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Afghan Report: March 6, 2006

6 March 2006, Volume 5, Number 7

The next issue of "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report" will appear on March 20.

Five days after it began, the crisis at Kabul's Pol-e Charkhi prison ended on March 1. Tensions appear to have subsided, but questions linger.

One that has now been answered is how many people were killed when prisoners seized a wing of the high-security prison and during the subsequent standoff with Afghan security forces. Early reports indicated that five died and over 20 were injured, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has told RFE/RL that the current death toll is six. That figure may rise, though, as two of the 22 injured are in a critical condition.

Broader questions -- such as who instigated the riots and why -- have not been independently corroborated. But what the standoff will do is to return attention to the government's reconciliation program aimed at ending the neo-Taliban insurgency and the impact on future dealings with captured militants.

A Troubled History

That problems should arise at Pol-e Charkhi was in itself perhaps not a surprise, as twice in a little over a year there had been serious incidents at the prison. In December 2004, foreign prisoners attacked guards with razor blades. A subsequent shoot-out left one Iraqi and three Pakistani prisoners and four Afghan police dead.

Then, this January, seven prisoners escaped from Pol-e Charkhi, apparently by mingling with visitors. Some reports indicated they had links to the neo-Taliban or Al-Qaeda; the prison's governor, General Abdul Salam Bakhshi denied that, calling them unimportant prisoners.

It was a measure introduced to prevent a further prison break -- the introduction of orange uniforms to make prisoners distinguishable from visitors -- that, according to Deputy Justice Minister Mohammad Qasim Hashemzai, triggered the riots on February 26.

Hashemzai says the prisoners attacked their guards after refusing to wear the uniforms.

It is not clear who caused the deaths and injuries. When asked by RFE/RL whether the casualties were the result of the force used by the prison authorities, Olivier Moeckli of the ICRC said that "of course" there were "a few assaults against prisoners," adding that the use of force was restricted "mainly" to the first evening (see below).

It is also unclear why, on February 28, some prisoners resumed their violence after the chief negotiator, Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, had persuaded prisoners to allow the wounded and dead to be taken from the prison. Deputy Justice Minister Hashimzai speculated that the prisoners were receiving instructions from outside via mobile phones. It is not clear how prisoners at Pol-e Charkhi could have obtained phones.

The authorities themselves have been unambiguous about whom they believe instigated the uprising. The commander of Kabul police department's rapid reaction police force, General Mahbub Amiri, on February 28 said it was "clear" that "some Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners wanted to create chaos and escape." That was a view echoed by Hashimzai, who said that around 350 Taliban and Al-Qaeda inmates had been among the roughly 1,000 prisoners reportedly involved in the riot. The rioters are said to have shouted slogans against the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Reconciliation Program And Neo-Taliban Prisoners

While Mojaddedi did not go into details about who spearheaded the riots at Pol-e Charkhi, his presence as the head of the government's negotiating team could be viewed as a clue that the prisoners' leaders were in some way linked with the neo-Taliban. Mojaddedi, who is the speaker of the Council of Elders, the upper house of the National Assembly, also serves as the chairman of the Commission for National Reconciliation, which is trying to end the neo-Taliban insurgency by inviting militants to make peace with the government. (Mojaddedi was not the only name to be put forward by the prisoners; some wanted a pro-Karzai deputy and others the speaker of the People's Council of the National Assembly, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, to act as negotiators.)

The prison does not hold the most of the more dangerous known Al-Qaeda members. Those remain in U.S. custody at the Bagram air base north of Kabul. The Afghan government is, though, increasingly taking charge of captured neo-Taliban combatants.

Among the prisoners' complaints were poor living conditions. In a report published in 2005, a UN-appointed independent expert mandated to review the human rights situation in Afghanistan, M. Cherif Bassiouni, described the conditions at Pol-e Charkhi prison as "sub-standard." Bassiouni complained that prisoners are "inappropriately shackled" in overcrowded cells, and also about "inadequate sanitation, open electrical wiring, and broken and missing windows during freezing temperatures."

Following the riots, though, the prisoners have now had to be moved to a wing of the prison where conditions are worse, says the ICRC's Olivier Moeckli. "The ICRC had worked and assisted the authorities in repairing the wings where the prisoners were held," he said. "Now�they are in a wing where quite heavy work needs to be done."

Some of the grievances were "reasonable," Mojaddedi said.

