(New York) – President Hamid Karzai should revoke a new decree that puts detainees in Afghan-run prisons at heightened risk of torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said today. The decree, signed by Karzai on December 17, 2011, would transfer control of Afghan prisons from the Justice Ministry to the Interior Ministry, which operates the Afghan National Police, on January 10, 2012.
The proposed transfer reverses an August 2003 decree by Karzai that transferred prisons – which hold both pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners – from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry, an act then widely regarded as a crucial reform of the justice system. Placing all prisoners under Interior Ministry control increases the likelihood that the Afghan police, long implicated in torture and other ill-treatment, would have direct authority over criminal suspects during interrogation, Human Rights Watch said.
“Criminal justice in Afghanistan will not be improved by giving the police free rein of the prisons,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Greater police involvement in jails is likely to lead to more torture, not less.”
Under-resourced and poorly trained Afghan Police units frequently rely on abusive law enforcement methods, Human Rights Watch said. Giving police greater control over prisoners –in particular pretrial detainees – increases the risk of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment as they try to obtain confessions and other information from suspects.
Karzai first proposed the transfer of authority following the escape of more than 470 prisoners from a prison in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in April 2011. International donor agencies and Afghan human rights organizations opposed the transfer on the basis that the Justice Ministry, despite its own limitations, was ultimately the more appropriate ministry to be running Afghanistan’s detention facilities.
“The serious problems in Afghanistan’s prisons won’t be solved by turning over prisoners to another ministry with a worse record of abuse,” Adams said.
An October 2011 report by the United Nations documented widespread and systematic torture and mistreatment in Afghan prisons, not only in illegal facilities operated by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), but also in ordinary prisons, including some under Interior Ministry control. The allegations were so serious and credible that NATO immediately suspended transfer of prisoners to 16 Afghan prisons. The UN report highlighted that nearly all torture observed in Afghan jails took place during interrogations for the purpose of seeking confessions.
The Afghan government denied that torture was systematic, but acknowledged “deficiencies,” including keeping prisoners in indefinite detention and not allowing them to see lawyers. The government asserted that abuses were due to a lack of training and resources. The government also pledged to uphold all national and international standards regarding protection of prisoners.
Karzai’s new decree further imperils the rights of prisoners, calling into question the government’s stated commitment to end torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
The December 17 decree will need to be presented to the Afghan National Assembly when it reconvenes later this year. The National Assembly is empowered to review, revise, or block presidential decrees, although this power is used infrequently.
Human Rights Watch called on the National Assembly to block the decree, or alternatively, at a minimum, put provisions in place to separate the Interior Ministry’s prison operations from its policing functions, to help limit potential abuses.
“Afghan parliamentarians committed to human rights should work to stop this transfer when the National Assembly reconvenes,” Adams said.