Afghan Torture Allegations Shine Spotlight On Prisoner Transfers
January 24, 2013
by Frud Bezhan
International pressure is mounting on the Afghan government to take action against widespread torture, mistreatment, and sexual abuse in Afghan detention facilities.
The calls for reform have grown louder since the release on January 20 of a damning UN report that says a growing number of prisoners are being tortured in government custody. The report lists electric shock, genital twisting, beatings with pipes, and threats of execution and rape among the methods used.
The findings of the report, issued by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), have raised serious concerns for Afghanistan's Western allies as NATO transfers hundreds of its detainees to Afghan control. Possible disruption of the prisoner transfers, which is a key part of the security transition, could complicate the expected withdrawal of NATO-led forces next year.
A similar UN report in 2012 that claimed hundreds of detainees had been tortured in Afghan intelligence and police detention centers led NATO to halt transfers to several Afghan jails. This year's report concluded that almost one-third of all NATO detainees recently transferred to Kabul have been abused.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the findings could once again complicate the handover process. That includes the transfer of detainees still held by the U.S. military at Bagram prison, a huge detention center on the grounds of an American military base.
Handovers In Doubt?
Kugelman says claims of torture will make it difficult for the NATO-led coalition to hand over prisoners. He suggests the coalition may enforce stricter preconditions for transfers as a result.
'What could happen is that NATO may decide to condition the Bagram transfer on assurances and guarantees from the Afghan government that it will actually investigate these allegations and assuming that they're true -- which I'm sure they are -- that they then act and do something,' Kugelman says. 'NATO can't just let this go; these [allegations] are really serious.'
Kugelman says the findings of the report could also disrupt foreign aid to Kabul. He says that under U.S. law no economic assistance can be provided to a country that is known to be involved in torture and has shown little intent in addressing it. That would raise serious concerns for Kabul, which is heavily dependent on outside assistance.
Legal issues could also derail the prisoner transfers. The International Convention Against Torture, which the United States and other NATO countries have signed, prohibits countries from transferring detainees to another state's custody where a credible risk of torture exists.
The UNAMA report found that over half of the 635 detainees it interviewed had been tortured. The interviews took place between October 2011 and October 2012.
The findings reveal an increase in the number of torture claims at police jails in the past year. The report also warns that the country's intelligence service created secret prisons and sometimes hid detainees from international observers.
Evidence Of Torture
Kabul has rejected the report, titled 'Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody: One Year On,' as 'exaggerated.' The Afghan government has since assigned a team to investigate the claims.
Among the 34 Afghan jails where UN investigators are believed to have found evidence of torture and ill-treatment is Afghanistan's notorious Pol-e Charkhi prison, the largest in the country.
Detainees there have long alleged torture and abuse at the hands of prison officials. Those allegations resurfaced after prisoners staged a four-day hunger strike on January 14 and sewed their lips together in protest of what they called widespread mistreatment, including physical and mental abuse, food deprivation, and extortion.
One of those protesting was Mohammad Hakim, a prisoner who spoke by telephone to RFE/RL on January 18. Hakim, who did not say why he had been imprisoned or for how long, said at least 35 inmates took part in the strike.
'Prison officials don't let us have Korans and we don't have enough clothes to wear,' Hakim said. '[We are getting sick because] our cells have open toilets. The prison officials are placing severe restrictions on what we are allowed to do.'
Hadi, another prisoner at the facility, says inmates who have served their sentences are being denied release, while others eligible to have their sentences reduced under a presidential decree are being forced to pay prison officials bribes of up to $2,000 to secure their freedom.
'Those prisoners that pay walk free,' Hadi says. 'Those of us who say we don't have money are told by prison officials that our personal dossiers have been lost.'
'Culture Of Impunity'
The Attorney General's Office has launched an investigation into the allegations at Pol-e Charkhi, which is run by the Afghan government and houses more than 3,000 inmates, including ex-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, convicted murderers, and drug smugglers.
The increase in the number of torture cases in Afghan jails comes despite a coordinated attempt by Kabul and NATO to stop it. Afghan intelligence and police officials have been trained in interrogation techniques that respect human rights. There have also been efforts to closely monitor detention facilities.
But Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer at the Open Society Foundation who works on civilian casualties and conflict-related detentions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, says only accountability measures will stop and prevent torture from occurring.
Rogers says the Afghan government has so far resorted to shuffling guilty individuals within the system rather than punishing them.
'The top priority has to be addressing a culture of impunity and making sure those individuals who have been found to be responsible for abuse or abuse was going on under their watch are held accountable,' Rogers says. 'A message needs to be sent throughout the Afghan judicial, intelligence, and security system that abuse will not be tolerated, at the highest level.'
With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
Copyright (c) 2013. 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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