BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – Four Afghans accused in bombing attacks appeared Tuesday for a preliminary hearing – the start of a legal procedure which U.S. officials say will lead to the first trial of detainees held by American forces in Afghanistan.
The hearing, which took place before three Afghan judges in a small white-walled room, was described by U.S officials as a major step in a plan to hand over control of the long-secretive detention facility at Bagram Air Field to the Afghan government.
Since the war began in 2001, detainees held in Afghanistan have had no access to lawyers. The U.S. alone decided who could be released or held indefinitely as a continued threat through a series of internal reviews by a military commission.
Tuesday’s hearing also comes just a few weeks after a federal appeals court ruled that detainees held in Afghanistan cannot file suit for their release in U.S. courts – a right enjoyed by detainees in Guantanamo Bay – because Afghanistan is a war zone in the nearly nine-year fight against Taliban insurgents.
But the chaotic nature of the first court session also showed that the transition toward an Afghan role will likely be slow and messy.
The defendants, a 60-year-old farmer and his three adult sons, were ushered into an elevated booth in a corner of the courtroom. All four prisoners wore dark gray-blue tunics. The father – whose long gray beard was tinted orange from traditional henna dye – wore a brown shawl around his shoulders. Two of the sons had bloodshot eyes.
They stood as prosecutor Ghawarl, who uses only one name, read out the charges and evidence against them.
He said some of the men’s fingerprints matched those on bombs found in their native Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan. A search of their house turned up a stash of Kalashnikov rifles and pistols, he added.
But the defendants spoke only a smattering of Dari, the Afghan language used in the hearing. There was no translation into their native language – Pashto – which is spoken by most of the about 830 prisoners held at the prison. There were simultaneous translations into English for Western soldiers and journalists in the courtroom.
The four government-appointed Afghan defense lawyers objected to the lack of Pashto translation and complained they had only had a few days to review the cases.
They also argued that it is common for men in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan to keep a stash of weapons to protect their families and not necessarily to fight for the insurgents.
The chief judge agreed to adjourn to give the defense lawyers more time to talk to their clients and review their cases, and to enlist a Pashto translator. No new hearing date was set.
U.S. officials have not promised a trial for every detainee. Some of those held will likely be too much of a security threat to relinquish to the Afghan system.