Controversially, he included in that list complaints "against prosecutors, judges, and the prison officials and about being jailed for no reason."

By legitimizing some of the grievances of the prisoners against prosecutors and judges and effectively stating that some of the prisoners have been incarcerated for no reason, the Commission for National Reconciliation opens the door for suspected anti-government militants to claim clemency through the reconciliation program even after they are captured in action. The danger is that this could prolong the insurgency.

Given the dismal state of the judicial system and prisons in Afghanistan, both Mojaddedi and the prisoners may, of course, have a legitimate point to make.

What the Pol-e Charkhi crisis should do is to bring the attention of the Kabul government and its international backers to the urgent need to turbo-charge the process of revamping Afghanistan's judicial system from top to bottom. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan authorities announced on March 1 that a violent prison siege in the Pol-e Charkhi prison outside Kabul ended after all of the some 1,300 prisoners were moved to a new jail block under police control. An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team has been present at the prison since February 26 to assess the needs for protection and assistance and to provide support for the various parties concerned. RFE/RL Prague correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to the ICRC representative in Kabul, Olivier Moeckli, about the situation in the prison after four days of riots.

RFE/RL: What is the situation in the prison now?

Moeckli: Well, now the situation is quiet again, things are back more or less to normal. One of the blocks where the riots happened has been emptied and the prisoners have agreed to be relocated to stop the riot so they are now in another wing. There is some work to do to make this wing really acceptable regarding the conditions, so the ICRC is today present in the prison again to assess what can be done, especially for water and sanitation.

RFE/RL: What is the latest figure you have regarding the number of casualties?

Moeckli: Six people were killed and 22 people were injured, two of them being in a critical condition. An Italian NGO called "Emergency" took care of the wounded and some have been transferred to the emergency hospital, some have been [treated] on the spot.

RFE/RL: Are the casualties the result of the use of force by authorities?

Moeckli: Yes of course, [there were] a few assaults against the prisoners. The ICRC was present throughout all the riots since Sunday morning (26 February) and we have been constantly in contact with all parties and advising them not to use force and violence and we must say that largely this was quite successful, the use of force was mainly during the first evening on Saturday and then fortunately everything went quite easily.

RFE/RL: What were the main demands of the prisoners?

Moeckli: The main thing was the fact they are now forced to wear [uniforms, and they object to this]; recently there was an escape during family visits and the prisoners were until very recently wearing their normal clothes and they have [now] been provided with uniforms and we of their main demands [was to not have to wear these uniforms]. There have been also demands regarding the conditions, food and water; things we also constantly discuss with authorities and finally some have asked for a review of their [cases].

RFE/RL: Do you think the demands and complaints regarding the living conditions in the prison are going to be addressed?

Moeckli: We hope so. It's true that conditions in Afghan prisons are not good as Afghanistan is a very poor country and has been severely damaged by years of war. The ICRC has issued an assessment report in January and has encouraged the donors to provide funding for the amelioration of prisons. We are very hopeful that this will be tackled in the coming months.

RFE/RL: Could you describe the conditions in Pol-e Charkhi prison?

Moeckli: The water-system sanitation, all this was quite OK; [the] ICRC had worked and assisted the authorities in repairing the wings where the prisoners were held and now that they had to move, they are in a wing where quite heavy work needs to be done. So it's a very old building; the facilities, the toilets, the water pipes have been damaged over time and quite a lot of repairs need to be done.

George Bush hails Afghanistan as an "inspiration" to democrats during the first visit to Afghanistan by a U.S. president since 1959.

U.S. President George W. Bush on March 1 paid a flying visit to the Afghan capital Kabul en route to India and Pakistan.

Bush is the first serving U.S. president to visit Afghanistan since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.

Bush's brief appearance in Kabul beside Afghan President Hamid Karzai was more symbolic than substantive. But it may have served to show the Afghan people that the United States is still behind them and to reassure Karzai that when Bush meets with Pakistani officials Kabul's concerns will not be forgotten.

The U.S. president arrived at the U.S.-run Bagram air base with his wife, Laura and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and was then whisked to the presidential palace in Kabul for a short meeting with his Afghan counterpart and a brief press conference.

Describing Bush's visit as "a wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today," Karzai called Bush "our great friend, our great supporter, a man [who] helped liberate us, a man [who] helped us rebuild, a man [who] helped us move toward the future."

