Human rights activists are speaking out about Afghanistan's appalling prisons, saying detainees are routinely tortured and held in filthy, overcrowded cells with little food. Prison officials reject those charges. But as RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah reports, they are also hoping to improve conditions by offering human rights training to prison workers across Afghanistan.
Prague, 14 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Shafiqa" is a 23-year-old Afghan woman being held behind bars at Kabul Welayat Prison.
Charged with attempted murder and awaiting trial, Shafiqa and 28 others are locked up in the center's only compound for female detainees.
It has no running water and no proper bathing facilities. Inmates wash with water from a stagnant pool. They share one dirty, overflowing toilet. With five others, Shafiqa says she is held in a small, dark room.
"We had a lot of foreign visitors. We asked them to help to repair the bathroom, because its smell and flies are making us sick. But nothing has changed."
Her fellow inmate, Zahra, complains about inadequate food. She says prisoners rely on relatives to bring them food. Those with no visitors depend on poor prison grub: bread and tea for breakfast, boiled potatoes and rice for lunch and dinner.
Zahra says prisoners usually have to pay for the bread and eggs.
"We don't get proper food. Prisoners without visitors receive only boiled potatoes from prison staff. In the dark, it is impossible to see what kind of food it is. Prisoners with no money or visitors have only boiled potatoes to eat. Everyone is weak and ill here because of the poor food."
Yasumin Mayora is an officer at the prison. She tells RFE/RL that the prison staff is also affected by the situation.
"There are snakes and scorpions and all kind of insects in the prison. Our main problem is lack of running water. Toilets and bathrooms are extremely, extremely dirty. Bathroom walls and doors are half broken and full of holes. I cannot tell you what our corridors look like. We don't have electricity most of the time, and some prison workers fell in the dark and injured or broke their legs. But no one pays any attention."
Prison officials complain that the prison lacks the funds and resources to upgrade the building.
But human rights activists say there are more basic ways to improve conditions, such as keeping the bathrooms clean or providing fresh water.
They are just as concerned about alleged torture and abuse of prisoners and a lack of awareness among prisoners about their rights.
Human rights advocates say most prisoners -- especially outside the capital -- have no access to lawyers or information on their rights. Detainees are held for months without being charged or having a judge rule on the legality of their detention.
Mohammad Farid Hamidi of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission says torture and abuse of prisoners is common in prisons throughout the country. He says detainees are beaten during interrogations, and in some prisons held in iron shackles.
Prison officials, however, reject these charges.
But Salom Khan Bakhshi, head of Afghanistan's Prison Affairs, does acknowledge the poor conditions of the country's prisons, which he says is the result of a lack of funds.
"Torture and rape of prisoners do not exist in our prisons. But I admit that their living conditions are not acceptable. Conditions in our prison cells are not compatible with any human norms, I should say. Their living conditions are not comparable with international standards, but with the limited resources we receive from the state, we have been doing our best."
But even as Bakhshi denies the existence of torture and abuse, he says the government is nonetheless planning to reform the prison system.
That reform is set to begin this week, he says, when a special training course for prison workers will be set up in Kabul. Specialists from Amnesty International and other local and international groups will give lectures on the proper treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners and detainees. They will also teach prison officials about holding workshops where prisoners can learn new vocational skills.
But human rights advocate Hamidi says tackling the public prison system in Afghanistan is just a first step.
Hamidi tells RFE/RL there are a significant number of illegal, unofficial prisons -- called "private prisons" -- run by commanders or other powerful figures across the country. These individuals are believed to detain people out of personal vendetta or animosity, and with no legal basis.
"In many Afghan provinces, some influential commanders have private prisons. Conditions in private prisons are far worse and inhuman than in official prisons. We cannot name one or two people who run [private prisons], there are quite a lot of them."
Hamidi says that in these jails -- which have no link to the central government -- the cases of torture and abuse and overall general conditions are far more severe than in the state prisons.
(Ahmad Takal of RFE/RL's Kabul office contributed to this report.)