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May 14, 2004

Rights Groups Demand Investigation of Prisoner Abuse in Afghanistan

by Jim Lobe

The mistreatment and abuse by U.S. military and intelligence personnel of detainees in Afghanistan are systemic and routine, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) which demanded Thursday that Washington immediately open its prisons to independent monitors and release the results of any investigations into misconduct that it may have completed.

"Afghans have been telling us for well over a year about mistreatment in US custody," said John Sifton, HRW's chief Afghanistan researcher who noted that Washington public concern about possible abuses should not be limited to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq .

"The United States has shown that it can't police its own prisons," he said. "Human rights monitoring groups should be given access to all detention facilities in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq."

The Abu Ghraib scandal, which has so far prompted several public apologies by President George W. Bush and three nationally televised hearings in the US Congress, has resulted in a sharp drop in public support for the US occupation in Iraq, according to two polls released this week by Gallup and the Pew Research Center. According to the polls, more than three quarters of respondents said they had seen the photos, and half said they marked a "major setback" to US strategy in Iraq.

Since the scandal broke two weeks ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had limited access to the prison, said it had repeatedly informed US authorities about evidence of abuses there, while both HRW and Amnesty International, which have been denied access to detention facilities in Iraq, had themselves notified the authorities on several occasions of credible reports of mistreatment, but to little or no effect.

The ICRC has also reportedly submitted reports about alleged abuses in Afghanistan as well, as have Amnesty and HRW. The latter two, however, have been denied access to US detention facilities in both Afghanistan and Iraq despite repeated requests.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a firsthand account of the detention last summer of an Afghan police colonel, Sayed Nabi Siddiqi, who was transported to three different detention facilities over a six-week period before being released. While in custody, he was beaten, stripped naked and sexually abused by his captors who accused him of working with the Taliban.

He said he gave his account after his release to the Afghan Human Rights Commission, which requested a meeting with coalition authorities, but to no avail. US military authorities announced after the Times' publication that they had never received such a report and were opening an investigation.

Siddiqui's ordeal is not covered in a 59-page report, "Enduring Freedom: Abuses by US Forces in Afghanistan," released by HRW in March. It concluded that mistreatment of detainees appeared to be "routine" in a number of U.S.-controlled facilities around Afghanistan and that the detention system itself resembles a "legal black hole" about which almost nothing is known apart from what former prisoners say about it once they are released.

The report was based on research conducted in southeast and eastern Afghanistan in 2003 and early 2004 and included extensive interviews of former prisoners (some of whom were detained both in Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), US, UN and relief officials, and military officers, as well as published reports.

Over the last two years, according to the report, at least 1,000 Afghans and other nationals are believed to have been arrested and detained by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. While some were apprehended in combat, most were taken into custody with no apparent connection to ongoing hostilities other than having been in the vicinity of US military operations. Once detained, most were held essentially incommunicado with no way to contact relatives and no opportunity to challenge the basis of their detention.

Interviews with the former detainees, according to the report, suggested that many had been subjected to mistreatment ranging from beatings, sometimes quite severe, to dousing with cold water or exposure to freezing temperatures. Sleep deprivation and forcing detainees to sit or kneel in painful positions for extended periods of time – a "stress and duress" technique that has been condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture, were also used.

As in Iraq, detainees were also often stripped of their clothes and photographed while naked, according to the HRW report which includes a number of firsthand accounts by former prisoners.

"There is compelling evidence suggesting that US personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment," according to Brad Adams, executive director of HRW's Asia division.

HRW's statement Thursday, which was released by the group's London office, stressed that the US has still not provided any adequate explanation for at least three deaths of detainees that it has acknowledged took place in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. US military pathologists ruled the first two deaths "homicide," and US authorities announced an investigation, but no results have been made public. HRW said Thursday that it had received "credible information" that in fact preliminary results were obtained more than one year ago, but no prosecutions have been initiated.

"We've basically been stonewalled," said Sifton. "It's been well over a year since the two detainees were killed in Afghanistan, and US officials are still supposedly investigating. It's time for them to tell what happened."

(One World)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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