The World’s Most Secretive Prisons


What’s worse than being stuck in a prison? Being in a prison that is hidden from the world, where the length of your sentence is just as hazy as your human rights. Many countries have such facilities for the prisoners they can’t or won’t process through their normal prison system, and as one might expect, these places are usually far from pleasant. Here are some of the most awful ones.  

10. Salt Pit

Salt Pit was an infamous CIA black site in Afghanistan, and it featured all the terrifying amenities you may have heard about such facilities: loud music, prisoners left shackled with their hands above their heads for 22 hours a day, people being dragged through filthy corridors for beatings and interrogation under torture. 

The 64 people detained in the Salt Pit were suspected high-level terrorist organization members, such as bodyguards for assorted warlords, including one Osama bin Laden. The site started its operations in 2002, when the post-9/11 War on Terror was at its initial feeding frenzy. However, it soon became apparent that the site was taking more than a few liberties with things such as prisoners’ rights and, for that matter, basic humanity. During the facility’s very first year of operations, a detainee named Gul Rahman died when the staff beat him up and left him half-naked and chained to a cold concrete floor. Rahman officially perished of hypothermia, though there were also numerous cuts and bruises all over his body. Meanwhile, the guy who gave the order to put him in shackles received a $2,500 award for great work.  

After two years of inhuman conditions, the public caught wind of the Salt Pit. A Senate hearing discovered that the site was often manned by entirely unsupervised and untrained officers, which led to a culture of brutality and torture that even the CIA itself didn’t know about. 

9. China’s Black Jails

It’s hard to say anything specific about China’s “black jails,” because despite human rights organizations insisting otherwise, the Chinese government itself is adamant that such detention centers don’t exist. However, journalists and activists have reported visiting these facilities, either willingly or otherwise. 

A typical “black jail” is described as an empty government building, full of “civilians” who are pretty clearly cops in plain clothes. Reports indicate that these sites exist largely to abduct petitioners (people who actively seek corrections to miscarriages of justice in their precincts) from the street. Once you’re in one of these places, there’s no telling how long you stay in and what will happen. There might be psychological, physical and even sexual abuse. You might be let go after a few days, or have to bribe your way out after several months. One Swedish human rights activist living in Beijing says that in 2016, he was abducted in the middle of the night, taken to a “black jail” interrogation facility and held there for 23 days. He was thoroughly traumatized by the experience, which involved late-night marathon interrogation sessions and sleep deprivation torture.  

8. UAE’s secret prisons in Yemen

In 2011, the country of Yemen, which is one of the larger Arab states, experienced a series of revolts that ousted longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh and sent the country spiraling into the Yemen conflict, which escalated into a war scenario where pretty much everyone keeps committing violations. Even before that, the country’s in-fighting had failed to stick inside its own borders, and had spilled on Saudi Arabia’s side. 

 In 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia staged an intervention and started “liberating” the area, which brings us to the subject of secret prisons. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 the United Arab Emirates built a large prison facility in the city of Aden, and kept it so hush-hush that we only learned of it thanks to satellite images. Throughout 2016 and 2017, the prison kept growing, and “hundreds of detainees” were essentially disappeared from the world for months. This wasn’t the only secret prison in Yemen, either: Reports indicate that there is a whole network of such detention facilities, run either by the UAE or local troops trained by them. 

Prisoners of such locations can expect a whole host of interesting torture methods, such as the infamous Grill, where the victim is “tied on a spit like a roast and spun in the circle of fire.” Oh, and it looks like the U.S. was also around, lending a hand in the interrogation process. However, American officials say that they have no idea about any human rights abuse in the facilities. 

7. The LGBTQ prisons of Chechnya

In 2018, worrying reports started to surface about the treatment of LGBTQ citizens of the Chechnyan region of Russia. According to the St. Petersburg-based Russian LGBT Network, the area has been hauling its sexual minorities off to secret prisons, where they have been subjected to an array of tortures that have included forced starvation and electric shocks. What’s worse, this isn’t just some prejudiced group of gung-ho jailers doing it — the report indicates that the abuse was “directed by the highest officials of Chechnya.” 

Now, to be fair, these reports are coming from a decidedly Russian organization, and Russia is a country with an extremely dodgy history with both Chechnya (which, to be fair, is a part of Russia these days) and the LGBTQ community. Still, while it’s tempting to believe that the powers that be might just be spreading misinformation to make a notoriously difficult region look bad, activists have continued to report assorted LGBTQ purges in Chechnya as recently as 2019, so clearly there’s something bad going on… and when “purge” is a term is already on the table, secret prisons for the “purgees” aren’t that far-fetched of an idea anymore. 

6. Ukraine’s secret prison

Human rights organizations and alleged former detainees have long claimed that Ukraine’s security service SBU used to operate a secret prison, but recently, journalists have uncovered a whole bunch of evidence that this may very well have been the case. According to reports, the SBU had an “official” detaining center in the city of Kyiv, but evidently they weren’t all that fond of that, seeing as they operated another, secret one in Kharkiv. 

It’s said that the secret prison operated between 2014 and 2016, and seems to have been largely reserved for people who supported Russia, with whom Ukraine has been in conflict since 2014. 

Apart from the heavy allegations that this secret facility has existed, details of its actual operation are quite scarce. Some alleged former detainees say the prison operated under the guise of a hospital, and that they were checked in to supposedly treat their kidney disease, only to be checked in under a fake name, presumably to “lose” them in the process. The SBU, of course, denies all this, but if there’s any truth to the claims, such a facility would really be its own special level of hell. After all, just imagine the already unpleasant experience of being rushed to the hospital …  only to discover that the place is actually a black site prison. 

