UNAMA’s new report on the torture of ‘conflict related detainees’ makes bleak reading and not only because of the scale and weight of evidence against Afghan intelligence and the police. UNAMA reported that more than half of those interviewed had experienced torture or ill-treatment. They included children as young as 14. The UN also says it has credible reports of 81 individuals ‘disappearing’ from police custody in Kandahar. ISAF has stopped handing over detainees to facilities named in the report, but it did this in 2011 when UNAMA’s first report was released. It is clear ISAF’s efforts over more than a year to train NDS staff and monitor and certify facilities so that it could carry on handing over detainees without risk of torture have failed. The reaction of the Afghan government gives an indication of why this might be. It has rejected that torture is taking place. Yet, UNAMA says, unless there are real deterrents from the government – the threat of investigation, being sacked or facing trial – the abuses will continue. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports.
This is the third major report on the torture of security detainees in the last 18 months (earlier reports were by UNAMA in 2011 and the Afghanistan Independent Commission on Human Rights and the Open Society Foundation in 2012). Before looking at statistics, trends, policies and politics, it is worth hearing part of an account by one of the 635 detainees interviewed; he was interrogated in the 124 Counter-Terrorism Directorate of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), in August 2012:
A joint team of Afghan National Security Forces and international military forces arrested me from a shop… handcuffed and hooded me and took me directly to NDS Department 124. I was interrogated every day (total nine times in nine days). On the first night, immediately after my arrival, while I was still handcuffed, they… threatened me and said I had to confess that I was a Taliban. I denied the allegation. Then the NDS officer threatened that he would take me out to another room to beat me up if I did not confess to the charges. Then he slapped me twice on my face. He shouted at me to confess. He said if I did not confess he would kill me by squeezing my testicles. He also threatened that I would receive electric shocks…On the second day… they kicked me and threw me on the floor… beat me with [a] power cable and pipe all over my body continuously for about 25 minutes. I did not have any more courage to bear the pain. Thus, I confessed to all the charges and I put my thumbprints everywhere they wanted me to.
UNAMA found evidence of torture in 34 facilities, mainly NDS and Afghan National Police (ANP), but also the border police (ANBP) and the army (ANA). Methods of torture included being suspended on chains or iron bars, severe beating with cables, pipes and sticks, twisting of genitals, use of electric shocks and stress positions (UNAMA found an increase in the last two).
Two NDS facilities were named as systematically using torture – Kandahar and Kabul 124 (where the detainee quoted above was held). 124, previously numbered 90, features in historical reports on torture by earlier incarnations of Afghan intelligence as directorate 5 – see here and here; it is in the Shashdarak area, a neighbour to the Afghan ministry of defence, ISAF headquarters and the US Embassy. ISAF had suspended transfers there after the 2011 report; then certified it as safe for transfer. Kandahar, in general, appears to be a centre of torture, systematically used, UNAMA says not only by NDS, but in six ANP facilities including the provincial headquarters, four police stations in the city, in Panjwayi police station and in the border police station in Spin Boldak. Half of all detainees interviewed in Kandahar said they had been tortured and a third of all cases of alleged torture by the ANP, nationwide, were from Kandahar. This is also where 81 detainees have allegedly disappeared from. ‘Multiple sources,’ said UNAMA, ‘shared concerns that some detainees may have been killed in police custody [in Kandahar] following arrest.’
Two areas of improvement since 2011 should be flagged up: hygiene and living conditions in facilities have shown an improvement and the time period when detainees are held without being handed over to a prosecutor has been reduced. However, this is still illegally long. Being held incommunicado is one of the factors facilitating torture says UNAMA, as is the courts’ readiness to convict people solely on the basis of confession and frequently not taking defendants’ allegations of forced confession seriously.
In the wake of UNAMA’s 2011 report, ISAF implemented a six stage programme to train, monitor and eventually certify facilities as fit for detainees to be transferred to. Although ISAF countries generally can be faulted for only taking torture seriously because of domestic court rulings or public scandal over newspaper reports or, in the ISAF/US military case, the UN’s reporting, the commander of ISAF General John Allen did fully take on board the seriousness of the torture allegations in 2011. Unfortunately, it is now clear his efforts have largely failed.
The rate of security detainees reporting torture by ANP has increased since UNAMA’s last report. After the 2011 report, UNAMA noted a decrease in the use of torture; this corresponded, it said, to ISAF handing fewer detainees over and increasing its monitoring. However, UNAMA said that once ISAF had certified facilities as safe for transfer, it observed ‘an increase and resumption in incidents of torture’. UNAMA also found evidence of NDS detainees being hidden from monitors, taken to ‘unofficial’ facilities and, in Herat and Kandahar, there was suspicion of a coordinated response to scrutiny involving the police rather than the NDS interrogating suspects.
