From the time prisoners detained, they were no longer their own masters. The authorities controlled everything they needed as human beings. The one exception was the air they breathed. Indeed, prisoners were deprived of fresh air, since, except when they were taken to the interrogation cells or to the washroom (three times in twenty-four hours), they were always confined. They were given rich, greasy, salty food, usually in insufficient quantities. Good medical treatment was available. The idea was to keep the inmates fit to stand up to the exacting conditions so that the interrogators could extract confessions. Detainees were cut off from contact with the outside world. Not only were they not allowed any visitors, but they were also denied access to means of communication, such as pens, books, and paper. Only when a prisoner’s family sent clothes was he or she given a short pencil for a brief time to write down what had been received. When the detainees made beads from dried cooked rice or dried loaves of bread, or when they made playing cards from cigarette boxes, these items were confiscated if detected. Inmates were permitted nothing with which to pass the time. They were, however, given plenty of time to stare and brood. Guards were charged with not letting inmates laugh or talk loudly, although it was impossible for them to enforce this order completely. Powerful light bulbs were left on day and night. This almost total isolation made the detainee all of a sudden seem like a special person, regardless of his or her social status. This was because KhAD treated each detainee as if he or she were a missing link in the chain of an enemy organization.
The inmate’s real ordeal started when he or she was interrogated, which commenced following arrest. First an attempt was made to make the prisoners feel overawed. In the interrogation cell the detainees were alone in the presence of one or more interrogators and a few other strong men. Soviet advisers also took part in the interrogation. According to Amnesty International, “There are consistent accounts of the complicity of Soviet personnel through their presence during interrogation under torture.” They did not participate in all cases. However, whether present or not, they directed the interrogation. The Afghan interrogators brought written queries with them, presumably dictated by the Soviets. Only rarely did they compose written queries in the presence of the detainee.
The queries were directed to make detainees admit not only to the crimes for which they were accused but also to specify their accomplices and the organizations to which they allegedly belonged. The detainees were compelled to do so, as two examples show. Qari Mohammad Sharief, a native of Badakhshan, who was an imam in Shakardara in Kohdaman near Kabul, listed more than two hundred persons as his associates in the Islamic Association. Qazi Bismillah Zarif, a native of Panjsher, listed about four hundred persons as his accomplices. The latter had been tortured so much that he listed anyone whose name he knew. He was said to have organized a resistance group in Panjsher. It was not in the interest of the interrogator to establish the true state of affairs. The establishment of the truth, which was likely to lead to the acquittal of the detainee, would deprive the interrogator of the rewards (promotion, cash, trips to the Soviet Union) that he was granted when he made the detainee confess to the crime of which he or she was accused. It was in his interest to make the detainee guilty. Since KhAD intended to suppress the opposition, the arrests were viewed necessary for the establishment of the regime. The detainees then had to be punished, and for this they had to admit to the crimes of which they were accused. This was why only a negligible number of those arrested were acquitted, and the greater number were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment or were executed.
The detainees were charged not for opposition to the invasion but for acts that were considered crimes in the criminal code, the most repressive code there ever was in Afghanistan. This code had been promulgated in 1977 for the suppression of the communists. Now the communists who abrogated the main laws of the period not only did not annul this code but enforced it fully. I was not charged for my attitudes and actions: specifically, that I opposed the invasion and the violation of the basic rights of individuals; that I and others monitored the academic rights of professors and students; and that I maintained a critical attitude toward the regime. Of the twelve charges actually brought against me, the main ones were that I was a founding member of the Rihayee, a Maoist group, and of the nationalistic group Afghan Millat. Two of the charges carried the death penalty. Although it was impossible for my interrogator, Asad Rahmani, to substantiate any of the charges, he persisted, hoping that he might detect some contradictions in my responses that would incriminate me. KhAD did not physically torture me to extract a confession. Had Amnesty International not taken my case (together with those of other professors), KhAD probably would have accorded me more serious punishment than eight years of imprisonment. But more than 90 percent of the detainees were not as lucky as I was.
