Jailed so Taliban could give his home to Arabs

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The Independent Online

Ali Ahmad gave me a tour of Kabul's provincial jail yesterday. He was incarcerated there until a week ago when the Taliban flitted from the capital. As soon as the prisoners realised their guards had gone, they smashed their way out and burned one of the outbuildings almost to the ground. "They wanted to burn the whole jail down,'' Ali said. "But I persuaded them that it would not be correct.''

You can understand the urge when you see the cells. Ali was confined to a room four metres square with 11 beds, and when he was first locked up three months ago it held 23 prisoners. "Twelve had to sleep on the floor,'' he said. The prisoners were mixed here: wife-killers, debtors, men who had caused fatal traffic accidents, young men caught eloping with girlfriends – and Ali.

Ali's case was strange. He is a bright young man from a distinguished family; his father, dead now, was once Afghanistan's attorney-general, and he is four years into a degree in medicine at Kabul University. He has never been convicted, or even accused, of an offence. But two of his brothers lived in territory held by the Northern Alliance. After a couple of desultory examinations by a Taliban judge, he was locked up for an indefinite period on the grounds that he was, on account of his brothers, a suspicious person.

"But that wasn't the real reason,'' he said. "The true reason was that the Taliban were trying to induce me to leave Kabul permanently so they could take over our house.''

It's not a grand place; two storeys, built by his father 25 years ago in a respectable suburb. It must have been tempting to the Taliban because he was living in it alone, his family having moved north. "They wanted to take it over,'' he said, "so they could give it to Arabs and Chechens.''

Ali says the same things were happening elsewhere, too. "There were blocks of flats reserved for people working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Taliban went through the blocks checking and anyone who was not actually working for the ministry was thrown out and the flats given to Afghan Talibans and to Chechens.''

They tried, twice, to harass Ali into leaving the city for good. Last year he was imprisoned for three weeks, and when he was set free he left Kabul. "I decided to try and go to Europe. And I thought about it some more and I decided it was wrong to leave before finishing my education: without qualifications I would be unable to find a good job.'' With the help of a friend with connections to the Taliban, he slipped back into the city

So when they came to bother him again, 13 weeks ago, Ali was stubborn and refused to take the hint and disappear. Cell No 5 became his punishment.

Yesterday the jail was practically empty; the only new prisoner on display was a hairy young man on crutches wearing wrap-around Stevie Wonder sunglasses, who had been picked up earlier in the day for selling heroin.

Afghanistan does not have a government at present, so no judiciary exists either, but that doesn't stop the Northern Alliance's new police force from arresting people and bringing them in.

Two young Hazara men arrived during my tour: the mother-in-law of the elder one had complained to the police that they were brawling.

After the Taliban left last week and the prisoners had escaped, the jail was for a short while completely empty. Then the city's new rulers brought 16 prisoners: six Arabs and Pakistanis and 10 Afghan Talibans. Soon afterwards, they were taken to the intelligence department for interrogation. Their fate after that is unknown.

Although the Taliban tried to force Ali Ahmad to relinquish his family home, he doesn't seem to bear them ill-will. "They were fair to us,'' he said. "They really had a good attitude with people."

And they were, of course, devoutly religious, as is Ali himself. So is he sorry that they have fallen from power? "No,'' he says, "it's not a pity they have gone because they were terrorists.''

It's the right answer but it sounds like something he has been told to say.