Shackled: the former British army officer jailed in Kabul
The windowless cell was bare apart from a single bed. The prisoner, a former British Army officer, shuffled through the door, his hands and legs bound in chains that clanged against the metal bars. His Afghan guards had stripped him of his possessions, leaving him with little more than a bar of soap and some toothpaste.
“When I saw what my life had become it absolutely broke my heart. It was like Guantanamo Bay,” said Bill Shaw, his voice breaking with emotion.
Shaw, who was appointed an MBE after serving as a military policeman in Bosnia, Colombia and Iraq, had been locked in a prison packed with Afghan drug smugglers. “They gave me a brown uniform to wear. The only things I was allowed to keep were my socks and underpants,” he said.
It is nearly two months since Shaw, a manager with a security company that protects the British embassy in Kabul, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly bribing an Afghan intelligence agent, a crime he insists he did not commit.
In his first interview since he was detained, Shaw, a father of three children, revealed he had spent the first weeks in solitary confinement. He has since been moved to the maximum-security wing of Kabul’s most notorious jail, Pul-e-Charkhi, where he is serving his sentence within spitting distance of murderers and militants.
Last week I met Shaw in Pul-e-Charkhi after passing through six security barriers. I introduced myself and he said he was glad to be meeting a reporter from his favourite newspaper. He looked dishevelled. Flecks of grey tinged the tips of his short beard. He wore traditional Afghan clothes and said he was growing the beard to blend in.
His ordeal began last October when two of his company’s cars were impounded by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, for not having proper licence plates.
He drove to an NDS checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul and begged officials to release the vehicles. An NDS official drew his pistol and fired at him.
Shaw, who spent 28 years in the British Army, dived for cover behind a car, dragging his interpreter with him. As the bullets cracked overhead, he rang his boss on his mobile phone.
“We’re in contact. There’s an intelligence officer firing at us,” he shouted. An armoured car was dispatched to rescue him but he escaped by flagging down a passing vehicle.
A few weeks later Shaw was persuaded to hand over $25,000 (£16,900) to a man called Eidi Mohammad, whom he believed worked for the NDS. He thought that he was paying a release fee for the two impounded vehicles.
When he failed to obtain a receipt for the transaction, he lodged a formal complaint with NDS and interior ministry officials. “We told them there was a scam going on. They thanked us for bringing it to their attention,” said Shaw.
The next thing he knew, he received a message from a colleague in the attorney- general’s office, another of his company’s clients: a prosecutor from the British-funded anti-corruption court in Kabul wanted to speak to him.
The prosecutor told him to come back with a lawyer. “I said, ‘You’ve got this wrong, I’ve made a complaint about the NDS.’ He said, ‘No, actually you are a suspect’.”
Shaw returned days later, having answered a list of handwritten questions from the prosecutor. He had decided not to flee the country.
“I’d nothing to hide. It would have looked bad for me and the company. I was sure of my innocence,” he said.
The prosecutor beckoned him outside, pointed to a police car and said: “Get in.” He was taken to a detention centre in Kabul and put into a cell with 17 other men who were being held on charges of drug smuggling, corruption and forgery. He slept with the other prisoners on the filthy concrete floor.
“That’s when I thought: what the hell’s going on, what have I let myself in for? I thought the embassy would come and get me out. I thought I’d get bail. I’d already proved that I wouldn’t run away,” Shaw said.
The embassy did not intervene, saying it had to respect the legal system. Finally Shaw was sent an American lawyer. “I burst into tears. I had an English speaker at last,” he said.
After the lawyer left, Shaw had to fend for himself. In the exercise yard a Pakistani jailed for being a Taliban militant gestured at him threateningly. The other prisoners told Shaw to ignore him. The next day the Pakistani drew near again and warned him to convert to Islam. “I was worried for my safety, especially with my military background,” he said.
Three weeks later Shaw made his first appearance in court with his arms shackled to his waist. The defence produced a letter from the NDS stating it did not employ Eidi Mohammad. The trial was adjourned.
The next day Shaw was moved to the counter-narcotics justice centre, a US-funded maximum security prison for drug smugglers. Stripped of his possessions, he was allowed two pieces of paper on which to write letters every week and one visit every Thursday for a maximum of 15 minutes.
“I couldn’t sleep at night,” he said. “The boys were getting up for prayers at 4am. You’re awake anyway because of the clanging metal all night. It’s a noise I want to forget.”
Allowed to exercise for 2½ hours every other day, Shaw wore out a pair of sandals during the eight weeks he was held there. “We were put in a dog run three paces wide by 20 up. They put seven of us at a time in there. You just walked up and down,” he said.
He spent his 52nd birthday in his cell and an Afghan inmate sent him a small breakfast cake as a present. “That obviously made me very upset. The Afghans treated me so well in there. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”
On April 26 Shaw returned to court and told the judge: “I started this whole investigation and my complaint has been turned round on me. We brought this to your attention and now I’ve been turned into a criminal.” The judge thanked him, sentenced him to two years in Pul-e-Charkhi and fined him a further $25,000.
One of Shaw’s colleagues telephoned his wife Liz, 51, from Leeds, who fainted when she heard the news. “How can he go to court and the prosecution can’t provide any evidence and no witnesses and he gets sentenced for two years?” she asked.
She travelled to Kabul two weeks ago with her daughter, Lisa, 32, to see him. When she spotted her husband she ran up to a fence that separated them and kissed him briefly through a small gap in the wire before he was whisked away by a guard who said physical contact was forbidden.
His daughter added: “It was shocking. He’d lost two stone, he looked very drained. It was awful to see your dad shuffling along in chains when he hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Eventually the two women sat separated from Shaw by a bulletproof screen and spoke to him through a small grille. They were allowed no more than the regulation 15 minutes.
“I tried to make light of it. I said pinch and a punch for the first of the month because I always do that. Of course, we all burst into tears,” said Shaw.
The block where Shaw is incarcerated is home to scores of Taliban prisoners. “Wherever I am there will be a problem with security,” he said.
Shaw, a former major, is treating his detention like an army tour. “I keep looking at it in three-month blocks. I just have to accept the conditions. They are not dissimilar to other tours I’ve done,” he said. He is worried about his appeal, due to be heard on Saturday. “My biggest fear is the judge finds me guilty again and decides to increase the sentence, which is a possibility. I could get as many as 10 years,” he said.