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Afghanistan is a very poor country, placed 174th out of 178 in the Human Development Index. The literacy level is 50% for men and 20% for women and the average life expectancy is below 44 years. Only one in three people have clean drinking water and life expectancy is 43. It has suffered many years of war. This is a very challenging environment in which to introduce a formal, state-wide justice system based on written texts, record-keeping, databases (and a regular supply of electricity) and all the appropriate protections for the rights of suspects, defendants and prisoners that accompany such systems in the West.

Source: Alternatives to Imprisonment in Afghanistan. A Report by the International Centre for Prison Studies (February 2009)

Manca Juvan, the subject of a post on Sunday, also photographed in an Afghanistan women’s prison. Juvan is only one of several photographers to take on this subject matter – Anne Holmes, Andrea Camuto, Katherine Kiviat, and David Guttenfelder being others.

The entrance door to Walayat Women's Prison, Kabul. Currently 33 women and 16 children are kept imprisoned. © Manca Juvan, May, 2003

Suhila Fanoos, 25 years old, Walayat women's Prison guard standing in front of the Women's prison holding 32 female inmates for crimes such as skipping home and leaving their family responsibilities. Sign above her head reads "Prison of Women". Photographed in Kabul, Afghanistan July, 2003. © Katherine Kiviat/Redux Pictures

HOW TO APPROACH THESE PHOTOGRAPHS?

The portfolios of Juvan and her contemporaries had me thinking. Many photographs were from 2003 or later in 2007/08 (due to media coverage of allegations of abuse or the construction of a new prison).

I’d like to present a few images, but am I only comfortable doing so if I also provide an accurate summary as it is NOW for women imprisoned in Afghanistan.

Firstly, I just like to point out the two pairings above and below. Kiviat and Juvan (above) both show the same portal at Walayat women’s prison, Kabul. In 2004, one year later, Kiviat also photographed this door which is the same as that shot by Andrea Camuto (below). Camuto identifies the door as belonging also to Walayat women’s prison.

The women's prison in Kabul, A woman speaks to female prisoners through the peep hole of the prison door. © Katherine Kiviat/Redux. 2004

Visitation, Walayat woman's prison, Afghanistan © Andrea Camuto

WAYALAT WOMEN’S PRISON

Wayalat still operates as a prison, but it no longer houses female inmates. A 2003 IRIN report detailed the dire need for humane facilities at Wayalat:

‘According to Lt-Col Habibuallah, in charge of Wolayat prison, the present building with its 17 rooms and four toilets was built some 90 years ago to accommodate up to 200 people. “There are 511 men and 32 women imprisoned here,” he said. There were no categories for offenders and the accused and convicted were generally mixed together, including some inmates on death row. “There are no basic facilities, no ambulance, no proper medicine and health care, and the increasing problem of overcrowded rooms is a tragedy,” Habibuallah said. Even the 35 staff members lacked access to a toilet and were forced to sleep on the roof or in the courtyard at night. “We have worse conditions than the prisoners,” he claimed. Women inmates fare slightly better. Located in a separate building, the painted cells house between five and seven prisoners each, but the lack of adequate health care is felt more by the detained women.’

Manca Juvan‘s work focused on the women and their children in Wayalat. Katherine Kiviat‘s work is part of a larger body of work describing the new roles and careers (including that of prison guard) of women in Afghanistan. The collection is called Women of Courage.

Andrea Camuto‘s work, shot in 2005, 2007 & 2009 followed returning refugees and the “forgotten” women of Afghanistan to the cheaper countryside rents, to the hospitals … and to the prisons if necessary.

The common theme for these photographers is the injustice suffered for many women whose imprisonment is based upon judgement for “moral crimes” and “bad character” including sentences for adultery (which includes inappropriate acts both in and out of wedlock), being drunk, wanting a divorce or even just leaving a husband for a night to stay with family after suffering a beating.

PUL-E CHARKI

On the outskirts of Kabul, Pul-e Charkhi is Afghanistan’s most notorious prison. It has been used by every regime to house it’s enemies.The unearthing of mass graves in 2002 confirmed the Soviets’ use of the site for mass-killings and the Americans adopted and expanded the prison to house Taliban fighters. In 2006, there was a major rebellion and riot by the prisoners.

Anne Holme‘s work from Pul-e Charkhi was conducted in 2007. Holmes’ story is that of the struggle to raise children inside the walls, the quashing of legal rights and despite the “warden’s genuine concern” the inability of the justice system to provide fair hearing for the women.

Pul Charki's womens prison just on the outskirts of kabul is rough living. Inmates do not receive adequate medical attention, they cannot send or receive mail, and many of the women there have yet to learn the crime with which they have been charged. © Anne Holmes

In April 2008, David Guttenfelder visited Pul-e Charkhi. His work, Kids in Prison reveals disturbing figures – “There are 226 young children in Afghanistan’s prisons, including many who were born there. They have committed no crime, but they live among the country’s 304 incarcerated women.”

Jamila, left, plays on a seesaw with children of other female inmates on the prison yard of Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul, Afghanistan April 17, 2008. Jamila, age 7, and her mother, Najiba, who is serving a seven year sentence for adultery, have been in prison for 10 months. © David Guttenfelder/AP

Pul-e Charkhi was a brutal living environment. This report details inadequate sanitation, frigid winter temperatures, rape and humiliation.

In the same month that Guttenfelder photographed – April, 2008 – the women and children of Pul-e Charkhi were moved to a new purpose built facility. Recognising the special requirements of female prisoners, Badam Bagh was constructed by the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office (UNODC) with the financial support of the Italian Government.

