Trapped In Prison

On the face of it, Jamal Udeen has a lot in common with American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. Like Walker, Udeen--who grew up in Manchester, England--is a Western convert to Islam. Like Walker, Udeen's journey to Afghanistan ended in a dank prison awaiting an uncertain future. But unlike Walker, Udeen failed to win the trust of the country's Taliban rulers. In late September, they arrested him, put him in jail, and, he says, tortured him for weeks on end.

Today, in spite of the Taliban's fall from power, Udeen is still in jail. A gaunt 33-year old with a short beard and feet callused over from walking barefoot for weeks, he sits in a special compound of the Kandahar Central Prison, unable to leave even though prison officials say he's technically a free man.

Nor is he alone. Almost all of the 1,600 Afghan prisoners here were released after the Taliban lost control of Kandahar, together with about a dozen non-Afghans. But five foreigners, including Udeen, were kept back--ostensibly because of the danger they faced from angry residents who might think they had fought for the Taliban or Al Qaeda. "We are working on finding ways to help the detainees," a Red Cross official in Kabul told NEWSWEEK today. "They have been freed, but the security forces in Kandahar are worried about their safety. That's why they can't leave yet." The Red Cross is working on several options for the prisoners, including repatriating those who want to return to their countries of origin or safe passage to third countries for those who claim to have suffered persecution at home. "We're keeping them here for their own security," said prison official Haji Saleh Mohammed, fingering the heavy padlock on the outside of the compound door. "They're foreigners and their lives are in danger here."

The stories of the remaining prisoners are murky, at best. Aside from Udeen, who says he's British, they include men who claim to be from Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Turkmenistan and Russia. All say they were imprisoned on trumped-up charges ranging from drug-dealing to spying for the C.I.A. They were never tried, they say, but were placed in a special part of the prison reserved for political prisoners. They claim they were regularly tortured there: several scrambled to pull up the legs of their pants and reveal the scars from whippings with steel cables and live electric wires. Some show signs of mental instability, and most look gaunt.

Shaista Khan, a 48-year old man who says he is Saudi Arabian, sits cross-legged on the prison wall, a steady babble streaming from his lips. He says he was caught by the Taliban in the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak four months ago while trying to "buy some carpets," and then imprisoned by the Taliban for "working for the C.I.A. to kill [Osama] bin Laden."

Ayrat Vohitov, 24, a blue-eyed, blond-haired Russian who speaks fluent Farsi, was captured by the Taliban in Konduz more than two years ago. After initially being taken to a prison in Kabul, he wound up in the Kandahar jail. "I wanted to immigrate to Turkey and thought I could get there easiest through Afghanistan," he says. "But they took me to Kabul and hung me from a bar in a prison without food."

Vohitov claims he was only brought to Kandahar after a doctor visited and told his captors that he would die if left where he was. Other prisoners weren't so lucky. Abdul Rahim, a 26-year old who says he's a Kurd from Syria, speaks in hushed tones about an American who went by the name of Amanrullah. He was first imprisoned--and then tortured and left to die--in the dank toilets of this prison, says Rahim. "Do you know how he died?" asks Rahim in a whisper, "They beat him, and put him in a sewer up to his waist, and after two days he just died."

Rahim, an edgy, tense man who claims to have lost 100 pounds in the two-and-a-half years he's been here, says he was tortured every day for three months by the Taliban. "They accused me of being a spy for the Americans," he says, "They called me in every night and whipped me with cables, and gave me electric shocks on my ears. I used to be able to pick up a BMW [car] with my hands. Now look at me."

Udeen, whose name means "Beauty of the Faith" has perhaps the strangest tale. He says he was passing through Afghanistan on his way to Iran, just days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., when he was captured and put in jail by the Taliban.

Speaking with a British accent and dressed in traditional robes under a ragged blue overcoat, Udeen told NEWSWEEK he had converted to Islam eight years ago. "When I was a non-Muslim, the people I used to go to clubs with were all Muslims," he says. After a trip to the local library, where he read an English translation of the Quran, Udeen's life was transformed. "It changed my heart," he recalled. "It just felt right inside." After dropping out from university, Udeen got work as a Web designer and computer repairman in England. In 1996, he spent 40 days in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, preaching Islam as part of the Tablighi Jamaat, a global Muslim outreach program meant to develop ties and contacts among the faithful. "It's like the Jehovah's witnesses," he says, "But you only knock on Muslim doors."

He went back to Pakistan in late September, he says, then entered Afghanistan because he was trying to figure out a way to get to Iran. At that stage, America had not yet begun bombing Afghanistan. "I didn't see myself as having any problems [coming here] since I'm a Muslim," he says. "I didn't think it was going to escalate." The situation changed when the U.S. attacks began. The Pashtun Pakistanis and Afghans he was with told him he needed to leave Pakistan. "You should leave because the Pashtuns are going to attack everybody," they told him. "Including the Americans and the British."

Udeen got into a truck, paid 4,000 rupees (about $60), and headed into Afghanistan. Not long after, the truck was stopped by a group of gun-toting Afghans, who took charge of the Arabic-speaking Brit, and took him off to the prison in Kandahar. It was a blow to Udeen, who had fostered fond feelings for the Taliban previous to his capture. "I thought the Taliban were all right," he says. "But after being here and experiencing it first hand, it's a little bit different. If they do good, that's OK. If they do bad, it's not OK." Udeen claims he isn't scared about being painted as an Islamic terrorist by media and folks at home. "It doesn't bother me to be associated with Al Qaeda," he says, "because I haven't done anything."

So far, British officials are skeptical. "His itinerary sounds pretty weird," an official at the British embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, told NEWSWEEK. "It doesn't strike me as very credible."

Last Friday, Udeen's fellow prisoners, fearful that their cellmate might slip out without them, called a hunger strike and threatened to kill themselves one by one if aid didn't arrive soon. "If the British gets out and the others don't, we'll kill the British," says Rahim. Udeen now spends most of his time sitting in his room, rocking back and forth with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, reading his Arabic-language Quran and trying to avoid the wrath of his cell-mates. "Everyone," he says, "is scared we won't get out." Perhaps the real question is why they got in in the first place.