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Afghanistan: End Invasive Searches of Women Visiting Prison

Degrading Practice Follows Transfer of Prisons to Interior Ministry

(New York) - The Afghan government should immediately end the practice of invasive vaginal searches of women visiting prisoners at Afghanistan’s largest prison, Pul-i-Charkhi in Kabul, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should issue a decree prohibiting invasive searches in any Afghan prison unless absolutely necessary in specific instances.

The use of invasive cavity searches of women visitors began several weeks ago at Pul-i-Charkhi, a men’s prison, multiple sources familiar with the prison told Human Rights Watch. While male visitors are simply patted down, all women are forced to undergo degrading, abusive, and unnecessary searches of their body cavities. These searches are conducted by female prison staff members who do not have specialized training and supervision, under unhygienic conditions.

“Routine cavity searches of women visitors are shocking, and an inexplicable invasion of the person,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should act immediately to prevent another day of women being subjected to this abuse.”

International human rights law requires that any interference with the right to privacy be clearly prescribed by law, as well as necessary and proportionateto the legitimate purpose to be achieved under the circumstances.  Even under these circumstances, invasive searches could be used only as last resort when a less-invasive means was not possible. When such searches are permissible, they can be done only by a person with appropriate medical training and in a way that respects dignity and privacy.

The searches being conducted at Pul-i-Charkhi do not comply with these requirements. The prison director has cited only a general goal of detecting contraband, which would not justify the routine use of such searches. The invasive searches at Pul-i-Charkhi demonstrate a violation of the right to privacy and a gross disregard for the bodily integrity of the visitors.

Moreover, the use of invasive searches only against women shows them to be discriminatory under international law. It is degrading treatment that violates a woman’s dignity. To the extent they are conducted against women visitors without full and informed consent, the practice would amount to sexual assault.

“There are no legitimate security concerns that could justify forcing all women visitors to suffer such degradation and health risks,” said Adams. “The government needs to stop prison wardens from using their power in such horrifically abusive ways.”

The searches follow the controversial transfer in January 2012 of Afghan prisons from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior, which holds supervisorial authority over the police. The transfer reversed an August 2003 decree by President Hamid Karzai that transferred prisons, which hold both pre-trial 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 police, long implicated in torture and other ill-treatment, will have direct authority over criminal suspects during interrogation, increasing the risk of abuse.

The transfer of authority also seriously undermined efforts over the last 10 years to reform Afghan’s prisons. Following the transfer, the then-head of Pul-i-Charkhi prison was removed and replaced with a new warden who had no experience in prison management.

The head of the civilian prison system ordered the new prison warden to halt the invasive searches of women visitors, but his order was ignored, Human Rights Watch said. Pul-i-Charkhi’s new warden has insisted the searches will continue unless a donor provides him with an x-ray machine. He has not tried to use less-invasive measures, such as observing visits or searching men after they have visitors.

“Little more than two months after the transfer of prisons from the Justice Ministry to the Interior Ministry, the harmful effects are already plain to see,” said Adams. “The Afghan government should act now to prevent further abuses by recognizing that the transfer was a mistake and reversing it.”

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