Rights & Freedoms

The Trouble with Torture: NDS, Special Forces and the CIA


Fresh evidence of abuse in more than a dozen NDS and police facilities has been presented in a report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and Open Societies Foundations (OSF). The allegations, which include testimony of security detainees being beaten, given electric shocks and having their genitals wrenched, were described by NDS as ‘baseless’. In October 2011, when UNAMA made similar revelations, ISAF was forced to stop transferring detainees to facilities where there was evidence of torture and to institute a monitoring mechanism. The new report has found fresh grounds for concern, including over the role of the US Special Forces and the CIA. It questions whether the current safeguards are sufficient to, ‘ensure that the United States is not complicit in torture’. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports.

The methods of torture detailed by the AIHRC and OSF here will be familiar to anyone who read UNAMA’s report in October (here) – or indeed earlier reports here and here – detailing torture by Afghan intelligence during the Taleban, Islamic State and later years of the PDPA.(1)

The report’s allegations(2) have been rejected by the Ministry of Interior, although it said it would investigate any allegations made against the Afghan National Police (ANP). In public at least, NDS has dismissed the whole report, see here and here, a stronger stance than in October (its detailed response to UNAMA can be found in UNAMA’s report).(3)

That torture is still going on in Afghanistan is primarily the concern and responsibility of the Afghan state, but any country with armed forces in Afghanistan is also bound by the Convention Against Torture not to hand over detainees if they face a real risk of torture or of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Some countries, including the UK and Canada – faced with cases in domestic courts(4) or scandals stemming from press reporting of torture – had already stopped unregulated transfers to NDS and the Afghan National Police (ANP) (see here). However, it took the publication of the UNAMA report on torture in Afghan facilities in October to force the ISAF as a whole and, in particular the US military, to start facing up to their legal obligations (see here).

ISAF and the forces operating under Operation Enduring Freedom (mostly US Special Operations Forces or SOF)(5) stopped handing over detainees to 16 facilities where there was credible evidence of torture, until and unless they could be investigated and certified to be working without abuse.(6) The new regime extended to banning the handover of detainees picked up during joint Afghan/international operations to those facilitates. It also required detainees who had been handed over to be monitored. The Afghan government, according to AIHRC/OSF, has also largely responded positively to demands for greater access to facilities and has established a human rights unit within the NDS to investigate allegations of abuse.

Although the time period during which testimony was gathered for the AIHRC/OSF report overlapped with UNAMA’s and so progress on Afghan government actions and ISAF’s new review and monitoring system is difficult to measure, the report has thrown up fresh cases during the ‘post-UNAMA’ period, both of torture (one case in Herat and 14 in Kandahar) and of detainees being transferred by US forces/arrested in joint operations and subsequently being tortured.

This suggests the monitoring systems set up by both Afghan and the international military are not yet working well enough to protect detainees. Moreover, the authors of the new report found evidence that NDS has been ‘moving’ torture around, either to sites not on the UNAMA list or to secret sites, and of moving prisoners to hidden rooms when monitors were due to visit. There is also evidence of detainees fearing reprisals for disclosing abuse. That several heads of NDS facilities named in the UNAMA report were transferred to new posts, rather than sacked or prosecuted, only adds to the sense that there is a lack of serious intent to reform.

The new report also said the AIHRC had been blocked from visiting some facilitates, despite its constitutional authority to do so. These include one of the most notorious sites, the 90th/124th (counter-terrorism) department of NDS which is located in Shashdarak, in the same area of the Afghan capital as the Ministry of Defence, the headquarters of ISAF and the CIA, the US embassy (among others) and, a little further away, the residence of the United Nations Special Envoy.

Torture flourishes where there is secrecy and lack of due process. Security detainees, the report finds, are frequently held incommunicado and far beyond the legal 72 hour limit after which all detainees must be released or they and their files passed on to the prosecutors. These are the most vulnerable prisoners in the Afghan system and this is what makes the drive for monitoring, unrestricted access and accountability particularly important.

AIHRC/OSF have also uncovered evidence that US forces are not yet fully complying with the new ‘post-UNAMA’ regime and they raise the question of the US military’s possible complicity in torture. In particular, the report provides significant new information pointing to the troubling role played by US SOF and the CIA.

Since October 2011, ISAF has stated repeatedly that the ‘post-UNAMA’ ban on handing over detainees to places where there is a risk of torture applies to all international military forces in Afghanistan, specifically including SOF. As for the CIA, although it is also legally bound by the Convention Against Torture, it has been impossible to assess whether it sees itself bound by the new restrictions aimed at protecting detainees from abuse. The CIA has no ‘address’ to ask questions of and neither the US Embassy or ISAF could speak for the agency (for reporting, see here.

The new report has unearthed several problematic areas for the US. Firstly, the many detainees handed over by US SOF are not yet being monitored by ISAF or anyone else. Secondly, there appears to be a real problem in Kandahar; the report documented eleven ‘recent, credible cases’ of Afghans being detained there by ‘Americans’ or ‘US Forces’ or ‘US Special Forces’ or ‘foreign forces’ for one to two days and then being transferred to NDS Kandahar. This is a facility where evidence of torture has been so great that ISAF had already suspended transfers there before the UNAMA report. (The UK had done so even earlier, in January 2011.)

