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Torture 'systematic' in Afghanistan, UN says

In this file photo dated Friday, Dec. 17, 2004, Afghan security police officers stand guard in front of the Pul-e Charkhi prison's gate in Kabul, Afghanistan.

MUSADEQ SADEQ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Afghanistan's internal security service and police use torture and other abusive methods to extract confessions from suspected insurgents held in a number of detention centres around the country, according to a new report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.

Interviews with 379 detainees at 47 facilities over the past year found "a compelling pattern and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment" at a number of centres, the study says.

It says 46 per cent of the detainees it spoke with recounted some sort of torture or abuse, but also noted that the Afghan government co-operated with its inquiry and neither sanctioned nor defended the abuse of prisoners.

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The UN report raises questions about the capacity of Afghanistan's fledgling government institutions to absorb the reams of human-rights laws that the country adopted under foreign tutelage in the past six years.

Its law enforcement agencies have set up mechanisms to monitor abuses, investigate complaints and govern the police. But, as underscored in the UN investigation, many of those measures remain little more than commitments on paper just three years before Afghanistan is set to assume full control of its security from NATO troops at the end of 2014.

The UN report found what it called strong evidence of torture or ill-treatment by Afghan police in several districts of Kandahar province, a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency.

Canadian soldiers and police mentoring teams operated in the province until last July, when all combat forces were withdrawn. For years, they routinely handed over suspects to the Afghans despite persistent allegations that they faced torture and other abuse.

The Afghan government, in a written response, said the accounts of torture by detainees were exaggerated and denied that torture was systematic. But it acknowledged "deficiencies," including keeping people in indefinite detention and not allowing them to see lawyers, that it said were due to a lack of training and resources.

The NATO military command in Afghanistan last month ordered its troops to stop turning over detainees to six Afghan detention centres, including the internal security service facility in Kandahar, as what it called a "prudent measure" in light of the UN findings.

NATO is spending billions of dollars on training and equipping the Afghan security forces, although the program devotes only a fraction of its resources to civilian police skills such as interrogation and human rights protections. The UN report says the internal security agency is also apparently getting foreign training, but that embassies in Kabul refused to provide details.

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The report did not cover the thousands of prisoners that American forces are holding in their own detention centre at Bagram airbase outside of Kabul.

Human Rights First, a New York-based rights group, recently charged that those detainees are held without charge, trial or the right to see the evidence against them. It also made the same point that the UN did in its report – that mistreatment of detainees is counterproductive in the overall war.

"The current system does not adequately distinguish between innocent men and those who pose a real danger to U.S. forces," the rights group said. "Unfortunately, this is more likely to fuel the insurgency than to stop it."

Revelations of detainee abuse prompted Britain and Canada to eventually suspend transfers of their prisoners to Afghan internal security detention centres in Kabul. Canada continued to send prisoners to the main Kandahar City prison, although with the caveat that the Afghans should not torture them. The treatment of those prisoners was supposed to be monitored.

Over the years of its combat mission, hundreds of detainees were transferred by Canada to Afghan detention facilities and prisons, including those where the UN investigators found torture to have occurred, according to Amir Attaran, the University of Ottawa law professor who first raised the alarm about Canada's role in shifting prisoners to the Afghans in 2007.

"Now that the UN reports and NATO agree that the Afghans keep torturing, Canada is lawfully obliged to demand its detainees be returned and relocated in a safe prison," he said. "The U.S. already has its own prison for this reason and if Canada does not act similarly, then our officials and soldiers risk prosecution for war crimes."

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The United Nations study, however, suggested that people handed over to the Afghans by Canadians have been handled differently in the past year than those detained by Afghan or other NATO forces.

In one case cited in the report, a man recounted how he had been arrested by Afghan border police when he crossed the border into Kandahar province from Pakistan last March carrying a letter someone had asked him to deliver.

He told the UN he was beaten and kicked for days by internal security officers who demanded he confess to carrying a letter for the Taliban. Everyone arrested by Afghan intelligence officers had similar experiences, unless they had been arrested by Canadians, the man is quoted as saying.

"For those arrested by Canadians, two [intelligence]officials were allocated for further interrogation and those interrogated by them never complained about ill treatment."

The internal security agency chief in Kandahar, who reportedly has since been fired, told the UN that he and his staff were aware of Afghan and international laws prohibiting torture. But he also said that dealing with suspected Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan required force to gather intelligence that could prevent deadly attacks.

According to the report, he said that "if we know the detainee is an insurgent we punish them," adding that "we have to use some methods for terrorists so they confess and give us information about what they have been doing."

Detainees told UN investigators that they had been hung by their wrists by chains from walls or ceilings, beaten with rubber hoses and electric cables, and denied access to doctors for their injuries. In several cases cited in the report, prisoners said their Afghan interrogators twisted their genitals or used electric shocks on them.

The UN report says it could document one death from torture in police and intelligence service facilities in April, 2011, in Kandahar.

The Afghan government, in its written response to the report, said its security forces treat prisoners humanely "in accordance with the Islamic and humanitarian norms." It denied that the intelligence service interrogators used electric shocks or sexual abuse, and said it tries to investigate allegations of mistreatment.

"Maybe there are deficiencies with a country stricken by war and a wave of suicide attacks and other terroristic crimes," the government said. "We do not claim perfection."

Two earlier UN reports, based on interviews beginning in 2006, also reported that torture and mistreatment were common in detention centres for people accused of crimes unrelated to the long-running war and insurgency.

The UN report says the Afghan government allowed its interviewers access to nearly all the detention centres they wanted to visit. The interviews with detainees were conducted without Afghan officials present.

About half of the detainees interviewed were charged with being members of an insurgent group. Another third were accused of possessing explosives or other weapons or having participated in failed suicide bombings. The rest said they did not know the reason they were arrested, according to the report.

The detainees did not always know who had arrested them. Some said they were picked up by NATO troops or with Afghan troops operating with NATO forces. But several said they could not determine who had arrested them because they were captured in night raids or by masked men or because they were immediately hooded when arrested.

The consequences for Canada

The UN report found what it called strong evidence of torture or ill-treatment by Afghan police in several districts of Kandahar province, a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency. Canadian soldiers and police mentoring teams operated in the province until last July, when all combat forces were withdrawn. For years, they routinely handed over suspects to the Afghans despite persistent allegations that they faced torture and other abuse.

Over the years of its combat mission, hundreds of detainees were transferred by Canada to Afghan detention facilities and prisons, including those where the UN investigators found torture to have occurred, according to Amir Attaran, the University of Ottawa law professor who first raised the alarm about Canada's role in shifting prisoners to the Afghans in 2007. "Now that the UN reports and NATO agree that the Afghans keep torturing, Canada is lawfully obliged to demand its detainees be returned and relocated in a safe prison," he said. "The U.S. already has its own prison for this reason and if Canada does not act similarly, then our officials and soldiers risk prosecution for war crimes."

The United Nations study, however, suggested that people handed over to the Afghans by Canadians have been handled differently in the past year than those detained by Afghan or other NATO forces.

In one case cited in the report, a man recounted how he had been beaten and kicked for days in the custody of internal security officers. Everyone arrested by Afghan intelligence officers had similar experiences, unless they had been arrested by Canadians, the man is quoted as saying. "For those arrested by Canadians, two [intelligence]officials were allocated for further interrogation and those interrogated by them never complained about ill treatment."

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About the Author
Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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