Anti-Torture Efforts in Afghanistan Haven't Worked, U.N. Says

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Intense efforts to halt torture and other harsh coercive methods that are used in some Afghan intelligence and police detention centers have failed to produce any appreciable improvement in the treatment of detainees, according to a report released on Sunday by the United Nations, raising questions for the international military coalition here.

The report, titled "Treatment of Conflict Related Detainees in Afghan Custody," offered a grim tour of Afghanistan's detention facilities, where even adolescents have reported abuse like beatings with hoses and pipes and threats of sodomy.

Despite concerted efforts for more than a year to train intelligence and police officials in interrogation techniques that respect human rights, the United Nations investigation found that incidences of torture by the police had risen in the last year.

In the case of the intelligence service, the United Nations reported a lower incidence of torture. But it was not clear whether that finding reflected improved behavior as much as it did a decrease in the number of detainees handed over to the intelligence service by the international military coalition. And some detainees have alluded to newsecret interrogation centers.

The Afghan government rejected the report's specific allegations but said that there were some abuses and that it had taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of detainees. The government gave United Nations officials access to those held in all but one detention facility.

Among the questions raised by the report is whether the pervasiveness of torture will make it difficult for the American military to hand over those being held in the Parwan Detention Facility, also known as Bagram Prison, as required under the agreement reached last week in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

The international Convention Against Torture, which the United States has signed, prohibits nations from sending detainees "to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

The United Nations did not look at the Parwan Detention Facility, in part because it is not yet wholly under Afghan control. But there could be questions about whether, given the inadequacies throughout the Afghan system, it would violate the torture convention to transfer those prisoners under American control to the Afghans. According to some estimates, 700 to 900 prisoners are still in American custody there.

The militaryis confident that the Afghan section of the Parwan center follows all of the human rights guidelines on the treatment of detainees, said Col. Thomas Collins, a senior spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which is known as ISAF. And, although conditions could worsen, or prisoners could be transferred to other facilities where there was abuse, the Americans cannot do anything about that.

"We can never completely rule out the chance of torture by the government, but in its own Constitution it prohibits torture, and it is a signatory of the torture convention," he said. "What we have to have is reasonable assurances that the people will be treated well and will not be tortured."

But the report underscored just how difficult it is for ISAF to have confidence in the government's assurances, given the reality at Afghan detention facilities.

Even before the report's official publication, it had considerable impact on Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan. On Jan. 11, after reviewing an early copy, he ordered a halt in transfers of detainees who were picked up on the battlefield to all of the 34 Afghan detention sites that the report cited for abuse.

After a United Nations report on torture in 2011, the international coalition suspended transfers of battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan detention sites. ISAF resumed transfers to most of those centers after certifying that they were complying with human rights protocols.

Then, in October 2012, the coalition received new reports of torture and abuse and halted some of the transfers that it had restarted only months before, the United Nations report said. The United Nations has briefed ISAF at several points in the course of its research, which included interviews with more than 600 detainees as well as employees of the Afghan intelligence service, the Afghan police, judges and prosecutors.

In a letter appended to the report by General Allen to Jan Kubis, the United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, he describes for the first time the enormous efforts that the coalition and he personally has made to stem the abuse. The ISAF approach, which the United Nations praises, includes training, spot checks and monitoring of detainee treatment.

Despite General Allen's requests over the past eight months that Afghan officials take action in 80 cases of suspected abuse -- and in some cases asking them to remove specific individuals accused of abuse -- "to date Afghan officials have acted in only one instance," General Allen wrote. In that case, a senior intelligence official in Kandahar Province was merely moved to another province, he said.

The Afghan government's 20-page response, which is included in the United Nations report, rejected all specific allegations, including "beating with rubber pipes or water pipes, forced confession, suspension, twisting of the detainees' penises and wrenching of the detainees' testicles, death threats, sexual abuse and child abuse."

The response, written by Rahmatullah Nabil, a former director of intelligence and now the deputy national security adviser, said the government "does not entirely rule out the abuse and ill treatment by staff at detention centers, but this is due to a lack of capacity and sound training of these organs." The level of torture reflected in the United Nations report "is exaggerated," he said.

At the same time, both the Interior Ministry and the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan government's intelligence service, acknowledged problems in detainees' treatment, and listed many steps they were taking to improve it. But the intelligence service, clearly angry about the report's findings, also charged that the United Nations had manufactured "facts by making accusations to discredit investigations and judicial prosecution processes."

The United Nations study, which took a year to complete, describes a country in conflict where a prime goal of the security officials is to remove potentially dangerous individuals by detaining them and torturing them until they confess to being involved with insurgents. The suspects can then be prosecuted and sentenced.

Torture is hardly new in Afghanistan. When the Communists ruled, the intelligence service, then known as the Khad, was widely feared for its rough treatment of suspects. The justice system admits confessions in court proceedings and often relies on them to prove guilt, indirectly supporting the practice of abuse. Changing such an ingrained culture would take an enormous effort, both the United Nations and ISAF officials say.

Georgette Gagnon, the United Nations director of human rights for Afghanistan, pointed to a "persistent lack of accountability for perpetrators of torture, with few investigations and no prosecutions for those responsible."

"The findings highlight that torture cannot be addressed by training, inspections and directives alone, but requires sound accountability measures to stop and prevent its use," she said.

General Allen, however, noted that international influence is on the wane as the formal military withdrawal nears. "Solving this problem will take commitment on the part of the Afghans and their leaders, over which ISAF's influence is limited and will probably only decline along with our presence," he wrote.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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