U.S. Military Stops Sending Detainees to Some Afghan Prisons on Rights Fears

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- The American military has suspended the transfer of detainees to some Afghan prisons out of concern over continuing human rights abuses and torture, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Wednesday in response to questions about the subject.

In addition, the American-led coalition said that it had asked the Afghan government to investigate allegations of torture by Afghan Local Police units that have been trained and advised by American Special Operations forces.

The moves were a setback on detention issues that have created tension between the countries, and on years of international efforts to promote humane treatment of prisoners. And under American law, the torture allegations could also set off significant financial aid cutoffs to parts of the Afghan security forces, which play a crucial role in plans for an American withdrawal that are based on handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans as early as this spring.

Afghan control over all detention in the country has been a primary demand of President Hamid Karzai and was a central issue of the summit talks between Mr. Karzai and President Obama in Washington just a week ago.

Though a Pentagon official said Wednesday that the new suspension would not halt detainee transfers at the main Bagram Prison, which has been the primary source of tension, it presents an added complication for American troops in the field, who now in some places will not be able to turn over detainees to local Afghan authorities.

"Afghan military forces and police that operate effectively and with respect for human rights are central to the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman on Afghan policy.

Transfer of prisoners to Afghan control throughout the country was restored last year, after it had been cut off in response to a United Nations investigation published in October 2011 that found widespread use of torture at prisons run by Afghan police and intelligence agencies.

Now a second United Nations report on the subject is to be released, possibly as early as next week, and according to American officials the move by the security assistance force was prompted by revelations expected in that report. United Nations officials involved, however, had no comment.

Afghan officials denied there was any torture or abuse of prisoners while in Afghan custody. "I dismiss all the allegations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan prisons," said Amir Mohammad Jamshidi, general director of the prisons department in the Ministry of Interior. "I have not heard anything about Americans' decision to halt or cut their support or transfer of detainees to the Afghan side," he said.

But a spokesman for the security assistance force, Jamie Graybeal, said prisoner transfers had been suspended "as a result of information I.S.A.F. has determined to be credible." He added: "In the remaining 23 months of the I.S.A.F. mission, we will continue to support the Afghan government in its efforts to improve problems identified."

There have also been a series of concerns raised about the Afghan Local Police units, which are recruited and trained by American Special Operations troops in villages in heavily contested areas. Some of those units have changed sides, and been involved in serious abuses, including rapes and murders.

"We have formally requested that the Ministry of Interior investigate allegations of torture by the A.L.P.," Mr. Graybeal said. "I.S.A.F. takes all reports of human rights violations seriously, and we are committed to the humane treatment of detainees."

Both actions by the International Security Assistance Force were apparently in anticipation of legal provisions -- informally known as the Leahy law, after its champion, United States Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat -- which prohibit Defense and State Department financing to foreign government agencies that practice torture or other human rights abuses and take no action to punish those responsible. At stake are billions of dollars in direct American aid that will essentially pay the salaries of every member of Afghanistan's security forces for years to come -- but which would legally not be payable under the Leahy provision if torture and other abuse continues.

"It is known that the Afghan security forces have committed abuses, including extrajudicial killings of civilians and the mistreatment of prisoners," said Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Senator Leahy. "They have not been accountable in ways Senator Leahy believes they should be."

Pentagon officials acknowledged that certain Afghan commanders had been identified as potential violators of human rights, and that steps had been taken to prevent Defense Department money from supporting those commanders and their units, in keeping with the Leahy law.

A spokesman for the NATO Special Operations Component Command in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, said there had been no financing cutbacks under the Leahy law to the Afghan Local Police program. He said it was continuing to grow, and had been extended from a five-year program, as initially planned, to one to be continued to 2025 by the Afghan authorities. He declined to comment on the security assistance force request that the Afghan authorities investigate accusations of Afghan Local Police torture.

"There has been some misbehavior by A.L.P., there are members who have violated Afghan law and who do things they shouldn't do," Colonel Bryant said. "Show me a police program anywhere in the world that is perfect."

The Afghan general in charge of the program nationwide, Gen. Alisha Ahmadzai, acknowledged concerns about the forces, but said officials had acted to prosecute abusers and insisted that most of the 20,000 local police members did a good job. "We know that there are some problems and complaints from our local police forces about the A.L.P., and therefore we have arrested 65 or 66 local police officers, who were accused of murder, rape, theft, torture or dereliction of duty," he said.

Colonel Bryant said in most places Afghan Local Police units had been important in fighting insurgents and had suffered three times as many attacks by the insurgents as other Afghan security forces, which he said was a measure of their importance in the war.

Recruited in their local communities and vouchsafed by elders in a process overseen mostly by Army Special Operations troops, the local police units receive less pay and training than normal police units.

"One of the beauties of the A.L.P. program is that it is Afghan-sustainable," Colonel Bryant said, adding that by June, 15,000 of the local policemen would have been completely transferred from oversight by Special Operations troops to purely Afghan authority and support.

Critics of the program, however, have raised concerns that the local units are essentially militias with insufficient accountability to the Afghan authorities -- echoing an initial concern of Mr. Karzai's when the program was started.

Azam Ahmed and Habib Zahori contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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