PN columnist takes on Afghan torture

IssueMay 2010
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle

Allegations of British complicity in the torture and abuse of detainees in Afghanistan are being scrutinised at a judicial review in the high court, as PN goes to press. The review, brought on behalf of PN columnist Maya Evans, is challenging the policy of transferring persons captured by UK forces in Afghanistan into Afghan custody. The ten-day case is scheduled to last until 29 April.

Detainees transferred from UK custody have allegedly suffered a wide range of abuses at the hands of the Afghan authorities, including beatings, electrocution, sleep deprivation, stress positions and whipping with rubber cables.

Amnesty International has called on NATO “to suspend all transfers of detainees... to Afghan authorities on the grounds that detainees face substantial risk of torture and ill-treatment.” It is hoped that the case will help raise the profile of the Afghan government’s dire human rights record.

In a March 2010 Angus Reid opinion poll in which Britons were asked to select six words to describe the Afghan government, 33% chose “violates human rights”.

The British government claims that those transferred are “visited routinely and regularly” by members of the UK armed forces, suggesting that this provides an effective safeguard against abuse. However, documents disclosed for the case have revealed a story of missing detainees, refusal of access of prisons, and cursory detainee interviews.

Of special concern are transfers to the NDS, the Afghan secret police. The UK recently imposed moratoria on transfers to NDS facilities in Kandahar and Kabul, pending the results of NDS investigations – though officials at the Foreign Office have themselves raised serious doubts concerning the adequacy of NDS investigations, and transfers in Helmand province have apparently continued.
In March, Cory Anderson, a former senior political adviser to Canada’s provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar, told a parliamentary committee that: “given their track record... in my specific experience and what I’ve learned from some of our allies, the prospect of the NDS being significantly reformed in one way or another is probably very slim.”

Standard procedure

The abuse of detainees transferred to Afghan custody by Canadian forces has become a major scandal in Canada.

Indeed, the issue was apparently identified as a potential “mission killer” in briefings to Canada’s defence minister Peter MacKay and other senior officials as far back as 2007.

Last November, the former second-in-command at the Canadian embassy in Kabul, Richard Colvin, told a parliamentary committee: “As I learned more about our detainee practices, I came to a conclusion they were contrary to Canada’s values, contrary to Canada’s interests, contrary to Canada’s official policies and also contrary to international law... the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure... we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.”

Colvin started briefing government officials about the abuse in 2006. In 2007 he was told not to put things on paper in future, but instead to use the telephone.

Though the Canadian government maintains that it has a “rigorous” monitoring system for transferred detainees, a recently-leaked top-level government memo written in the summer of 2009 warned: “Canadians could face legal liability for complicity in torture by working with Afghan secret police” (CBC News, 7 April).

Here in the UK, police are already investigating allegations of MI5 complicity in the abuse of British resident Binyam Mohamed while he was held by the US in Afghanistan, and in the torture of Shaker Aamer, the last remaining British resident in Guantanamo Bay.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch has called for “an independent judicial inquiry into the role... of British security services in the torture of terrorism suspects in Pakistan” in the face of “clear” evidence of complicity.

Sham courts

Britain’s relationship with the Afghan prison system is not confined to the transfer of Afghan detainees.

In January, The Times reported that Afghan defence attorneys were refusing to take cases at the criminal justice task force (CJTF) – a counter-narcotics court, designed with British and US help, and part-funded by the UK tax-payer – claiming that justice there was a sham.

“The judges just ignore the evidence, they don’t care. They just convict. The role of the defence lawyers is merely symbolic,” Rohullah Qarizada, president of the Afghan Independent Bar Association, told the paper.

In one case involving alleged mistaken identity, Qarizada brought 50 people, including a local mullah, district governor and five members of parliament, to testify that his client was Mahmood, not Ahmad.

However, “One policeman who arrested him said he’d heard his mother call him Ahmad, so the judge gave him 16 years in prison.” Qarizada added: “The judges and the prosecutors get their salaries from the UK embassies so they just convict people to keep them happy.”