By Sayed Anwar Amani and Mirwais Harooni
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. military commanders believe Sardar Mohammad is a dangerous Taliban bomb-maker who has attacked foreign and Afghan soldiers. In April last year, U.S. and Afghan forces captured Sardar and placed him in a military prison.
The Afghan government ordered Sardar and 64 other men to be released last month. A quiet man who says he is in his late teens, Sardar headed back to his village in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. There, dozens of relatives and villagers paid respects to him outside his mud home. Sardar was never a Taliban insurgent, his family and neighbors say. But thanks to his imprisonment and release, he is now a hero.
"I hate what the Taliban stands for," Sardar said.
President Hamid Karzai's decision last month to release the disputed 65 prisoners is a sign of his growing eagerness to assert his independence from his Western backers. Twelve years after Washington and others helped him seize power and with just a few months left in his final term, the Afghan president seems to want to distance himself from his once-closest ally at every opportunity.
But the story of the released prisoners also illustrates just why the gap between Washington and Kabul has opened up so much. The conflicting allegations about Sardar and another detainee whose case Reuters examined show how Afghanistan and the foreign military forces stationed there so often speak past each other. As the U.S. and NATO forces wind down their combat mission, it's not just that the different sides disagree on the facts, but that they sometimes seem to be talking about different wars altogether.
The prisoners were part of a much larger group of more than 600 detainees transferred to Afghan authority last year, in what was seen as a milestone in the U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
Afghan officials later released some of those prisoners without U.S. objection. But the United States believes the 65 who were released in February should be tried or investigated further.
The Afghan government and Afghan judicial officials say the 65 had been wrongly imprisoned on charges that did not stand up to examination.
Abdul Shokor Dadras, a member of the Afghan Review Board, a government body set up to examine the cases against detainees transferred from U.S. to Afghan custody, said the board, the attorney general and the country's intelligence agency conducted investigations into the U.S. allegations.
"All three organizations repeatedly determined that there was no evidence to (adequately) prove these men's guilt. So why do the Americans keep saying they have proof?" Dadras asked.
But U.S. military officials say they have piles of evidence tying the 65 men to the Taliban, whom foreign and Afghan forces have fought since 2001, including forensic material and evidence of phone contacts. The officials say they provided the Afghan Review Board, the attorney general's office, and the intelligence agency with "hundreds of pages" of "hard evidence". U.S. officials said the information either implicated the men or showed their cases warranted further investigation.
Neither side was willing to share the full details of their evidence, though the Americans gave basic details.
"With no legal consequences, these individuals may return to the same criminal behavior that led to their original capture," U.S. forces in Afghanistan said in a statement referring to the 65 prisoners.
Washington believes the decision to release the men is a sign of Kabul's cosiness with the Afghan Taliban, with whom both the United States and Kabul have sought to open peace talks.
Rejecting U.S. criticism of the mass release, Karzai warned the United States to "stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures" and judicial independence. "I hope the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty," said Karzai, who after more than a decade in power is to step down after April elections.
Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman said: "Any decision on the Afghan detainees is related to the Afghan sovereignty and the basic rights of the Afghan people. Therefore only the Afghan judicial authorities have the final say on the Afghan detainees."
A summary of allegations against Sardar, prepared by U.S. military forces in Kabul and seen by Reuters, states that he was "a Taliban IED (improvised explosive device) specialist who builds and emplaces IEDs used in attacks against" Afghan and foreign forces in Kandahar Province.
"(Sardar) was reported to be heavily involved in IED operations against coalition and Afghan forces."
In April 2013, the summary states, "reporting" indicated that Sardar had buried an improvised bomb that exploded as coalition and Afghan forces approached. It is not clear who reported that, or what evidence they based it on.
Among evidence the U.S. military summary said it had against Sardar was a cell phone with Taliban contacts stored in its memory. The summary also said Sardar tested positive for residue of explosive materials.
"In a sworn, thumb-printed statement he admitted to having contact with Taliban commanders," the summary reads.
