KABUL, Afghanistan — Intense efforts to halt torture and other harsh, coercive methods that are used in some Afghan intelligence and police detention centers have failed to produce any appreciable improvement in the treatment of detainees, according to a report released by the United Nations, raising questions for the international military coalition.
The report, titled “Treatment of Conflict Related Detainees in Afghan Custody” and released last Sunday, offered a grim tour of Afghanistan’s detention facilities, where even adolescents have reported abuse such as beatings with hoses and pipes and threats of sodomy.
Despite concerted efforts for more than a year to train Afghan intelligence and police officials in interrogation techniques that respect human rights, the U.N. investigation found that incidences of torture by the police had risen.
In the case of the intelligence service, the U.N. reported a lower incidence of torture. But it was not clear whether that finding reflected improved behavior as much as it did a decrease in the number of detainees handed over to the intelligence service by the international military coalition. And some detainees have alluded to new secret interrogation centers.
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The Afghan government rejected the report’s specific allegations but said that there were some abuses and that it had taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of detainees. The government gave U.N. officials access to those held in all but one detention facility.
Among the questions raised by the report is whether the pervasiveness of torture will make it difficult for the U.S. military to hand over those being held in the Parwan Detention Facility, also known as Bagram Prison, as required under the agreement reached this month in Washington between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The international Convention Against Torture, which the United States has signed, prohibits nations from sending detainees “to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
The U.N. did not look at the Parwan Detention Facility, in part because it is not yet wholly under Afghan control. But there could be questions about whether, given the inadequacies throughout the Afghan system, it would violate the torture convention to transfer those prisoners under U.S. control to the Afghans. According to some estimates, 700 to 900 prisoners are still in U.S. custody there.
The military is confident that the Afghan section of the Parwan center follows all of the human-rights guidelines on the treatment of detainees, said Col. Thomas Collins, a senior spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which is known as ISAF. And, although conditions could worsen after the U.S. departs, or prisoners could be transferred to other facilities where abuse occurred, the Americans cannot do anything about that.
Even before the report’s official publication, it had considerable impact on Gen. John Allen, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan. On Jan. 11, after reviewing an early copy, he ordered a halt in transfers of detainees who were picked up on the battlefield to all of the 34 Afghan detention sites that the report cited for abuse.
After a U.N. report on torture in 2011, the international coalition suspended transfers of battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan detention sites. ISAF resumed transfers to most of those centers after certifying that they were complying with human-rights protocols.
Then, in October 2012, the coalition received new reports of torture and abuse and halted some of the transfers that it had restarted only months before, the U.N. report said. The U.N. has briefed ISAF at several points in the course of its research, which included interviews with more than 600 detainees as well as employees of the Afghan intelligence service, the Afghan police, judges and prosecutors.
In a letter appended to the report by Allen to Jan Kubis, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, he describes for the first time the enormous efforts that the coalition and he personally have made to stem the abuse. The ISAF approach, which the U.N. praises, includes training, spot checks and monitoring of detainees.
Despite Allen’s requests over the past eight months that Afghan officials take action in 80 cases — and in some cases asking them to remove individuals accused of abuse — “to date Afghan officials have acted in only one instance,” Allen wrote. In that case, an intelligence official was merely moved to another province, he said.
The Afghan government’s 20-page response, which is included in the U.N. report, rejected all specific allegations, including “beating with rubber pipes or water pipes, forced confession, suspension, twisting of the detainees’ penises and wrenching of the detainees’ testicles, death threats, sexual abuse and child abuse.”
The U.N. study, which took a year to complete, describes a country in conflict where a prime goal of the security officials is to remove potentially dangerous individuals by detaining and torturing them until they confess.
Torture is hardly new in Afghanistan. When the Communists ruled, the intelligence service, then known as the Khad, was widely feared for its rough treatment of suspects. Changing such an ingrained culture would take an enormous effort, both the U.N. and ISAF officials say.