The U.N. team received "multiple credible reports" that in some places detainees were hidden from international observers in secret locations underground or separate from the main facility being inspected. Also, the observers said they saw what appeared to be a suspicious increase in detainees held at police facilities when an intelligence service facility nearby was being monitored.
And particularly in the southern province of Kandahar, the U.N. received reports that authorities were using unofficial sites to torture detainees before transporting them to the regular prison.
In a letter responding to the U.N. report, Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that his staff had written letters to Afghan ministers urging them to investigate more than 80 separate allegations of detainee abuse during the past 18 months.
"To date, Afghan officials have acted in only one instance," Allen said in the letter. In that case Afghan authorities did not fire the official in question, but transferred him from Kandahar province to Sar-e-Pul in the north.
The report documents what it called a "persistent lack of accountability for perpetrators of torture," noting that no one has been prosecuted for prisoner abuse since the first report was released.
Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the Afghan president, said torture and abuse of prisoners was not Afghan policy.
"However, there may be certain cases of abuse and we have begun to investigate these cases mentioned in the U.N. report," he said. "We will take actions accordingly."
But he said that while the Afghan government takes the allegations in the report very seriously, "we also question the motivations behind this report and the way it was conducted." He did not elaborate.
The NATO military alliance responded to the most recent report by stopping transfers of detainees to seven facilities in Kabul, Laghman, Herat, Khost and Kunduz provinces — most of them the same facilities that were flagged a year ago. The transfers were halted in October, when the U.N. shared its preliminary findings with the military coalition.
"This action is a result of concerns over detainee treatment at certain Afghan detention facilities," said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the international military alliance in Kabul.
He said there has been no suspension of transfers to the massive detention center next to Bagram Air Field outside of Kabul. That facility has been particularly contentious because the U.S. has held back from transferring all the detainees it holds there to Afghan custody.
But as international troops draw down in Afghanistan, there will be fewer people to monitor the Afghan detention centers. Allen said in his letter that the NATO military alliance planned to focus on monitoring only a subset of Afghan facilities in the future.
And even the manner in which the U.N. report was compiled and released shows the waning influence of Western allies over the Afghan government. Both last year and again on Sunday, the report was released without a news conference. Instead, it was quietly posted on the U.N. website in what appeared to be an effort to avoid publicly antagonizing the Afghan government that it criticizes in the report.
"I think it's being dealt with in the appropriate way. Maybe we don't need to do it publicly," Gagnon said, noting that there have been plenty of discussions with the Afghan government about how to improve the prison system.
Asked what progress had been made toward improving the prison system since 2011, Gagnon was at a loss to give an example. But, she stressed: "There has been quite a lot of effort."
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