5. Bossembele

Bossembele might not ring any bells to most people, let alone the country of Central African Republic it’s located in. It’s a secret prison facility built by the old government in 2003, and used as more or less a personal prison by President Francois Bozize, who was eventually ousted a decade later. 

Bossembele was located adjacent to a strong military camp, and the prison part of the facility was colloquially known as “Guantanamo.” It housed both common criminals and political prisoners, and its conditions made its infamous namesake look like Mar-a-Lago. One prisoner spent his 17 months inside Bossembele sleeping on a bit of cardboard, if he was lucky — if he wasn’t, his bed was the ground. He didn’t get to wash for seven months, and that’s not the only struggle he had with water: The liquid was so scarce that the prisoners sometimes had to get by on a cup of water per day. All along, Bozize’s soldiers ruled the place as they liked, handing beatings, torture and even killings to whoever they deemed (un)worthy. 

4. Ain Aouda, Morocco

To be fair, the facilities near the city of Ain Aouda probably weren’t any more or less brutal than the 50 or so CIA black sites listed in the report the Obama administration commissioned after taking over from the Bush one, but since it’s located in Morocco, which the report specifically mentions as a key co-operator country in the CIA’s assortment of secret detention and relocation programs, it’ll have to act as an example here.

The two detention locations near Ain Aouda hosted a number of non-Moroccoan prisoners who were subject to either on-location torture, or were moved to other facilities that presumably went on to provide the torture. Although the total number of “black site” prisoners that have gone through Morocco’s secret prisons is estimated to be just around 13 (which, of course, is precisely 13 too many), the country’s authorities have reportedly been extremely keen to stomp on any public knowledge of their involvement in human rights violations, and as a result, they have been pretty hard on human rights organizations, specifically Amnesty International. That approach… really doesn’t seem like it’ll convince anyone of the country’s good intentions, but there you go. 

3. Mihail Kogalniceanu air base

Very few countries in the world are willing to step up and say: “Hey, we totally ran a CIA black site back in the day.” Romania is no exception, but their argument is somewhat watered down by the fact that the country’s own airport officials have come up to discuss some of the strange things they’ve seen at the heavily guarded Mihail Kogalniceanu airfield. According to officers who served in the air base, the facility had one particularly secluded corner that often seemed to show surprising activity at 1 a.m. Between 2004 and 2005, this was the time of day when snipers would suddenly appear on rooftops, black minivans would materialize, and large, strange packages that looked an awful lot like bound human beings were moved around.  

Romania’s involvement in black site activity was revealed in a report by Dick Marty, an operative for the European Union’s human rights arm, Council of Europe. Marty says that the prisoners were shackled, isolated and nude, in utter disregard of the continent’s Convention of Human Rights. Former Romanian security bigshot Ioan Talpes has also confirmed the existence of a secret prison facility at the air base, quoting extremely confidential arrangements that gave the CIA free reign to use their corner of the airbase how they wished, with the Romanians agreeing to secure the perimeter and steering clear of whatever was going on inside it. 

2. North Korea’s secret prison camp system 

Look, North Korea absolutely doesn’t have a secret prison system. They’ve told us as much, and has there ever been any reason to suspect they’re not being completely upfront about their operations? You know, apart from many years of reports trickling out of the country that reveal the brutal, brutal truth. 

According to interviews with around 60 defectors who have escaped the secret prison camps North Korea totally doesn’t have, there are up to 200,000 people imprisoned in them, and such facilities are so common that they have a name: Kwan-li-so. Hidden deep in the mountainous parts of the country, these camps house detainees who are guilty of the crimes of “wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge,wrong-association, or wrong-class-background,” a.k.a. things the average Westerner does on a normal Saturday night. Trials are treated as an optional extra, and sentences can be so long that they’re hereditary. If you commit a wrong-whatever crime, your children and even your grandchildren might also have to spend their lives at a camp, fighting every day to get enough food to survive and subject to whatever tortures, forced labor and executions the guards feel like unleashing on any given day. 

1. India’s Papa II

In the 1990s, Indian military and local guerrillas clashed in the Kashmir region of the country, and the soldiers’ methods of finding the enemy could get pretty brutal. The “ID parade” involved rounding up the boys and men of an area and showing them one by one to masked informers. Whoever the informer pointed at was taken away were often taken to interrogation center, or tortured and even killed without much delay. If they were really unlucky, they were taken to the Papa II prison camp, which was a place you’d rarely walk away from. 

A 19-year-old Muslim student named Masroof Sultan is one of the lucky (and presumably rather few) people to survive Papa II, and his account of the place is harrowing, to say the least. After he was picked out in an ID parade for reasons he did not know — though he suspects it may be simply because one of the soldiers wanted to have his fancy jumper — he was beaten up, blindfolded and taken away for interrogation. Despite his insistence that he was innocent, Sultan was stripped naked and beaten up so badly that several of his bones broke. After that, they took the poor, nude, broken young man and threw him in a cell of the infamous Papa II, which was on an old estate of a local ruler. 

Sultan’s time in Papa II was short, but that didn’t make it any less painful. The guards threw cold water at him, attached metal rings on his genitals and both feet, and administered electric shocks. Finally, he was taken away to a nearby flood channel, where a group of soldiers shot him several times. Miraculously, he survived, but he was paralyzed for the rest of his life. 

Oh, and of course it gets even worse. Masroof Sultan was far from the only victim of Papa II. Though the soldiers of India’s Border Security Force used the facility to interrogate and murder thousands of people, it was actually just one of seven similar centers in the region.

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