By Patrick Falby -
Khan Mohammad and Taher smile as they peer out of a US military helicopter: after a year in prison as suspected supporters of Al Qaeda, they are nearly home. The two men were heading back to eastern Logar province for a "shura" ceremony that would see them return to their communities under a reintegration programme the Afghan government says is essential to ending the war.
"This will have a positive impact for the general situation in Afghanistan," Brigadier General Mohibullah, head of the detainee reintegration programme, said. "Each guy belongs to a family, each family belongs to a tribe."
There are 15,000 detainees around Afghanistan, including around 800 at Bagram air base near Kabul, where Mohammad and Taher were held, according to the US department of defence and the Afghan government.
Suspected fighters have been rounded up in the country since the US-led invasion to topple Taliban in late 2001, and were at first held without any review of their cases.
They have gradually been granted more rights, as Afghanistan attempts to reform its prison system and the US Supreme Court ruled Al Qaeda suspects held at the notorious jail in Guantanamo Bay were entitled to hearings.
Afghanistan is now accelerating hearings after a landmark "peace jirga" — a council of elders and community leaders from across Afghanistan held in Kabul in June — called for the release of detainees held without charge.
To help gain prisoner releases, local leaders promise to help them live peaceful, stable lives.
The prisoners must sign a document of allegiance to the Afghan government and enroll in a reconciliation programme, renouncing violence and getting jobs.
The Afghan government and Nato forces say the initiative, which has so far released some 130 prisoners, is the first step towards reforming the country's legal system, which has been plagued by allegations of abuse.
Rights groups say however the process does not address Afghanistan's problems of arbitrary detention and that detainees are not given access to legal representation.
"We are very happy that the indefinite detention of these detainees is being addressed through this process, but we have concerns," said Nader Nadery, of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"A review process needs a longer period of time to get prisoners enough evidence to argue for release," he said. Once home, Mohammad and Taher said they had been wrongfully held without evidence.
Taher's son, 21-year-old Nakibullah, said that in his father's absence he had to take time off from economics studies to support the family. "One year passed without heating because we didn't have money for wood," Nakibullah said.
Taher said someone from another tribe who held a grudge against him in a land dispute had told Nato forces he was a fighter. "They kept asking the same questions, like, 'why were you trying to help Al Qaeda and attack foreign troops?'," said the former engineer.
Mohammad, a taxi driver who lost a leg fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, said he was arrested in a raid on his home while two Pakistani men were his dinner guests.
"They gave us specific dates we went to Pakistan and asked why did you go to Pakistan?" said the father of nine. "I told them I don't have a relationship with Al Qaeda, I went to Pakistan to buy tractors."
Some 50 relatives, elders and government and military officials turned out at the local government offices to witness their release ceremony.
"I want to assure you that anybody released in this area will not join the Taliban," said Abdul Hamid, a local government official. But the programme comes with no guarantees.
And those who swear off violence can run into trouble. Brigadier General Mohibullah said three men were killed by their former Taliban comrades upon their release. Taher made it clear there was little trust after his year in prison.