The unlucky majority were accorded standard punishment. The accused were to confess to the charges brought against them and reveal the names of their accomplices and the organizations to which they allegedly belonged. KhAD also arrested a few foreign journalists who were covering the war, charging them with being counterrevolutionaries “in the service of imperialism…[who have] come to Afghanistan to gather military intelligence on behalf of the diabolical international spy organizations.” The accused would be told that the authorities knew all the things they had done, but that they would receive kinder treatment if they themselves confessed their crimes. When the accused, as was natural, refused to respond positively, then the interrogators would resort to torture. Psychological torture, which had begun with the detention, was common, but that was in the background and was usually insufficient to extract a confession. What was needed was effective, direct physical torture. All types of tortures previously applied in Afghanistan were used, as well as innovations on them, and new Soviet-style tortures were also introduced.
Fariduddin’s description of his torture is typical, though incomplete. “They started cursing me,” he says, “with foul language, then beating me with their fists and clubs. Then they kicked me. Then came the electric shocks. They [tied] wires to my feet, and they strapped my hands and legs to a chair and gave me electric shocks.” Electric shocks were given even to the most sensitive parts of the body: “They also give you electric shocks in your ears, on your head, your mouth and the private parts of your body.” The intensity of the torture was such that not many people could stand up to it. Again in the words of Fariduddin, “No matter how strong you are, you must confess. The only way to stop them is to say, ‘Yes, yes, I am what you say I am. I did what you say I did.” ’ Naturally, Fariduddin’s view of the interrogators is unfavorable: “No matter how much you scream and no matter how much you plead, they do not listen. They are savage human beings. They are worse than wild beasts. Even animals are not that cruel.” The Italian journalist Fausto Bilolavo has vividly described the condition of the victims of torture in his cell: “I was surrounded by human wreckage: people with their backs smashed to pieces, dislocated jaws, twisted nasal septa, their bodies covered with scars of every description and bearing the hallmarks of cigarettes [snuffed] out against their skins.”
Other tortures were applied when the lesser ones did not lead to a confession. Among the main ones were those intended to rob the accused of dignity. Men were threatened with having glass Fanta soft drink bottles forced into their rectums, while women were threatened with having hot eggs forced into their vaginas. Worse still was the situation in which accused males were threatened with having their wives or female relatives sexually assaulted in their presence. It was then that even the strongest of the accused would plead guilty to the charges brought against them. These methods were applied or threatened in more serious cases. In such cases Fariduddin is right in saying that “no matter how strong you are, you must confess.”
The accused were, of course, deprived of a lawyer. If they were illiterate, the interrogator also wrote their responses to written queries. The accused were required only to place their thumbprints on the papers of inquiry. That was not all. Before the file of the accused was sent to the Special Revolutionary Tribunals, KhAD reviewed it. The tribunals were set up following the Soviet invasion. Staffed by party members trained in the Soviet Union, they were not impartial bodies but legalized instruments for suppressing the “counterrevolutionaries” in an effort to vindicate the “revolution,” as Felix Dzerzhinsky had suggested.
When KhAD reviewed the case of the accused for the last time, the role of the Soviet adviser was decisive. It was he who “advised” the type of punishment to be accorded to the accused. Before the actual trial, the adviser penciled in the term of the sentence in the file; another adviser in the tribunal was to see that the sentence was carried out and the penciled recommendation erased. In the Special Revolutionary Tribunal—which, except for certain cases, was held behind closed doors—the appearances of legal procedures were observed. A few days before appearing in the tribunal, defendants were handed an official statement from the state attorney, charging them with the crimes that they had allegedly committed. Again, they had access neither to a lawyer nor the law on the basis of which they had been charged. They were thus denied the basic rights of defense. Illiterate defendants were lucky if someone in their cells could write their defense for them. But condemnation in the tribunal had already been fixed, no matter how convincing the prisoner’s statement of defense and no matter how convincing the defendant was in protesting the charges and the tortures he or she had gone through. The file, which was already determined, was paramount.
The rationale for ruining the life of a person and his or her family and disturbing the community of which they were an organic part could be traced to the view that the “guilty” person was a “counterrevolutionary” who had committed a crime against society and the state that the PDPA claimed to represent. Translating that view into actuality was made possible by the state structure, in which the departments of secret police, public attorney, and special tribunals, dominated apparently by the official party but in fact by the Soviet Union, worked toward the same goal: to realize the domination of the state over individuals. Persistence in such an effort was bound to intensify the existing tension to the point of rocking the society from its foundation.