KABUL, Afghanistan -- Just before President Hamid Karzai set off today on trip to Washington, the Afghan government freed 80 detainees Friday, part of a continuing effort to assert its sovereignty over the contentious issue of how prisoners are handled.
U.S. officials have long complained that the Afghans release prisoners too soon, raising the risk that many will return to the battlefield. Afghan officials counter that they are not legally allowed to detain people suspected of being insurgents without enough evidence to prosecute them, even if the Americans say they are too dangerous to free.
The releases stem from an agreement the U.S. side made last March to eventually transfer control of the Parwan Detention Facility, located at Bagram Air Base, to the Afghan government. Of thousands of prisoners captured by U.S. forces who have come under Afghan control, close to 1,000 have been released over the last year.
But Friday was a rare instance when the government made a public spectacle of releasing a large number together. A fleet of local television journalists lined up to film the ceremony, where the prisoners embraced family members most had not seen in more than a year.
"The Afghan government is not trying to open the gates of its prisons and release all prisoners," said Gen. Ghulam Farooq, superintendent of the Bagram Prison, which holds about 3,000 prisoners. "Those who are found guilty will be punished, but those who are innocent should be released." But he added, "We don't know how many are guilty and how many are innocent," a reference to limited evidence that, Afghan officials contend, makes holding them impossible under Afghan law.
On Friday, Gen. Farooq dismissed the notion that release of the detainees was contentious, saying it was part of the plan all along. "The Afghan government and the Americans agreed that Americans would hand all prisoners to the Afghan government, and that we would make a decision about keeping and releasing them based on the enforced laws of Afghanistan," he said. "It is a 100 percent Afghan process, and the Americans don't have any problem with it. They are not involved in it at all."
U.S. officials have disputed the Afghan interpretation of the accord for the prison transfer, arguing that U.S. military authorities have veto power over who is released. To date, Americans have not shifted all Afghan prisoners they hold to government control. In addition, newly captured Afghan prisoners are being kept in U.S. custody, a procedure the Afghans have disputed.