Five detainees said they had been detained in ‘Mullah Omar’s house’, also known as Camp Gecko and (its current, official name) Firebase Maholic. This facility, says the report, ‘has been used for many years by the CIA and US Special Operations Forces.’ It is also the headquarters of an irregular militia, the Kandahar Strike Force (KSF), which used to be run by Ahmad Wali Karzai, and now, Kandaharis say, is under the control of Assadullah Khaled, Head of the Southern Zone (rais-e tanzim-e janub) a powerful position, albeit one which does not officially exist. The KSF is involved in anti-Taleban operations, often working alongside SOF and CIA (for reporting, see here and here. Two detainees reported being tortured in Firebase Maholic and one said Americans were present while this happened. Of the eleven men handed over to NDS Kandahar, four said they were tortured there.

So who is handing over detainees to NDS Kandahar, in breach of the new ‘post-UNAMA’ rules? According to the report:… U.S. military officials have stated that there are no ISAF or USFOR-A [US Forces in Afghanistan] forces transferring detainees to NDS Kandahar, and that the order suspending transfers to NDS Kandahar among other facilities in RC-South remain in full effect.

Interviews with detainees as well as responses by US officials to queries from the AIHRC and the Open Society Foundations indicate that there may be US forces or personnel, perhaps including CIA or other US intelligence officials, operating outside ISAF and USFOR-A commands in Kandahar that are detaining individuals and transferring them to NDS Kandahar.

AIHRC/OSF have shed some light on an area where secrecy is piled upon secrecy: the connections between an irregular militia with an unknown chain of command, a foreign nation’s special forces and intelligence agency, and Afghanistan’s own intelligence agency.

However, the report also reveals an alarming number of torture cases relating to the police in Kandahar which, the report notes, ‘is playing a prominent role in counter-terrorism and national security cases… including working closely with US and ISAF forces in major operations during 2010 and 2011.’ The report found that the ANP is detaining and interrogating a ‘significant number of conflict-related detainees’ and found allegation of torture in as many as five sites, including one unofficial one. One detainee reportedly died under torture.

Another said:…ANP officials ― made me lie down on the ground on my stomach and one of the officials sat on my back and started pulling my hand and legs to join them together. [As a result] he broke my left arm. After this they started squeezing my testicles so that I couldn‘t bear it. They did it so many times that blood came out of one side of my testicles.

A doctor at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar quoted in the report said they had treated a number of individuals for injuries sustained while in ANP custody. He described a recent case of a 60 year old man who had been so severely beaten that one of his legs needed amputating. (The man discharged himself without the operation and it is not known what happened to him).

In charge of the ANP in Kandahar is Abdul Razeq who continues to be championed by President Karzai and the international military for his anti-Taleban credentials. Yet there is a list of credible allegations against him going back many years of torture, summary execution of prisoners and the mass killing of tribal rivals (for detail, see Matthieu Aikins’ report here.

These are not the only dubious working relationships thrown up by this report. It also notes the ‘continued cooperation’ between ‘non-ISAF SOF’ and CIA personnel and NDS officials, in particular those from the notorious 90th/124th Department in Kabul. The international military often claims it can institute good practice by working with Afghan forces even when they are accused of committing crimes and abuses. Yet this report highlights once again that good relationships with foreign forces frequently helps protect the abusers, giving them effective impunity.

There are also concerns over the continuing handover of detainees from a black site in Bagram directly to NDS and their subsequent torture. Four detainees said they had been arrested and held in Bagram and, from the detail of their accounts, the report says it is likely they were not held at the long-term, US-run (but soon to be handed over to the Afghan state) Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), but probably at a temporary holding facility run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the body responsible for the kill/capture programme. This is located at Bagram Air base, says the report, and is known by detainees as the ‘Tor’ Jail (Pashto for ‘Black’ Jail).(7)

Rather than having their cases reviewed by a Detainee Review Board or a ‘release shura’, as is normal at the DFIP, the four detainees were handed over directly to NDS, two to Wardak, one to Laghman and one to Department 90/124 in Kabul. All said they were subsequently tortured. Two other detainees said they were handed over to NDS from US detention facilities in the provinces – and were also tortured.

The AIHRC/OSF report is worth reading for the detail it gives journalists, researchers and politicians alike. Having a new, public source on CIA and SOF activities in Afghanistan, the most difficult agencies to pin down, is particularly valuable. There is also solid information on the various ISAF nations’ policies on detention handovers and the numbers of Afghans they are holding, on the Afghan law governing NDS (it is classified) and how monitoring is being carried out by both the Afghan state and ISAF.

But it is the human detail of the cases which is, in the end, so compelling – the forced confessions and their acceptance as evidence in courts of law, the description by detainees of being beaten and given electric shocks and the alleged rape of juveniles in the Juvenile Correction Centre in Helmand.