But Sardar told Reuters he didn't understand the statement he signed. He said he had a contract to truck fuel and gravel to a U.S. military base in Kandahar before his arrest, and felt betrayed after foreign forces raided his home last year.
"They rifled through our things, and searched the whole house. They didn't find anything to prove I was guilty, but they still arrested me," Sardar said several days after his release.
After being taken to the same base he had once made deliveries to, Sardar said foreign troops questioned him about others from his village and then brought him a document he could not read.
"They told me to put my thumb-print on the papers so I could be freed. But when I did, they sent me to Bagram prison," he said.
"I denied everything ... they told me that I had already confessed. I told them the truth - that I never confessed anything."
The U.S. military declined to share additional information about the specific allegations against Sardar or the circumstances in which he was captured. They did not confirm he had worked as a U.S. contractor in Kandahar.
Police in Kandahar say Sardar had no record prior to his arrest by the U.S. military.
"Based on our documents, he is like ordinary Afghans: clean and crime-free," said Abdul Wadood, police chief for Daman district, where Sardar's home is located.
Reuters sought comment from Afghan judicial officials on the U.S. allegations against Sardar, but the Review Board and the attorney general's office did not respond or said they did not have information on specific cases.
In the past, Afghan officials have generally dismissed U.S. allegations of physical evidence. They say that detainees' positive results in bomb residue tests, for example, could be invalid because residue could migrate from one person to another.
"Afghanistan has been though a long war, and there are weapons all over. But we investigated accurately and sent those who were suspicious for further investigation," the Afghan Review Board's Dadras said.
SUSPICION BY ASSOCIATION?
Another prisoner to be released last month was Sher Mohammad, also a native of Kandahar.
Sher said that one night in late 2012 he awoke to the sound of a loudspeaker outside his home in the village of Seya Joi. A member of a military squad warned him that he was surrounded.
"The Americans handcuffed me, tied a black cloth around my eyes and put a sack on my head," he told Reuters.
Sher believes he came under suspicion because he spent time at a madrasa, or Islamic religious school. Some Afghan and NATO officials believe madrasas in Afghanistan attract Taliban sympathisers.
According to the U.S. military summary of allegations against the freed prisoners, Sher was arrested in December 2012. U.S. forces biometrically matched him to a bomb discovered the previous month by foreign forces in his home district. Biometric matching is usually done via fingerprints or DNA.
Investigators often look at places inside a home-made bomb where DNA may have been left during construction. Bombmakers often use packing tape, and the sticky side of the tape can capture fingerprints, skin secretions, or hair.
The U.S. document alleges that Sher specialised in bombs that explode when stepped on or are driven over, and taught others how to use them.
Sher rejected those allegations.
He also said he was treated roughly during his imprisonment, first at the Kandahar military base and then in Parwan, as the detention facility on the U.S.-run military base at Bagram is also known.
Confined at first in a dark room on his own, he was later taken to an area where around 30 people were housed, he said. There was no privacy, even when using the toilet.
A U.S. military official said that detainees like Sher had numerous opportunities to register complaints with U.S. or Afghan officials about their treatment, but Sher had not done so.
"The United States requires that all (military) detention operations meet a high standard of humane care and custody," said the official, who would not be named.
Haji Ghulam, a police commander for an area that includes Sher's village, said that before forces pushed the Taliban out, Sher had been associated with the group through an uncle who was a Taliban member. That uncle, Hafizullah, was arrested by foreign forces and is now in Bagram prison, said Mahsoon Khan, police chief for Zhari district. Another uncle, Naqibullah, was also part of the Taliban and on the run.
But Khan said he knew Sher, and was confident that he was not an insurgent.
Back in his village, Sher said he was happy to be reunited with his family. "I am an innocent man. I farm my land and live an area that is under government control," he said. "Anyone who is part of the Taliban has already fled from here."
(Harooni reported from Kandahar, Amani from Kabul; Writing by Missy Ryan in Kabul; Editing by John Chalmers and Simon Robinson)