In response to a startling 84-page report by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), discussions about Afghan prison conditions once again appear throughout international headlines. Unlike Abu Ghraib, however, these documented accounts of torture, inhumane prison conditions and a complete lack of due process were found across and throughout detention centers in Afghanistan. Given the ongoing nature of the conflict, such conditions may not come as a surprise and may even be expected by some. But, both international law and national Afghan law expressly prohibit such abuses. For numerous reasons the accounts of beatings, electric shock, stress positions, sexual abuse, and twisting and wrenching of genitals is of great international concern. First and foremost, the affected detainees are human beings and have been subjected to treatment that we, the international community, have prohibited as a matter of law. Second, the widespread and systematic nature of the torture and cruel and inhumane treatment may have serious implications for international military forces like the United States. Third, where the UNAMA report constitutes “credible evidence” of serious human rights abuses, the Leahy Amendment could be invoked to halt U.S. funding of Afghan security forces.
The UNAMA featured news report summarizes the findings of the larger report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The largest share of blame is placed on two Afghan security institutions: 1) the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which is the national security and intelligence arm of the government; and 2) the Afghan National Police (ANP), which handles criminal and conflict-related offenses. Although torture and abuse was more common among the NDS detainees, ANP prisoners were also subject to serious human rights violations. Prior to arriving at NDP and ANP holding facilities, many of the detainees were in custody of international military forces before being transferred. The UNAMA news report emphasizes that these transfers could implicate military officials in violations of the Convention against Torture. Other serious concerns mentioned in this abridged version of the report include Afghan prosecutors’ over-reliance on confessions, and the outright lack of defenses counsel—only 1 of 324 detainees interviewed had an attorney.
Alissa J. Rubin of the New York Times also speaks to the gravity of the UNAMA report by highlighting the words of a detainee, “even stones confess here.” An underlying question in Rubin’s article is whether American officials or the military were aware of their Afghan counterparts’ conduct. In specific, if such officials “benefited from information obtained from suspects who had been tortured,” they may be complicit in such conduct. Although the report was just released, NATO and state officials have already taken action. Many detainee transfers have been temporarily halted and plans are in place for a monitoring program and modern interrogation training.
Authors of the Washington Post article, Afghan Detainees Tortured in Prison, U.N. Says, also question the extent of U.S. knowledge about the situation inside Afghan prisons. This article reflects upon new and additional difficulties the U.S. military will now face in the much-awaited withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, the U.S. continues to capture and detain suspected insurgents in a detention center near Bagram air base. This facility alone holds more than 2,500 prisoners, and is expected to expand its capacity to as many as 5,500. But, the recent decision to halt detainee transfers last month may place increased pressure on the Bagram facility. In order to address these issues, a U.S.-led coalition began a “six-phase plan to reform the detention system.”
In sum, the UNAMA report leaves no doubt about the prevalence of widespread and systematic torture and abuse of detainees in Afghan prisons. Prisoners are also subjected to arbitrary detention practices and lack due process guarantees. Although many of the detainees are “suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devises, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict,” international legal protections must be upheld. In specific, the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment prohibits the torture cited in the UNAMA report, even during a time of war or exceptional circumstances. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees due process rights to protect against arbitrary detention, in addition to assuring fair, speedy and consistent judicial proceedings. The international community must hold Afghan institutions such as the NDS and ANP responsible for the widespread and systematic violations of international law. Lastly, to the extent that the U.S. and other international forces were complicit in such violations, they too must face criminal charges.