Torture has flourished in the last ten years of post-Taleban, internationally-supported government. Indeed, it is only now that the international players really taking it on board, just as they are transitioning out.(8) Reading through this report, one wonders, time and again, on the quality of information being obtained – how exactly do forced confessions help keep Afghanistan safe and secure? It also seems obvious – but maybe not to those who torture their fellow Afghans, or the various international actors who appear to be still working with the torturers – that abusing people suspected of being Taleban only helps drive the insurgency (for a look at the links between injustice and the insurgency, see here. It is akin to trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

(1) The mass detentions, deaths under torture, executions and disappearances seen during Taraki and Amin’s rule in 1978-1980 have seen no parallel in subsequent regimes.

(2) Locations included NDS: Kabul Departments 90/124 and 17/40, Herat, Kandahar, Badakhshan, Helmand, Nangarhar and Wardak; and the ANP headquarters and several ANP checpoints in Kandahar.

(3) The report found fresh evidence of specific methods of torture which NDS had earlier denied using, including the use of electric shock, abuse of the genitals and threats of sexual abuse.

(4) In London another push by human rights minded lawyers to get greater accountability for the actions of British forces is taking place. On 18 March, Doughty Street [Legal] Chambers filed a case against the British state over the abuse meted out to a Helmandi farmer, Serdar Mohammed, who was detained by British soldiers and allegedly beaten, kicked, bitten by an army dog and photographed with weapons which were not his; he was then handed over to the NDS who allegedly tortured him further as they used the photos of evidence that he was an insurgent. (see here). The last such case brought against the British state forced the army to institute a careful monitoring system of all detainees transferred to Afghan custody. Details of the earlier case can be read here.

(5) The report explains: It is important to note that some U.S. forces in Afghanistan operate as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), a U.S. led counter-terrorism coalition that is separate from ISAF forces. Known as U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), most of these non-ISAF U.S. forces are special operations forces and also referred to as Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A). CFSOCC-A forces frequently conduct operations in which individuals are detained. USFOR-A is under the command of General John Allen, who also serves as the commander of ISAF (COM-ISAF). There are also a number of U.S. military units that operate separately from ISAF and USFOR-A forces, and are not under the command of General Allen.

(6) ISAF, in an email to AAN, said that:…Four of the facilities listed in the current report were previously listed in the UNAMA report and have already been a part of the ISAF certification program. These facilities included NDS Kabul 124, NDS Herat, NDS Kandahar and NDS Laghman. It is important to note that most of the cases of abuse described in the report occurred prior to the implementation of ISAF’s six-phase remediation plan and inspections regime The ISAF six-phase program and proactive response plan is a critical component to ensuring human rights are respected, and a positive example of international cooperation with coalition forces. 14 of the 16 facilities that ISAF had previously halted transfers have completed the remediation and inspection program and now been certified and are able to again receive detainees. These fourteen include Takhar, Herat, Uruzgan, Kapisa, NDS Khost, AUP Khost, Zharay, AUP Kunduz and AUP Archi, Arghandab, Daman, Kandahar District 9, Department 124, and NDS Langham.
In response to earlier discussions with AIHRC, ISAF has suspended detainee transfers to four additional Afghan facilities, which include NDS Badakshan, NDS Wardak, NDS Nangahar and ANP Kandahar. ISAF’s mandate does not include inspections of all detainee facilities throughout Afghanistan; however upon learning of any potential abuses of human rights in detention facilities we are committed to immediately accessing the accuracies of the allegations and potentially halting transfers where appropriate.

(7) The report says: Detainees‘ descriptions of the conditions in which they were held, specifically small, windowless single person cells, excessive light, insufficient water for ablutions before prayer, and noises that interfered with sleep, are consistent with conditions of confinement at the JSOC-run temporary detention or screening facility at or near Bagram Air Field documented in previous Open Society reporting. This facility is located near to both the DFIP and its predecessor, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF), likely producing some confusion. Since detainees are not informed of where they are being held, identifying the location of their detention must be based on their recollections of confinement conditions, physical descriptions, treatment, interrogations, and other details that could help substantiate the exact detention location. Based on this information and information compiled by Open Society on the JSOC temporary detention facility at Bagram, it is likely that all of the four detainees in question spent some time at this facility. Whether the detainees may also have been held at DFIP is less likely.

(8) ISAF in its email noted that: Several of the facilities listed mentioned in the report are not used by ISAF forces as they are in Tranche 1 or 2 and are fully in transition with GIRoA in the lead. These are the first of many facilities and that must be investigated by GIRoA with help from the international community and NGOs such as UNAMA, AIHRC, HRW, and ICRC. ISAF respects the sovereignty of GIROA and works with their ministries to ensure human rights are respected.
As ISAF forces adjust their manpower and geographical footprint, we will work with GIRoA to synchronize our efforts through unity of effort to ensure detainees are treated according to Afghan law and international standards as we approach a post-2014 environment.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms