HUMAN RIGHTS: Afghanistan Has Its Own 'Guantánamo'

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By Richard Johnson

GENEVA - The United Nations has revealed the existence of a Guantánamo-like system in Afghanistan, operated by the country's security agencies and aided and abetted by western nations contributing troops to the International Security Assistance Forces deployed for the last ten years to bring democracy to the Hindukush.

Guantánamo, also known as G-Bay, Gitmo or GTMO, is an acronym for the Guantánamo Bay detention and interrogation camp of the United States located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The facility was established in 2002 by the Bush Administration to hold detainees from the war in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

Principal agencies accused of perpetrating torture and charged with other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment of those suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devices, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict in Afghanistan, are the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Afghanistan National Police (ANP).

This dramatic revelation of a system akin to 'GTMO' or Iraq's notorious Abu Gharib prison emerges from investigations carried out by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which interviewed 379 pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners at 47 detention facilities in 22 provinces across Afghanistan between October 2010 and August 2011. Altogether, 324 of the 379 persons interviewed were detained by NDS and ANP, according to a new report.

"UNAMA's detention observation included interviews with 89 detainees who reported the involvement of international military forces either alone or together with Afghan forces in their capture and transfer to NDS or ANP custody. UNAMA found compelling evidence that 19 of these 89 detainees were tortured in NDS custody and three in ANP custody," the UN informed on October 10, 2011.

In an apparent reference to practices reminiscent of the infamous rendition by the United States, UNAMA reminds foreign military forces: "Rules of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) also state that consistent with international law, persons should not be transferred under any circumstances where there is a risk they will be subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment."

UNAMA found "compelling evidence" that 125 of the 273 detainees interviewed – who had been in NDS detention – "experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan."

The 84-page UNAMA document says: "Nearly all detainees tortured by NDS officials reported the abuse took place during interrogations and was aimed at obtaining a confession or information. In almost every case, NDS officials stopped the use of torture once detainees confessed to the crime of which they were accused or provided the requested information."

UNAMA also found that children under the age of 18 years experienced torture by NDS officials.

"More than one third of the 117 conflict-related detainees UNAMA interviewed who had been in ANP detention experienced treatment that amounted to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," the report states.

UNAMA takes note that Canada, Britain and the United States ceased transfers of detainees to NDS facilities in Kandahar and Kabul "at various times in recent years based on reports of torture and ill-treatment or implemented post-transfer monitoring schemes allowing them to track the treatment of detainees their armed forces handed over to Afghan authorities."

But its firm advice to harbingers of democracy in Afghanistan is: "The situation described in this report of transfer to a risk of torture speaks to the need for robust oversight and monitoring of all transfers of detainees to NDS and ANP custody by international military forces in Afghanistan, and suspension of transfers to facilities where credible reports of torture exist."

The report contains shocking evidence of Afghan security agencies resorting to practices similar to those in GTMO and Abu Gharib. One detainee is quoted saying: "When they took me to [Department 90], I did not know where I had been taken. . . After two days, I learned (from my cellmates) that I was in 90. There is so much beating at 90 that people call it Hell."

'90' is the acronym for the national facility of the Counter-Terrorism Department – known as Department 90/124 – of NDS, Afghanistan's principal internal and external intelligence-gathering organ that plays a key operational role, arresting and interrogating persons suspected of security-related offences.

While it received its current name after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, says the UNAMA report, it is "among the most enduring of the State's institutions, with many of its institutional structures, personnel, facilities and legal regulations dating back to the communist period."

In 1978, the Afghan government established the Da Afghanistan da Gato da Saatane Adara, but later replaced it with Kargari Estekhbarati Muasessa (KAM) in 1979. Khadimate Ettala’ate Dawlati (KhAD) came into being in 1980, but was renamed Wezarate Amniyate Dawlati (WAD) when it became a full ministry in 1986.

The institution continued to operate during the Mujahedeen era (1979-1989), the Afghan civil war (1989-1996) and, during the Taliban rule (September 1996- October 2001) when it was known as the Islamic Intelligence Service of Afghanistan.

At the Department 90 torture facility, which UNAMA investigators were not allowed to visit, NDS interrogates "high value" suspects – including persons suspected of being Anti-Government commanders or of having been involved in high-profile attacks.

Eleven of those whom UNAMA interviewed said they were initially detained by NDS, "Afghan Special Forces", "campaign forces" or unidentified armed Afghan men. Seventeen stated they were initially detained in operations involving small numbers of international military forces usually described as "special forces" along with "Afghan Special Forces", "campaign forces", "quick reaction forces", or unidentified armed Afghan men.
None reported being detained by regular ANP or Afghan National Army (ANA). Detainees reported being held in NDS Department 90/124 for an average of 15 days.

The UNAMA cites another detainee: "[NDS officials] bound my hands and attached them to metal bars on the window high above my head. They used both a chain and shackles to hold my hands there. I could not touch the floor at all. It was before darkness [evening] when they released me from this.

"Every hour, someone came and asked me if I was ready to confess, ready to accept my crime [alleged membership in a terrorist group]. Then they left again and locked the door. . . Then, on the next night, they took me out of my cell. It was about 3:30 in the morning. I was in a very bad condition when they woke me up. They took me back to the interrogation section . . . to the first 'manager' – the [NDS] man I saw on the first night. He showed me a cable and said, 'I will shock you with electricity'.

"And then he shocked me [displays visible injury]. After that, I did not know where I was or who I was. When I was okay again, I saw that I was back in my cell. But both of my thumbs had ink on them. I did not know it, but they had taken my thumbprints [as proof of a confession]." - Detainee 82, held in an NDS facility in Khost, eastern Afghanistan.

UNAMA has asked the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to address and end the practice of torture and ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention in all NDS and ANP facilities.
"Troop Contributing Countries and Concerned States" should in particular:

- Suspend transfer of detainees to those NDS and ANP units and facilities where credible allegations or reports of torture and ill-treatment have been made pending a full assessment. Review monitoring practices at each NDS facility where detainees are transferred and revise as necessary to ensure no detainees are transferred to a risk of torture.

- Review policies on transferring detainees to ANP and NDS custody to ensure adequate safeguards and use participation in joint operations, funding arrangements, the transition process, intelligence liaison relationships and other means to stop the use of torture and promote reforms by NDS and ANP.
- Build the capacity of NDS and ANP facilities and personnel including through mentoring and training on the legal and human rights of detainees and detention practices in line with international human rights standards.
- Increase efforts to support training to all NDS and ANP interrogators and their supervisors in lawful and effective interrogation methods, and alternative investigative approaches (such as forensics).

UNAMA has urged the Afghan government to develop the necessary legal framework and procedures to regulate the NDS, and make these public. It should ensure that legal procedures provide for external investigation and prosecution of allegations of serious criminal conduct, including torture and ill-treatment of detainees by NDS officials, in the civilian criminal justice system.

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