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Towards insanity in an Afghanistan hell

Good things rarely happen in Afghanistan prisons.  Philip Young’s story is no exception
Philip Young in Afghanistan PrisonAfghanistan’s Helmand Province of Lakshar Gha.

On the eve of 1st October 2009, 46 year-old Philip Young drove towards the British controlled Counter Narcotics Base (CNB).  This was a routine mission. Young was to oversee a small project in the largely Taliban opium producing province of Lakshar Gha.

Young - a former commander of Personal Security Detail for a United States Army General in Iraq - had worked in Kabul the past year for ANHAM Defence Contractors, supervising logistics; overseeing supplies and equipment details for an US Department of State Contract.

Driving into the compound they noticed an Afghan guard wearing traditional dress complete with bullet strapped belts about his body.

“This was not the norm and I was immediately highly suspicious,” Young recalls. Other than that, the place was deserted.  

A former guard, Abdul Ghafar had staged a coup, recruiting a splinter group of five fellow tribesmen; together they had disarmed thirty men and at gunpoint locked them inside base quarters.

Young cautioned his fellow officers to remain in the car, grabbed an AK47 rifle from the back seat and walked towards the main building.  At this point Ghafar strode out brandishing an AK47 assault rifle in his right hand, and a radio I n his left hand.   The men stood about four metres apart, shoulder to shoulder, when Young urged Ghafar to drop his weapon.  Instead Ghafar dropped the radio, raised his gun and fired the first shot, inflicting shrapnel wound in Young’s arm. With razor sharp reflexes Young fired three shots at Ghafar’s chest, and when he fell to the ground Young kicked his weapon out of range across the dust.
Ghafar’s five compatriots came outside, surrendering themselves.

The Afghan National Police were called, and although witnesses to the coup and the shooting were present, the Police obtained only a single statement corroborating Young,’s account of the events.

“They also moved and removed vital evidence at the scene of the shooting, claims Young.

Young and Ghafar’s five co conspirators were arrested, questioned by a British officer.  After seventy two hours the five Afghani men were released.  

Young was allowed a phone call to his ANHAM boss who contacted the company lawyer, and after being captive at the British Military Prison in Lakshar Gha for twenty eight days, his lawyer arranged for his trial to be transferred to Kabul. NowYoung was imprisoned under Afghan control.

“They slung my hands behind my back, handcuffing me so brutally that I have to have surgery on my tendons.  They also placed a black bag over my head and tossed me into a cell with eleven hardened criminals. I didn’t expect to live through the afternoon.  I managed to get moved to another cell, this time I found myself with eight violent criminals, either Taliban or Al Qaeda bombers.”

“The prison hasn’t been maintained since 1985.  There was a thin rug on the floor and the walls were thick with grime, as were the toilets which haven’t either been cleaned for nearly thirty years.  The bowls are so crusted, the stink so putrid, that once, I avoided going to the toilet for eight days.”

“We slept on the floor and had to buy a blanket. There is no concept of food hygiene; we were fed pigs slop; rice chickpeas and nan bread.  I ate very little, just enough to maintain my strength. ”

With gestures and several words spoken in broken English, the prisoners made themselves understood and when an Iranian inmate threatened to kill Young, he retaliated with brute force by wakening the Iranian from a deep sleep at night with a sharpened toothbrush pointed at his eye.  Thus, Young asserted his authority, stayed alive.

Young’s incarceration in Kabul lasted ten days during which time ANHAM arranged the Ebrah, (customary “letter of forgiveness” and blood money for the victim’s family.

Young appeared at his first civil court case and was sentenced to five years imprisonment for “exceeding self defence”.
Also, he was transferred to Counter Narcotics Justice Centre (CNJ) on the outskirts of Kabul, a prison built, equipped and largely manned by Americans, where all inmates being convicted drug dealers.    

Bitterly he says, “Statutory Law is subservient to Sharia Law, and killing a person in self defence in Afghanistan is seen as murder.  The Ebrah letter seeking forgiveness from the family of the deceased is essential regardless of how much it costs.  It is a legal document, ratified in a court of law.  Without it, you are likely to be sentenced to death, or at minimum, a very lengthy jail term.”

 “My conviction was based on the prosecutor’s theory that I had committed a murder – he presented no evidence to this at all.”
“The cell in the CNJ prison was bare but I was given a proper bed, good food, and the facilities were totally spotless.  I was allowed out into a long passage shaped enclosure for an hour or two daily.”

