(New York) -- With fighting in Kandahar intensifying , Human Rights Watch today issued an urgent appeal to all anti-Taliban forces to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners in their custody.

Human Rights Watch also urged the U.S. and British governments to provide logistic support to ensure such treatment so that there will be no recurrence of the kind of killings that took place at Qala-i-Jhangi fort last week.

"None of the forces fighting the Taliban have the capacity to keep large numbers of detainees in safe custody," said Sidney Jones, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. "The slaughter in Mazar-i Sharif risks being repeated unless the U.S. and British governments take preventive action."

At a minimum, Human Rights Watch said, the U.S. and Britain should help set up procedures for the safe surrender, disarming, and detention of captured fighters.

The U.S. and Britain should also make clear that no further military assistance will be given to any Afghan commander whose forces commit serious abuses against captured fighters or who takes no action against those responsible.

Finally, there is an urgent need to establish credible judicial procedures to try those in custody who stand accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch said it supports calls for an inquiry into the deaths at the Qali-i-Jhangi fort. Although the evidence available to date suggests that the prisoners did indeed take up arms against their captors – that the revolt was genuine and unexpected, not a pretext for slaughter – enough troubling questions remain about the suppression of the revolt to warrant a thorough and independent investigation, said Jones.

Human Rights Watch stressed that this investigation must be independent, ideally led by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, staffed with experienced field investigators, and speedily deployed. The investigation should at a minimum establish:

  • whether adequate steps had been taken at the outset to deter a revolt and to prevent access to weapons used for the revolt
  • the circumstances under which Taliban prisoners who had had their hands bound were killed;
  • the treatment of any Taliban fighters who tried to surrender, became incapacitated, or otherwise became hors de combat after the fighting began;
  • the steps taken by the Northern Alliance and by U.S. bombers that came to its assistance to targeting prisoners who were taking no part in the uprising or who were incapacitated, including the prisoners who were bound;
  • the circumstances that caused there to be almost no survivors;
  • whether any orders were given by Northern Alliance commanders that there should be no survivors;
  • whether the Northern Alliance or the U.S. military committed any other violations of the laws of war in responding to the prison uprising.

In addition, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. and the U.K. governments to carry out their own investigation of the events at the fort. U.S. military advisers played a prominent and visible role in advising the Northern Alliance during its military response to the prison uprising, and, as noted, U.S. warplanes bombed the fort during the uprising.

The humane treatment of all persons not actively taking part in hostilities, including detained or surrendered enemy soldiers, is a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). It must be respected in all circumstances, whether the conflict is considered an international or internal armed conflict, and applied for the benefit of all persons held by an armed force, be they prisoners of war, combatants without prisoner-of-war status, or detained civilians.

Prohibitions include summary executions, torture, humiliating and degrading treatment, and the use of detainees as human shields. The requirement of humane treatment also includes a positive obligation to protect against dangers posed by other detainees.