The Washington Post

Karzai faces criticism over prison demand

One week after President Hamid Karzai demanded that the United States hand over its military prison near Bagram Airfield to Afghan officials by month’s end, opposition to the plan has emerged from human rights advocates appointed by Karzai.

The fracture comes in response to Karzai’s claim that troubled Afghan institutions are prepared to bring to trial and detain thousands of suspected militants.

After visiting more than a dozen prisons across the country in recent months, members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission say a rapid transfer of the Parwan detention center would put the safety of thousands of prisoners in jeopardy and strain a feeble judicial system.

“We’re simply not ready. The conditions in Afghan prisons raised serious concerns, and the prison system is not ready to take responsibility for such a large facility,” said a top commission official who has examined the Afghan detention system and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “Karzai thinks it’s easy. He thinks the prison is a little 20-room facility. He has never been there. He has no idea how complicated it is.”

The commission is preparing this month to release a report that details the widespread problems in Afghan-run prisons, including physical abuse and a legal system that detains prisoners for 10 months or more without trial.

On Tuesday, the Interior Ministry issued a scathing critique of the prison system, pointing to the infiltration of insurgents and drug use inside prisons as well as general security concerns.

“Despite your efforts and commitments, the Afghan prisons and detention centers are facing many challenges that need practical efforts to be tackled,” said Interior Minister Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.

A number of international groups have documented abuses in the country’s detention centers in recent years. But officials on Afghanistan’s human rights panel have gone a step further in not only identifying abuse in more than a dozen Afghan prisons but also linking their findings to what they see as a flaw in the president’s decree: Those who would inherit Parwan have not yet proved themselves competent. Commission members said they also worried that the Afghan government would be unable to finance the costly detention operation without assistance.

Karzai’s demand is seen by many here as an attempt to assert his independence after agreeing to diplomatic talks with the Taliban at the United States’ behest.

Karzai has vacillated in recent months between compromise and confrontation with Washington. At a conference last month in Bonn, Germany, he pleaded for U.S. assistance beyond 2014 — when the United States is due to remove all combat troops — before condemning the United States for its night raids. Karzai supported the opening of a Taliban diplomatic office in Qatar last week and then days later made his demand about the Parwan detention center.

Members of the human rights commission found that conditions at Parwan were better than any Afghan prison they visited — a blow to Karzai’s advisers, who claimed that problems with the U.S.-run detention make its transfer to Afghan control all the more important.

The Parwan detention center holds about 2,600 prisoners, ranging from suspected low-level insurgents to high-profile Taliban members. U.S. officials, caught off guard by Karzai’s announcement last week, have long expressed concern that the Afghan legal system is not strong enough to warrant a handover of the military prison.

Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said negotiations with the Afghan government over transfer of the facility were ongoing.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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