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UN: Prisoners still tortured in Afghan prisons

By Heidi Vogt

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20 2013 10:50 a.m. MST

A prisoner looks out of his cell window at the main prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in this April 25, 2011 file photo. The United Nations said Sunday that Afghan authorities were still torturing prisoners, such as hanging them by their wrists and beating them with cables.

Associated Press

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations said Sunday that Afghan authorities were still torturing prisoners, such as hanging them by their wrists and beating them with cables, a year after the U.N. first documented the abuse and the Afghan government promised detention reform.

The report shows little progress in curbing abuse in Afghan prisons despite a year of effort by the U.N. and international military forces in Afghanistan. The report also cites instances where Afghan authorities have tried to hide mistreatment from U.N. monitors.

The slow progress on prison reform has prompted NATO forces to once again stop many transfers of detainees to Afghan authorities out of concern that they would be tortured.

In multiple detention centers, Afghan authorities leave detainees hanging from the ceiling by their wrists, beat them with cables and wooden sticks, administer electric shocks, twist their genitals and threaten to shove bottles up their anuses or to kill them, the report said.

In a letter responding to the latest report, the Afghan government said that its internal monitoring committee found that "the allegations of torture of detainees were untrue and thus disproved." The Afghan government said that it would not completely rule out the possibility of torture at its detention facilities, but that it was nowhere near the levels described in the report and that it was checking on reports of abuse.

The findings, however, highlight the type of human rights abuses that many activists worry could become more prevalent in Afghanistan as international forces draw down and the country's Western allies become less watchful over a government that so far has taken few concrete actions to reform the system.

As one detainee in the western province of Farah told the U.N. team: "They laid me on the ground. One of them sat on my feet and another one sat on my head, and the third one took a pipe and started beating me with it. They were beating me for some time like one hour and were frequently telling me that, 'You are with Taliban and this is what you deserve.'"

More than half of the 635 detainees interviewed had been tortured, according to the report titled Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody: One Year On. That is about the same ratio the U.N. found in its first report in 2011.

It's a troubling finding given the amount of international attention and pledges of reform that came after the first report. At that time, the NATO military alliance temporarily stopped transferring Afghans it had picked up to national authorities until they could set up a system free of abuse. Though it said the findings were exaggerated, the Afghan government promised after the first report to increase monitoring.

But little appears to have changed. Once NATO forces resumed the transfers and decreased inspections, torture quickly returned to earlier levels, the report said. And even though the international military force was making a serious effort to delay transfers if there was risk of torture, about 30 percent of 79 detainees who had been transferred to Afghan custody by foreign governments ended up being tortured, the report said. That's higher than in 2011, when the U.N. found that 24 percent of transferred detainees were tortured.

"Torture cannot be addressed by training, inspections and directives alone," said Georgette Gagnon, the head of human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, explaining that there has been little follow-through by the Afghan government.

In particular, the U.N. report found that the Afghan government appeared to be trying to hide the mistreatment and refusing to prosecute those accused of torturing prisoners.

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