With helicopters and warplanes flying overhead to ensure security, Bush also praised the Afghan people, saying their determination to move on a path toward democracy was an inspiration to people around the world.

"People all over the world are watching the experience here in Afghanistan," Bush said. "I hope the people of Afghanistan understand that, as democracy takes hold, you are inspiring others, and that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom."

"And as the world becomes more free, the world will become more peaceful," Bush concluded.

Bush also stressed that the United States is determined to eliminate the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, an especially important message at this point as Al-Qaeda militants have stepped up their campaign of violence in Afghanistan in recent months.

"We're making progress [on] dismantling Al-Qaeda," Bush stated.

Al-Qaeda will be a topic of discussion when Bush meets with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf and other officials on 4 March. And the U.S. president's stopover in Kabul may have been meant to assure Karzai that Bush would not forget about the often tense relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan when he meets with Pakistani officials. He may also and may bring up Afghan concerns.

Those relations have been particularly tense this year following an upsurge in violence in southern Afghanistan. Kabul expressed its conviction that militants from the former Taliban regime are using Pakistan as a base on 15 February when Karzai presented his Pakistani counterpart Pervez Musharraf with a list of militants suspected to be in Pakistan. On February 27, Musharraf dismissed two-thirds of the list as "a waste of time," condemned Afghan "lies," and called Afghan accusations against the Pakistani authorities "nonsensical."

The Kabul stop may prove to be the easiest part of Bush's tour through south Asia as thousands of protesters are waiting for his arrival in both India and Pakistan.

In a report released on March 1 in New York, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) says almost all of the heroin entering Europe comes from Afghanistan. The INCB also says that the strategy of encouraging opium-poppy farmers to switch to other crops is not working and that an "alternative development" approach is needed.

Over the years, the INCB has searched for the best ways to encourage farmers growing plants used for producing illegal drugs to get out of that lucrative business.

A key focus has been on opium-poppy growers in Afghanistan and coca growers in Latin America. In both cases, international development agencies have urged the farmers to switch to food crops -- like wheat or corn � instead, despite the fact that can be much less profitable.

But in a report issued today in New York and based upon data collected in 2005, the Vienna-based INCB tacitly acknowledges that this "crop substitution" strategy has largely failed.

The report recommends instead that governments and international agencies now switch to what it calls a "comprehensive alternative-development approach." That is an approach that would include not only the cultivation of alternative crops, but would emphasize transport and infrastructure development, education, health care, security, stability, and good governance in opium-poppy- and coca-growing areas.

"The idea of crop substitution is a faulty one because there is no crop that could replace in value the amount that either the coca growers or the opium growers or, for that matter, the marijuana growers could make through their illegal cultivation of these substances," Melvyn Levitsky, a retired U.S. diplomat and a INCB board member, said at a press conference at the UN on 28 February. "The idea of alternative development and legitimate livelihoods is to take a broad, integrated approach toward the issue, both on the supply side and on the demand side."

The alternative-development approach, the INCB report says, should also take into account socioeconomic conditions, geographical factors, marketing, trade, government services, and the way law and order is applied in drug-growing parts of the world.

Law And Order A Key Factor

Levitsky said it is recognized that most drug cultivation happens in areas that are de facto ungovernable by a central authority. Afghanistan is a glaring example, he said, because influential warlords, whose main income is derived from drugs, exercise unobstructed power in their fiefdoms.

"The question is how do you bring government into these areas, how do you entice those growers into moving toward legitimate activities, how could you provide services and education for their children along with the prospect of losing their income if in fact law enforcement prevails, into a sustainable development that will keep these people out of the drug production area," Levitsky said.

The INCB report, which looks at drug issues worldwide, includes other observations about the Afghan drug trade.

Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Central Asian states -- in particular Tajikistan -- the report says, continue to be the main points for transshipment of Afghan heroin that is destined for markets in Europe and North America.

Pakistan remains the country with the largest seizure of opiates: in 2003 the haul was 34.7 tons, or 31 percent of global seizures. Seizures of opiates in Turkey increased almost threefold, the report says, from 5.7 tons in 2003 to 14.7 in 2004.

In 2004, seizures of opium in Iran increased to 174 tons, nearly double the number recorded in 2003. Iran, the report says, is the country with by far the largest volume of seized opium. In 2003, the last year for which data on global opium seizures are available, Iran accounted for 73 percent of global opium seizures. (Nikola Krastev)