The two videos below offer some comparison between the two facilities:

PUL-E CHARKHI

BADAM BAGH WOMEN’S PRISON

LYSE DOUCET AT BADAM BAGH

To bring us right up to date, the best reporting is not that in the photographic medium, but straight news reporting. Lyse Doucet‘s report for the BBC is a must see.

(I have applauded Doucet’s journalism in the mens’ wings at Pul-e Charkhi before).

At a moment when the White House is to open talks with the Taliban and the media is comfortably using the phrase “unwinnable war”, it is perhaps responsible to consider the lives of those caught up in the broken justice system of Afghanistan. The prisons of Afghanistan are one of the last priorities for a society that is war torn and divided. Afghanistan hasn’t got the resources to support the basic human rights of those it incarcerates when the rights of those outside prison walls cannot be guaranteed.

Obama’s decision to quash the release of Iraqi prison torture photographs has welled across the journo networks today. It began as a rumour and then confirmed by the Huffington Post, New York Times and other major news outlets.

Last month, I blogged about ACLUs legal victory and announcement of images release on May 28th. I told you to keep the date in mind as the images were sure to be a thwack on the retina – of course,  not half as bad as some of the thwacks of twisted acts meted out by American rank and file under America military order.

I even went as far to say that Obama – with seeming little control – would possibly suffer at the fate of an early leak. Well, Obama’s done his u-turn and it looks like he might stop their release. He gets some support from Tomasky at the Guardian, but I can’t buy this argument. Obviously, Obama’s worried about the safety of his troops but the rest of us are worried about Cheney et al. getting off scott-free. The official line is that the Abu Ghraib abuses have been investigated fully, but in truth 25 low ranking officers were hung out to dry. There was no accountability further up the chain.

We should bear in mind that these are new images to the public and media, but not to politicians and internal investigators, and this is not the first time images have been suppressed and challenged.

The military’s mood was one of relative calm last month, with army investigators going on record that “these images are not as near as bad as Abu Ghraib”, but some are recalling long forgotten testimonies from 2004, namely by Seymour Hersh, here, here and here.

Hersh alleged that the children of female prisoners were sodomized in front of their mothers. These assertions were made on two occasions in 2004 – during a speech at the University of Chicago and at an ACLU conference.

There were audio files of these speeches online, but they do not seem to be operating. ACLU will have this on file nonetheless. And, in any case, Information Clearing House has a transcript of Hersh’s statements, from which I quote below:

Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. OK? Videos. There are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at [Abu Ghraib], which is about 30 miles from Baghdad — 30 kilometers, maybe, just 20 miles, I’m not sure whether it’s — anyway. The women were passing messages out saying please come and kill me because of what’s happened. And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has, and they’re in total terror it’s going to come out. It’s impossible  to say to yourself, how did we get there, who are we, who are these people that sent us there.

When I did My Lai, I was very troubled, like anybody in his right mind would be about what happened, and I ended up in something I wrote saying, in the end, I said, the people that did the killing were as much victims as the people they killed, because of the scars they had.

I can tell you some of the personal stories of some of the people who were in these units who witnessed this. I can also tell you written complaints were made to the highest officers. And so we’re dealing with an enormous, massive amount of criminal wrong-doing that was covered up at the highest command out there and higher. And we have to get to it, and we will. And we will, I mean, you know, there’s enough out there, they can’t.

And finally, if you thought you’d experienced the depravity of Abu Ghraib via the pictures – and if you thought you understood the extent to the crimes – you’d be wrong. This Guardian article, quoting Washington Post relays the testimony of a detainee witness to juvenile rape.

Detainee, Kasim Hilas, describes the rape of an Iraqi boy by a man in uniform, whose name has been blacked out of the statement, but who appears to be a translator working for the army.

“I saw [name blacked out] fucking a kid, his age would be about 15-18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard the screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn’t covered and I saw [blacked out], who was wearing the military uniform putting his dick in the little kid’s ass,” Mr Hilas told military investigators. “I couldn’t see the face of the kid because his face wasn’t in front of the door. And the female soldier was taking pictures.”

It is not clear from the testimony whether the rapist described by Mr Hilas was working for a private contractor or was a US soldier. A private contractor was arrested after the Taguba investigation was completed, but was freed when it was discovered the army had no jurisdiction over him under military or Iraqi law.

IF THE IMAGES PEGGED FOR RELEASE ON THE 28TH ARE TO STIR UP FRESH INQUIRY INTO SEXUAL ABUSE OF JUVENILES THEN OBAMA HAS A SERIOUS PROBLEM.

Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sreed99342/2077223377/

Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sreed99342/2077223377/

Author’s Note: I am taking my lead from Michael Tomasky for this blog post tying Obama’s call for a block on the release of images to the worst case scenario (sexual torture). Bear in mind that the buzz has been over 44 images – why, I don’t know – but over 2,000 were/are set to be released on May 28th. Also bear in mind that the images are said to be predominantly from facilities other than Abu Ghraib. There are a lot of unknowns in this matter. Nevertheless, I am sure of two things: 1) there is more visual evidence of abuse in existence and 2) Obama is obstructing the release of the latest evidence. Time will tell how these two variables cross or diverge.

First image by photographer Christopher V. Smith whose work can be found on his Flickr profile.

Second image by Steve Reed, whose work is on his Flickr profile and blog Shadows & Light.

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