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Afghanistan: Rights Group Criticizes U.S. Military Conduct

By Frank Csongos

The U.S. administration maintains it follows the laws of war in Afghanistan. But a new report is questioning how the U.S. military is treating detainees in that country.

Washington, 8 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An independent U.S. human rights organization says U.S. forces in Afghanistan have arbitrarily detained civilians, mistreated prisoners, and employed excessive force in making arrests.

The organization, Human Rights Watch, issued a 59-page report today detailing the allegations. The study concludes that the U.S.-administered system of arrest and detention in Afghanistan violates the rule of law. The U.S. military has denied the allegations.

Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL: "There are many people who were picked up in Afghanistan who have nothing to do with the war -- taxi drivers, farmers, villagers -- and they are disappearing into the black hole that we describe in the report. And this is not only a violation of the legal regime that applies in that case, but also is breeding a lot of distrust and resentment in Afghanistan."

Human Rights Watch conducted its research in 2003 and early this year. The group says several released detainees have stated that U.S. forces beat them, doused them with cold water, and subjected them to freezing temperatures. According to the report, some of the detainees claim they were forced to stay awake, or to stand or kneel in painful positions for extended periods of time.

The report also describes frequent arbitrary arrests of civilians, apparently based on mistaken or faulty intelligence, and numerous cases of civilians who were held incommunicado for a long time.

Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that the charges leveled and conclusions reached by Human Rights Watch are not true. He says Human Rights Watch appears to disregard the fact that Afghanistan continues to be a war zone. "They have a lack of understanding, perhaps, of the law of war and the present environment that coalition forces operate in [in] Afghanistan," he said. "Afghanistan is a combat zone, and forces here are engaged in combat operations against [a] determined enemy force."

Hilferty says U.S. forces are instructed to adhere to international law governing military conduct. "We apply appropriate rules of engagement for combat operations," he said. "We are in full compliance with the laws of war."

Human Rights Watch notes in its report that U.S. President George W. Bush and officials in his administration stated last June that the United States does not torture or mistreat detainees in U.S. custody. But the report says the United States has refused to allow any independent observers access to detention facilities in Afghanistan, except for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty said" "The Red Cross does have access to our detainees' facilities. I was just at Bagram air base a week ago, and the Red Cross was coming into the base the same time I was, and they were going to the detainees' facilities."

Adams of Human Rights Watch said in an RFE/RL interview that the Red Cross does not comment publicly about the detainees' conditions. The "no comment" policy stems from an agreement with the United States. "We have no idea what conditions exist in these detention centers," he said. "There's no reason why people other than the Red Cross should not be allowed in."

Human Rights Watch has raised the case of three detainees who it says are known to have died while in U.S. custody. They include two at the Bagram air base north of Kabul in December 2002 and one at the Asadabad air base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2003. The group says the first two deaths were ruled homicides by U.S. military pathologists.

Human Rights Watch urges the U.S. military to investigate and publicly report on allegations of mistreatment at detention facilities in Afghanistan. Hilferty says the military has been doing that all along.

The report also recommends that the U.S. military create a legal system of tribunals, in conjunction with the Afghan government. This, says the report, would ensure that detainees in Afghanistan -- both combatants and civilians -- are processed and screened in accordance with applicable standards of the Geneva Conventions.

Adams says it is in the interest of the United States to make the military's conduct in Afghanistan more transparent as far as treatment of the detainees is concerned. "The lack of due process, the lack of any legal system that the U.S. is operating is such a terrible message to the rest of the world," he said.

(Shakila Khalje of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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