KABUL, Afghanistan — After three years in Afghanistan's controversial Bagram military detention center, Haji Gulam Farouq finally got a chance Saturday to speak his mind to one of America's top generals.
Standing before a group of U.S. military officials, Afghan lawmakers and tribal elders taking part in a special prisoner release ceremony, Farouq said he was afraid that he was forever tarnished as a suspect who could be scooped up again at any time.
"I'm not happy to go home," Farouq told U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, the number two at U.S. Central Command in Tampa.
"I was a mujahedeen commander," said Farouq, who was accused of working with Taliban insurgents. "It didn't make sense for me to be against this government."
With Allen as a special guest, Farouq and 10 other Afghans were freed Saturday as part of a program designed to combat persistent perceptions that the U.S. military unfairly holds hundreds of innocent men swept up by overzealous soldiers hunting insurgents.
So far this year, U.S. officials have freed nearly 200 men as part of the program that enlists tribal elders, lawmakers and local leaders called upon to make sure the detainees don't use their freedom to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
After Farouq spoke, Allen delivered a contrite speech as Afghan leaders and former prisoners munched on fresh fruit and chocolate cake.
"If we detained you unfairly, I am sorry," Allen told the men. "I hope this is a great day for you to return to your families."
Saturday's ceremony at a military base was designed to help defuse one of the more volatile issues in Afghanistan: prisoner abuse.
For many Afghans, Bagram is synonymous with Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Prisoner rights activists long called for the closure of Bagram amid persistent reports that prisoners were abused at the detention center on a U.S. airfield 40 miles north of Kabul. In one of the highest profile cases, a U.S. Army investigation called for the prosecution of 27 people for involvement in the deaths of two Afghan detainees fatally beaten in 2002.
Late last year, the Obama administration closed Bagram and opened a modern new facility nearby designed to hold about 1,000 people.
Inmates at the new facility have praised it as a significant step up from Bagram. But the Obama administration has been accused of running a second detention center that Afghans call the "black prison."
Capt. Jack Hanzlik, director of public affairs at U.S. Central Command, said that the Afghan government and International Committee of the Red Cross were both aware of all detention centers in the country.
"We don't operate any secret detention centers," Hanzlik said.