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New U.S. Afghan Prison Unveiled, Rights Groups Wary

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- The U.S. military has unveiled a new $60 million Afghan prison it says will provide detainees better living conditions and promote transparency, but rights groups said the changes were not enough.

International media were allowed to visit the facility at Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, that will replace an existing prison which has drawn widespread criticism.

The new prison, which was completed in September and is still empty, will begin housing prisoners from the old facility in the next two weeks, with transfer of the roughly 700 detainees to be completed by the end of the year.

"The new facility ... provides improved detainee living conditions ... as well as vocational, technical, and other programmes to assist with peaceful reintegration of released detainees," said U.S. Brigadier General Mark Martins.

"This facility, and these reintegration programmes ... will promote transparency and legitimacy," Martins, interim commander for U.S. detainee operations in Afghanistan, told reporters at the base north of Kabul.

The existing Bagram prison has become a symbol of detainee abuses for Afghans after the deaths of two detainees in 2002. In June, the BBC reported allegations of abuse and neglect at the facility after interviewing 27 former inmates.

Asked how he would describe conditions there, Martins said it had always met international and domestic standards. No media has ever been allowed to visit the notorious detention facility.

Sanctuaries For Insurgents

General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said insurgents use detention facilities as sanctuaries and has criticized U.S. facilities like Bagram, where prisoners have fewer rights than those held at Guantanamo Bay.

In September, the Pentagon announced that prisoners at Bagram prison would be able to have their detention reviewed roughly every six months and would be assigned personal representatives drawn from U.S. military ranks.

Those detainees' representatives would not be lawyers.

The new review process, the Pentagon says, is "consistent" with the counter-insurgency strategy put in place by McChrystal, aimed at winning public support and undercutting recent gains by the Taliban.

But rights groups say the measures do not go far enough and have called on President Barack Obama to revise U.S. detention policies in Afghanistan further.

"All detainees in Afghanistan are entitled to minimum protections, including the right to legal counsel, and to be able to challenge the legal and factual basis for the detention before an independent and impartial tribunal," three leading rights groups said in a statement.

"The U.S. reforms still fall short of providing detainees with those rights," Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and Human Rights Watch said in the statement.

The new prison, which will cost another $67 million to start up, can house up to 1,100 detainees.

It includes classrooms and vocational facilities where detainees can be taught technical skills in agriculture, masonry, and tailoring.

The long-term goal was also to train Afghan guards and eventually hand over the prison to the Afghans, Martins said.