But, Young was restricted in every other way; given no reading or writing materials, radios were banned, even pictures of his three children, the youngest being nine, were confiscated.  At one stage he wasn’t given permission to shower for ten days.
This went on for five months until fearing for his sanity, Young began causing problems.  He was uncooperative, refusing to make life easy for his captors, and after his initial rebelliousness, his cellmates joined in his unruly behaviour, throwing food out of the cell, generally causing havoc, until Young was warned that if he caused further disruption he would be taken out and hanged.  

During this five month period Young’s appeal trial was held.

At an appeal case in Afghanistan, a judge hears the case and two assessors sit, one on either side of the judge.  Young had been forewarned by a British Afghani expatriate cellmate that this judge loathed foreigners.

Additionally, Young’s lawyer advised, “I talked with the Prosecutor, and appealing is a bad idea.  The Prosecutor is going for the death sentence.”

But then Young was impervious, never really fully expecting to receive a fair hearing.  It was just his dogged determination driving him to persevere for justice.  

Young says, “My conviction in the Appeal Court was under ‘Article 396 of the ICPC’, which had no bearing or relevance to my case at all. I acknowledged that I had fired my weapon, and the Appeal Court Judge asserted that I had ‘confessed to murder’.  “I did no such thing.”

This time the judge ruled on a sixteen year sentence; thus increasing Young’s sentence by eleven years.  
 “I didn’t despair. My family kept me going. My brother Pat flew across to visit me.  There was a South African facebook campaign for my freedom, and it was great hearing there were people supporting me.”  

 Once again he was moved across Kabul, this time to Pul-e-Charki, one of the most infamous and violent prisons in the country.
He shudders, “I was put on a floor that held one hundred and seventy guys, six to eight per cell.  I was in a cell with the ‘Boshi’; the head and most dangerous inmate.  

To the cellmates he was a ‘foreigner’ and ‘infidel, which meant no matter how friendly the fellow inmates appear, they could try to kill him at any moment.  But Young was considered a ‘memon’, guest by the Afghanistan authorities.

So the Afghan authorities separated Young from his cell mates.  He found himself in the downstairs clinic, where he remained in tolerable circumstances for several months, made easier by his managing to smuggle a cell phone inside, allowing sms communication with his family, until the wisened authorities inserted jammers throughout the prison.
But, informers told the guards there was a plot in the clinic to assassinate “the infidel” and Young was moved yet again, to the Higher Security Block 10, - the Al Qaeda and Taliban Operatives block, Higher Security Block, 10.
Finally: A Supreme Court hearing on Young’s case.

“It was a surreal experience,” Young shakes his head.  There is no appearance in open court, but merely a paper review. “
Young says, “Beforehand, my US lawyer was told by the Supreme Court Justice member in front of a Washington post reporter, that the courts did not like defence attorneys as they “defend guilty people.”

An excerpt from the final decision made by the Afghan Supreme Court reads:
‘It shall be noticed that Phillip Young did not have former decision to kill Abdul Ghafar.’  

Abdul Ghafar had pointed his weapon towards Phillip Young and he (Abdul Ghafar) started firing firstly which motivated Philip Young to respond at the same manner. Phillip Young yielded several times on Abdul Ghafar to put down his weapon but he (Abdul Ghafar) not only didn’t pay attention but also started shooting; the case file also does not contain any other motive for Phillip;s act’

Despite the courts acknowledgment that Young acted in self defence the judge sentenced Young to seven years imprisonment.
He had survived for two and a half years in three brutal prisons against all odds, in three brutal Afghan prisons, and the pressure on Young was mounting with the passing years.  

Fortunately, every year President Hamid Karzai reviews convicted criminals’ period of incarceration. He then passes a decree on the sentence. Over the last twenty-four months, Young had been graced with two decrees’, each one reducing his sentence by one a-half years.

He had four more years to serve on his seven year sentence. With no forewarning, President Kazar suddenly issued a Bakshish, ‘a bonus decree’ reducing every Afghanis prison internment by one-and-a-half years.

 Together with the last two decrees, this last Bakshish, rendered Young a free man.

Far from exuberant at hearing the news Young says, “I knew until my plane landed in Dubai, en-route to South Africa, I could be rearrested at any time for any number of reasons.”

On 13th May 2012 Philip Young landed in Cape Town a free man.

So what next for Philip Young?
“I want to gain meaningful employment.”

But mostly I want to cautions others who may find themselves in Afghanistan, “Should you be involved in a shooting do not hesitate for a minute.  Leave the scene and go directly to the airport and get on the first flight out. Abandon everything and do not even think about picking up personal items.  Take whatever flight you can to wherever you can – as long as it is out of Afghanistan.”


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