A prisoner of the demon barber of Kabul

When you are a westerner locked in a squalid, vermin-ridden jail in Afghanistan, surrounded by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the last thing you want to hear is that those organisations have put a $10,000 (£6,000) price on your head — and that the prison barber used to behead people.

But that’s what happened to Bill Shaw MBE, a former major who had served in the British Army for 28 years. He knew that the menacing gestures of Taliban prisoners cooped up with him in the overcrowded cells of a Kabul jail — typically a hand drawn across the throat — could mean his murder.

Not long before he had arrived, several Taliban had escaped after bribing the guards. It would be easy for a killer to bribe them to get to Shaw: $10,000 was equivalent to three years’ salary.

At night, in his dreams, “fingers or knives would reach through the bars of my cell”, Shaw recalls. “Or the barber would slip in and slice me with a cut-throat razor.”

Shaw was locked up in three Afghan jails, each more horrific than the last. Finally cleared of trumped-up corruption charges, and speaking in London a year after his release, Shaw seems calm, but his wife insists that is misleading.

“He tells the psychologist he’s fine,” Liz Shaw says in front of her husband, “but he’s not doing as well as he thinks.”

Shaw’s ordeal began last year while in Kabul working for a private company, Group 4 Securicor. Tasked with protecting diplomats, he was in charge of several hundred Afghan staff.

One day, at a checkpoint on a dangerous road, Afghan intelligence officers confiscated two G4S vehicles in a dispute over incomplete registration documents — not an unusual event in a country notorious for bureaucratic incompetence.

Shaw was told it would cost $25,000 (£15,000) to get them back. He took an interpreter to pay what he thought was a legitimate fine through an intermediary. He asked for a receipt, but did not get one.

Afterwards, on behalf of G4S, he lodged a complaint, but when he went to see the authorities he was bundled into a car and taken to prison.

Shaw had become a victim of international politics: Afghan officials, irritated by foreign complaints about widespread corruption, had made a scapegoat of this westerner.

The first prison he endured was unimaginably squalid. The cells and flooded corridors were overcrowded — and not only with humans. Rats scurried across the floor and cockroaches fell from the ceiling. The lavatory was an overflowing hole, where a prisoner had hanged himself.

For inmates in one cell, life was easier. There were carpets, duvets, sheets, fresh fruit, tea, coffee, a huge TV and heaters. Shaw was invited to join those inmates, who had money and connections outside, but he declined. It was the right decision. Later, he watched in horror as boys were delivered to the cell to be raped. As Shaw learnt, homosexuality is severely punished in Afghanistan, “but Afghans believe that only the ‘receiver’ is homosexual, not the ‘giver.’”

Used to doing everything by the rules of the British Army, he could scarcely believe the medieval punishment meted out to those who caused trouble: they were handcuffed to courtyard gates as if crucified, their feet only just touching the ground, until they passed out.

One man “crucified” this way was Shaw’s Australian cellmate, Rob Langdon, also a former soldier working in private security, who had been sentenced to hang after killing an Afghan guard. Langdon was punished after pouring scalding water over a prisoner in the showers.

As Shaw’s family campaigned in Britain for his release, his employer also stuck by him, arranging frequent visits. One Afghan colleague who visited told Shaw he should bribe his way out: “This is the way of our society.” It would cost about $15,000 (£9,000). Shaw refused. “To do so would be flying in the face of all I stood for,” he says.

But his situation seemed hopeless. His first lawyer did not even speak English. Once he was due to appear in court but the prison authorities forgot to take him.

Some had it even worse. One boy in his cell was given 10 years for standing guard over a poppy field. Others had not even been charged, and were likely to die in prison.

“The more I learnt, the more appalled I was. I had never known so many desperate people,” says Shaw.

When he was told that his life was in danger from Taliban inmates, Shaw was moved to a new, high-security prison. Here his possessions were taken from him. Without a watch, he could not even track time. “I began to go quietly bananas. I felt paranoid and began to imagine all kinds of conspiracy scenarios,” he says.

He never left his cell without having his hands cuffed to his waist, and that is how he appeared when he did eventually go to court. With his forcibly cropped hair, brown prison uniform and sunken cheeks, he looked “like a thug”, he says. “Just the sort of untrustworthy westerner who might bribe an official.”

And indeed, despite a total lack of evidence, the judge found Shaw guilty of bribing officials. He was sentenced to two years. His humiliation was complete. Back in his cell, worrying about his family, Shaw started to get palpitations. But, with a determined lawyer on his side, he appealed.

Last July, a different judge confirmed the conviction of Shaw’s interpreter — who had arranged the payment for the impounded vehicles and been jailed alongside Shaw on the same charges — but ruled that Shaw was innocent due to a lack of evidence. After four months of living in fear for his life, Shaw was free.

He thanked the judge. He says: “I hadn’t bribed him. He was an honourable man working in a dishonourable system, and I was very grateful.”

Now, seeing him play with his grandchildren, you would imagine he has overcome his ordeal. He has not, says Liz. But he is grateful to have his life back, and Liz is grateful to have him home. “Neither of us will take anything for granted again,” she says.

Kill Switch, by Bill Shaw is published next week, £14.99

1038 words. First published 5 June 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.