While the debate about "nation-building" in Afghanistan shows no signs of cooling down, there's at least one thing that liberals and conservatives can agree on: Criminal justice in Afghanistan will not be improved by giving the police free rein of the prisons.
In fact, Human Rights Watch (HRW) finds that "greater police involvement in jails is likely to lead to more torture, not less."
This is the view of the organization's HRW's Asia Director, Brad Adams. He is asking that President Hamid Karzai to revoke a decree that puts detainees in Afghan-run prisons at heightened risk of torture and ill treatment."
The decree, signed by Karzai at the end of last year, would transfer control of Afghan prisons from the Justice Ministry to the Interior Ministry, which operates the Afghan National Police.
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, HRW said.
Despite Karzai's insistence on the transfer of all prisoners to Afghan control, "Criminal justice in Afghanistan will not be improved by giving the police free rein of the prisons," said Adams.
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.
But "Greater police involvement in jails is likely to lead to more torture, not
less," Adams said.
"The snail's pace of human rights improvement over the past year heightens anxieties about Afghanistan's future," Adams said. "Basic rights are still not a reality for most Afghans. The country suffers from abuses without accountability, lack of rule of law, poor governance, laws and policies that harm women, attacks on civilians, and corruption."
"Under-resourced and poorly trained Afghan Police units frequently rely on
abusive law enforcement methods. 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," he asserted.
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 decree further imperils the rights of prisoners, calling into question the government's stated commitment to end torture and ill treatment, HRW said.
In a related issue, another US-based organization, Human Rights First (HRF) has called on the Obama Administration "to finally begin to provide due process for the thousands of suspected insurgents the U.S. military holds without charge or trial at Bagram Air Base."