Of the 79 detainees who said international forces had been involved in their capture, 31 said they had subsequently been tortured by NDS, ANP or ANBP. Significantly, they included detainees allegedly tortured in NDS 124 in Kabul after it had been certified by ISAF as fit for transfer. ISAF has had to suspend certification of 7 facilities after fresh claims of torture by UNAMA.
One problem, as UNAMA says is that, to its knowledge:
… ISAF certification is not an endorsement by the Commander of ISAF that a facility was ‘torture-free’ or a guarantee that the personnel of such facilities had been thoroughly re-trained not to use abusive interrogation methods. Rather certification reflected that NDS or ANP facilities had completed the first three stages of ISAF’s remediation programme and that ISAF was not aware of further torture or ill-treatment.
ISAF pressure has proved futile. General Allen has acknowledge that ‘ISAF influence over Afghans and their leaders is limited and will probably only decline along with our presence.’ That may be, but it is also true that harder pressure has not been tried; at no point has ISAF or countries funding NDS or ANP, made support conditional on the ending of torture. Utlimately, of course, the Afghan government has also not held torturers to account. According to UNAMA:
… torture cannot be addressed by training, inspections and directives alone but requires sound accountability measures to stop and prevent its use. Without effective deterrents and disincentives to use torture, including a robust, independent investigation process or criminal prosecutions, Afghan officials have no incentive to stop torture.
UNAMA said it does not know of any internal investigations by the NDS which resulted in the prosecution or sacking of officials for involvement in torture. As to the ANP, it said it is, ‘not aware of any instance in which an ANP officer has been prosecuted in recent months for abusing detainees.’ It is a pattern recognised by General Allen who, in a letter to UNAMA, said that, on 80 occasions, he personally or his team presented the Afghan government with detailed accusations of detainee abuse and in only one instance was there a response – the moving of the head of Kandahar NDS to Sar-e Pul.(1)
The Afghan government’s response to UNAMA’s accusations appears to have hardened compared with 2011; it has accused UNAMA of exaggeration and of having been duped by the Taleban. Separate responses from the National Security Council, the Ministry of Interior and NDS are published as annexes of the UNAMA report. The NDS said it treats detainees based on ‘humanitarian and legal principles’, any violations are exceptional and are treated seriously by the NDS leadership. Moreover, it ‘fully rejects’ claims that detainees are beaten, hanged, threatened with rape or given electric shock or other methods of torture ‘in contradiction to human dignity’.
ISAF does now face a problem. Handing over detainees if there is a substantial risk of torture (non-refoulement) is illegal which means, if ISAF’s efforts have failed to protect those it transfers, can it legally carry on transferring? The British courts have judged the British army may not hand over detainees for this very reason and no transfers have taken place since May 2012 (see AAN report here). President Karzai has demanded they be handed over. The impasse continues.
Although the Bagram detention centre is a separate case (see AAN reporting here, here and here in that its detainees are arrested by US forces and kept within a US base geographically fully under US control, the torture of Afghan detainees elsewhere may well present a looming problem for the US military at Bagram as well. According to President Karzai’s remarks when he came back from Washington last week, Bagram is due to be handed over within weeks.
As the ISAF mission winds down, its ‘torture problem’ will become less pressing as it spends more time on getting out of Afghanistan and less on detaining suspected insurgents. For Afghans suspected of security offences, however, life is unlikely to become any easier. In the absence of domestic pressure or political will from the government and with international attention declining, expect the torture to continue.
(1) Recent moves of senior NDS personnel according to UNAMA include the following:
In NDS Kandahar, Director General Dr Muhammad Naeem and the Deputy Director Col Abdul Wahab were temporarily replaced by Isa Muhammad and Muhammad Ishaq respectively on 27 September 2011. In January 2012, Director of NDS Kandahar General Momin became the NDS director for Saripul province who was replaced in Kandahar by Faiz Mohd Khan. In NDS Khost, Director Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimi was replaced by Deputy Director Mr. Abdul Qader (OIC) in August 2011. In Department 124, Director Dr Zia was replaced by General Mohammad Halim in September 2011. In NDS Laghman, Director Noor Khayder as replaced by General Mohammad Qasim Ebadi in June 2011. In NDS Kapisa, Director General Jamuallah was replaced by Colonel Ahmad Gul Massoud in February 2011. UNAMA said it was not clear if the moves were related to torture allegations in facilities under their command. At the least, one can say, these are transfers, not sackings and some have been promoted, for example, Dr Zia is now a deputy director of NDS.]
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020