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Hunger Strike Revives Allegations Of Mistreatment At Afghan Prisons

Prison wardens stand guard during a visit by local and international media at Pul-e Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul
KABUL -- The notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison outside Kabul has long been a byword for torture and violence.

During the Soviet invasion, prison guards were accused of executing thousands of opposition political figures.

In the past decade, inmates have alleged widespread abuse and mistreatment at the hands of Afghan officials. Those allegations of prisoner mistreatment resurfaced this week after prison officials at Pul-e Charkhi confirmed that at least 100 inmates had gone on hunger strike and sewed their lips together in protest at what they say are inhumane conditions.

The protest comes at a time when lawmakers and rights activists are becoming increasingly concerned about the Afghan government's preparations to take full control of another notorious prison located on the grounds of Bagram air base.

Naimatullah Ghafari, the second deputy speaker of parliament, claims current conditions at Afghan prisons are worrying, with inmates suffering from a lack of clothing and other shortages.

"There are problems there [in Pul-e Charkhi]," he says. "The electricity is cut off and there are also shortages in water and food supplies."

Ghafari adds that a delegation will be sent to investigate the situation in Pul-e-Charkhi, which is run by the Afghan government and houses over 3,000 inmates, many of them ex-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters as well as convicted murderers and drug smugglers.

Investigation Under Way

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has also said it is "currently investigating" the situation at Pul-e Charkhi and other prisons where wrongdoing has been reported.

One of the facilities identified by the AIHRC is the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, a detention center located at the site of the U.S. military's largest base in Afghanistan.

Pul-e Charkhi is no stranger to prisoner unrest. Inmates rioted against abuse and dire living conditions in 2009
Pul-e Charkhi is no stranger to prisoner unrest. Inmates rioted against abuse and dire living conditions in 2009
Control of the prison, where U.S. interrogators in 2004 were accused by former detainees of torture and murder and the site of the recent Koran burnings, is to be handed over to the Afghan government within the next six months under an agreement reached on March 9.

While the Afghan government has welcomed the move, some Afghan legislators and human-rights activists suggest that conditions at the prison may deteriorate after the government takes control.

Some point to the Afghan government's handling of Pul-e Charkhi to illustrate that point.

'Inhumane Treatment'

Prisoners at Pul-e Charkhi began their hunger strike earlier this week, saying they suffer from overcrowding, malnutrition, and are being denied access to religious texts.

Abdullah, an inmate who spoke to RFE/RL on March 15, resides in Block 6, which is where political prisoners are kept.

Abdullah, who did not reveal why he is in jail or for how long, insists that inmates at the prison are being treated inhumanely.

"We are 800 political prisoners," he says. "We started a hunger strike two days ago. They [prison officials] are enforcing strict constraints on us. They don't allow us to have a Koran or other religious materials. We also don't have enough food to eat."

Those sentiments are shared by Ihsanullah another Block 6 inmate.

"They don't allow us to have Korans, we don't have enough clothing, and the cells have open toilets," he says. "They place a lot of limitations on what we are allowed to do. In a very small area, there are more than 20 prisoners inside one cell."

The prison's warden, General Khan Mohammad Khan, denies the allegations. He insists that the prisoners on hunger strike are exaggerating the state of their living conditions in order to attract media attention.

"The prisoners have access to Korans and other religious books," he says. "They have good living conditions, beds, and live in cleanliness. [The current conditions] meet all standards and prisoners have access to these standard services. They have demands, but there are no specific issues."

Prison officials at Pul-e Charkhi say Korans were confiscated because they were being used by the prisoners, who include ex-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, to communicate and to radicalize other inmates.

The hunger strike is not the first protest at Pul-e Charkhi.

In November 2009, prisoners rioted against abuse and dire living conditions.

The incident ended in a number of deaths and injuries, although those accounts differ.

Officials say seven prisoners were killed in the violence, while Taliban inmates claimed a much higher number of fatalities.

Written and reported by Frud Bezhan, with additional reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Naseem Shafaq
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.