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Afghanistan: Prisoner Abuse Scandal Overshadows Karzai's Talks With Bush

Karzai has met with Bush several times before (file photo) Afghan President Hamid Karzai's talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington today come amid increasing tension over the abuse of Afghan prisoners by U.S. soldiers and interrogators. Karzai has said he will raise his concerns with Bush and ask that all Afghan prisoners be turned over to his government. Karzai also says he wants more control over U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United Nations has joined a call by independent human rights groups for justice in the cases of two Afghan prisoners who died in late 2002 while in U.S. custody at the U.S. military prison at Bagram air base outside Kabul. The Pentagon is treating those cases as a homicide and determined last October that there is probable cause to indict at least 27 U.S. soldiers. But so far, only seven have been charged and none have been convicted. Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission says an independent prosecutor is needed.

Prague, 23 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Karzai's talks with Bush in Washington today are being overshadowed by a prisoner abuse scandal in Afghanistan.

On the eve of the talks, the United Nations' Assistance Mission in Afghanistan strongly criticized the abuse of two Afghan detainees who died in U.S. custody in late 2002 at the Bagram Airfield north of Kabul..

The deaths of the detainees -- Dilawar and Habibullah -- in December of 2002 has been documented in a 2,000 page criminal investigation file. Details from that Pentagon investigation were leaked to "The New York Times" and published on 20 May.

UN spokesman Richard Provencher says punishment should be meted out to all U.S. soldiers and interrogators who repeatedly struck Dilawar and Habibullah and then left them shackled to the ceiling of an isolation cell where they died.

"The circumstances involving the abuse and inhumane treatment leading to the death of two Afghan prisoners in Bagram in 2002 -- reported in 'The New York Times' on the basis of a U.S Army investigation -- are deeply disturbing. Such abuses are utterly unacceptable and are an affront to everything the international community stands for in Afghanistan," Provencher says.
"The issue of prisoner abuse is something that the United States has been investigating for two years. It is really time for President Bush to finally look for some real accountability -- including at the highest levels of his own government." -- Afghan expert Sam Zarifi

According to "The New York Times," the Pentagon file concludes that the murdered Afghan detainees both died as a result of the beatings they received at the Bagram Collection Point. That is a temporary holding facility where suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants are interrogated and screened for possible transfer to the Pentagon's long-term detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"The New York Times" reports that “within days after the two deaths in December 2002, military coroners determined that both had been caused by "blunt force trauma" to the legs. Soon after, soldiers and others at Bagram told the investigators that military guards had repeatedly struck both men in the thighs while they were shackled and that one had also been mistreated by military interrogators.”

The paper cites the report as quoting a coroner as telling a hearing in connection with Dilawar’s death as saying the tissue in his legs “had basically been pulpified."

The only independent monitors allowed into the Bagram Colleciton Point have been delegates from the International Red Cross -- and those delegates have complained that they were denied access to all detainees as required by the Geneva Convention.

The U.S. military also has repeatedly denied requests by human rights groups and numerous news organizations -- including RFE/RL -- to visit the Bagram detention and interrogation facilities.

Provencher yesterday could not promise that UN officials will be allowed into Bagram detention center. But he promised that the UN will work harder in the future to protect Afghans from such abuses.

"In support of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan -- under its mandate monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan -- will redouble its own verification efforts in regard of military arrests and detentions," Provencher said.

The Pentagon is treating the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah as homicides. Last October, the U.S. military's Criminal Investigation Command concluded there is probable cause to charge at least 27 U.S. soldiers. But so far, only seven U.S. soldiers have been charged -- and none have been convicted.

Nader Ahmad Naderi, spokesman for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, says it is time for the U.S. military to allow human rights monitors inside the Bagram detention center. He also says a prosecutor should be appointed who is independent from the U.S. military or U.S. government.

"The best source for investigating these cases includes granting access to the Human Rights Commission to do monitoring. But for the [criminal] investigation, I think an independent prosecutor is needed to go and to investigate these cases. [That is] because none of those people who may be involved in those misbehaviors -- or somehow in
torturing those [detainees who died in Afghanistan] -- have been brought to justice or to accountability. [They have] have not been prosecuted so far," Naderi says.

Sam Zarifi, an Afghan expert for the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, says it also is time for Washington to show Afghans that such abuses are not tolerated.

"The issue of prisoner abuse is something that the United States has been investigating for two years. It is really time for President Bush to finally look for some real accountability -- including at the highest levels of his own government," Zarifi says.

Zarifi says that Karzai must remain firm with Bush on the issue of prisoner abuse. But he says Karzai also still needs help from the United States for economic reconstruction and with a security situation that has deteriorated rapidly during May.

"There is tremendous pressure on both President Karzai and President Bush to declare Afghanistan a success. What we are worried about is that by declaring Afghanistan a success, the amount of support for Afghanistan will decrease at precisely the time that it needs it most. There have been a lot of promises made to the people of Afghanistan about sending more ISAF troops and sending more development aid -- neither of which has occurred at the level that has been promised. President Karzai should use pretty strong language during his visit to Washington to ask for that," Zarifi said.

Zarifi says the need for the deployment of more additional foreign security forces across Afghanistan is particularly crucial as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in September.