I had just climbed the last stair to the second floor landing of the main block of the Badam Bagh women’s prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, when I saw the child on my left. He seemed tiny as he stood alone, up against the metal bars of the cellblock door. The child’s mother must have been somewhere down that corridor, one of 216 women incarcerated in Kabul’s only women’s prison. Women with infants or children under four years old can keep their children with them in the prison, a practice common in most of the world, though the maximum age varies widely and it is generally prohibited in the United States.
The women locked up in Badam Bagh prison are lucky in only one sense: The prison itself is relatively safe and the conditions tolerable. There are no prisons for women in most of the country, and so women elsewhere are locked up for agonizingly long periods in police cells or are sent to a distant prison. In Kabul, Badam Bagh holds a mix of women awaiting trial, women convicted of crimes but appealing their cases, and women serving their sentences.
On my visit to the prison, I spoke at separate times with three women, each in the presence of her legal aid lawyer. Their stories surprised me, although I have been visiting prisons around the world and speaking with incarcerated men and women for more than three decades.
One woman had been convicted and sentenced to 10 years for a violent assault against her sister-in-law. The case had been affirmed by a second court, but the Supreme Court had just reversed the conviction. Her lawyer explained to me that the first two courts had allowed themselves to be swept along by a media frenzy, leaving it for the Supreme Court to point out in its judgment that it was unlikely she was even present at the scene. Sitting on a bench in the room for legal visits, she was passive and nearly expressionless despite the news of her exoneration. Perhaps she had been beaten down by more than a year of imprisonment.
A second woman, incarcerated for 10 months, was finally meeting a lawyer for the first time since her arrest and seemed relieved to be able to tell her story. She had filed a formal complaint against a local official in charge of her neighborhood whom, she alleged, had harassed her and forced his way into her home. The official in question turned the tables on her, arranging for her to be charged with adultery. Her lawyer told me that he would begin his own investigation in the hope of corroborating her story. At the least, she would be in prison several more months.
A third woman, incarcerated for three months, was the most animated. Perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s, visibly pregnant, and holding a small child in her arms, she told me in proficient English that she had made a formal complaint of harassment against her supervisor in the government office where she worked, and that he had then had her charged with making a false complaint against an official. She spoke clearly and adamantly about the unfairness of her plight and her outrage that a government agency dealing regularly with Western colleagues could turn on her and confine her to this prison only on the word of an abusive supervisor.
In other countries, the women I have met in prison are most often charged with murder, with participation in some kind of drug dealing, or with financial crimes, so the stories I heard in Badam Bagh surprised me most because they followed a completely different pattern. This was a non-random sample of only three cases and I only heard one side of each story, but the pattern nonetheless was striking and unlike that I have heard elsewhere: three-out-of-three women explaining that they had been falsely accused and locked away to cover up their own victimization or, in the first case, the victimization of another women. The pattern in these stories seemed like a small clue into the enormous injustices that women face in Afghanistan today, even in Kabul.
There is an oft-repeated story about well-intentioned international assistance gone wrong in the field of police reform. The technology mentioned in the story has changed over the years, from cattle prods to tasers, but the story remains the same: a western government helps train and equip a foreign police force, including the provision of devices that deliver non-lethal electric shocks for use in crowd control; but the police then utilize the devices to torture prisoners rather than to avoid lethal injuries when controlling crowds.
Listening to the women in Badam Bagh, it occurred to me that the entire justice system introduced in Afghanistan had become the cattle prod or taser in that story, an instrument of torture delivered perhaps with the best of intentions. The individual women I met certainly needed the help of their lawyers, but the justice system in Kabul and the wider region needs something much more radical than a system of legal aid. Whether greater justice could be won by closing the front door more tightly against false accusations or ending the use of pretrial detention in all but the most serious and clearly established cases, the first step is to hear, really hear the stories of these women and the others incarcerated with them.
The hardest part of visiting a prison anywhere in the world is leaving. No matter how many times I repeat the experience, when my visit ends and I return through the heavy doors and locked gates to the world outside, I am overcome by the knowledge that the people with whom I have just been speaking must remain in that confined place, most for years more, some for decades. But leaving Badam Bagh, that familiar weight was compounded by an additional, quiet rage: rage against a justice system that had itself become an instrument of torture, and rage that among its victims was that tiny child I had left on the second floor landing.