The threat of execution, al-Qaeda and Taliban members baying for his blood and a Guantanamo Bay-style lockdown. That’s what a Cape Town man endured in an Afghanistan jail for two-and-a-half years.
On arriving at Cape Town International Airport on Thursday, Philip Young spoke of the hardships he went through while held captive by authorities in Afghanistan.
Young was speaking moments after an emotional reunion with his children: David, 22, Dylan, 18, and Caitlin, 13. They hadn’t seen their father for almost three years. When she saw him Caitlin burst into tears.
“It feels great to be home. It was a long ordeal, but now it’s time to get on with my life,” said Young.
Before Young stepped off the plane David said: “It’s been very difficult to be without our dad for so long. I’ve missed the ordinary things – having a beer with him, going cycling, going camping. I can’t wait to do those things again.”
In 2010 Young was found guilty of murder in an Afghan court and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was increased to 16 years after the prosecutor tried to secure the death sentence through an appeal. Later it was reduced to seven years.
The investigation and trial were described by Thinus Coetzee, a human rights activist working for Amnesty International, as deeply flawed.
“The very section of the Afghan Criminal Code under which he was found guilty should have exonerated him on the grounds of self-defence. It was bizarre. None of the paperwork made any sense, so to this day we don’t really know what crime he was convicted of,” said Coetzee on Thursday.
In 2009 Young was working as a deputy project manager in Afghanistan for Anham, a US logistics supply company, which had been contracted by the US government’s Counter Narcotics Advisory team.
On October 1, 2009, while returning to the Anham compound in Helmund Province, an Afghan security guard approached Young’s vehicle, threatened him and started firing at the vehicle. Young returned fire, killing the guard, Abdul Ghafar.
Young said Ghafar had enlisted a group of armed men to forcibly take control of the compound after being dismissed as the site’s deputy security leader.
“None of the courts contested that my only motive for firing at Ghafar was the fact that he was firing at me. None of the courts contested the fact that the killing of Ghafar was not premeditated. And yet, inexplicably, I was found guilty of murder. A conviction for which I could potentially have received the death penalty. There is no justice in Afghanistan.”
Young said he felt helpless during the court proceedings.
Awaiting trial in a communal cell with 14 other prisoners, Young said he had to develop “eyes in the back of his head”. He was housed with Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, and on at least one occasion had to fight for his life.
After his conviction he was moved to the Counter Narcotics Justice Centre, and then transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi, a maximum security facility east of Kabul where he had minimal contact with other prisoners.
“We had beds, enough food and the guards treated me with decency. Having said that, the restrictiveness of the set-up was terrible. On my birthday my colleagues bought me a cake, but I was not allowed to have a single piece.”
The remission of Young’s sentence and his early release was made possible by a decree issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“I qualified in general terms, like many other prisoners in Afghanistan. Karzai is impervious to international pressure on such issues, so I don’t believe that the campaign for my freedom swayed him,” said Young.
Coetzee said he had “the highest praise” for the SA government’s roles in engaging with Afghan authorities.
Clayson Monyela said the Department of International Relations and Co-operation was delighted at the news of Young’s release.