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Afghanistan: Prison Probe Should Address Longstanding Abuses

Inquiry Should Focus on Torture, Abuse of Women, Procedural Lapses

(Kabul) – A new Afghan government committee investigating prison conditions should focus on meaningful reforms to end torture and other pervasive abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 8, 2013, President Hamid Karzai created a committee to “study the general conditions of prisons and detention centers, along with the condition and situation of prisoners and detainees” and submit findings and recommendations within three months.

Afghan detention centers and prisons are rife with serious abuse, including torture, medically invalid “virginity examinations” of women, and holding detainees past their release date. The problems are so pervasive that the committee will need to set priorities and focus on the key issues.

“President Karzai’s new committee could be an important step for addressing the horrific abuses in Afghanistan’s prisons,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the committee will need not only to shine the light on the abuses going on behind Afghanistan’s prison doors but to come up with ways to fix the system.”

A United Nations report released in January found that more than half of 635 pretrial detainees and prisoners convicted on national security grounds had been tortured or ill-treated in Afghan government custody. Detainees told the UN investigators that torture was typically used to try to elicit confessions. Fourteen forms of torture were reported, including suspension from ceilings, prolonged and severe beating, including on the soles of the feet, twisting genitals of male detainees, electric shock, prolonged standing or forced exercise, prolonged exposure to cold weather, and threats of execution and rape.

The Afghan government’s independent human rights commission, as well as Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations, have repeatedly documented torture of prisoners in Afghan government custody over the past decade.

President Karzai issued a decree in February ordering anti-torture measures, including prosecution of officials responsible for torture. However, there is no indication that prison and detention facility officials have respected that order or that prosecutors have moved forward with prosecutions for suspected torture and other abuses against detainees.

In addition to torture, the committee should investigate and produce recommendations to address the following abuses common in prisons and detention facilities in Afghanistan:

  • The coerced use of “virginity examinations” of female prisoners accused of “moral crimes.” Women and girls arrested on charges of zina (sex outside of marriage), attempted zina, or “running away from home” are routinely sent to government doctors for vaginal examinations, purportedly to provide information about the woman’s sexual history, including her “virginity.” But the examinations are scientifically invalid as these determinations cannot be made with any meaningful degree of accuracy. Under international law, virginity tests of people in custody constitute cruel and inhuman treatment;
  • Serious procedural errors that can unlawfully delay the release of prisoner. Those include the loss of prisoners’ case files, dysfunctional communication between government entities, failure to provide free legal services to indigent prisoners, and basic procedural errors by judicial institutions;
  • Prison overcrowding. Afghanistan’s prison population has increased from about 5,000 in 2004 to 32,000. The United Nations estimates that this number will rise to 40,000 by 2018. This rate of increase is unsustainable given limited funding for prison facilities and related services. Although Afghan law permits the use of noncustodial sentences, including community service or community supervision, courts rarely issue such sentences, even for children and people facing criminal charges for the first time.

“The Afghan government has an opportunity to reduce the chronic, widespread abuses in prisons and detention centers that harm untold thousands of detainees,” Adams said. “But that can only happen if this new oversight committee has the mandate and the resources necessary to recommend meaningful changes to address the key problems in Afghan prisons.”

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