Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Outrage! NATO Transfers Prisoners to Afghan Torture

The latest in a series of scandals around use of torture by the U.S. and its allies concerns yesterday's revelations by Amnesty International (AI) that Nato-led forces have turned prisoners captured in Afghanistan over to certain torture by that country's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). AI specifically named "members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – particularly those from Belgium, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Norway."

Today, the executive head of the ISAF troops in Afghanistan, German General Egon Ramms, has confirmed the AI reports, adding NATO had received such reports. Canadian forces had even stopped handing over prisoners in the Kandahar province unless their safety could be vouchsafed. But the spin doctors are already on duty, as Reuters is reporting that a NATO spokesman is denying any "systematic mistreatment or torture of detainees" handed over to Afghanistan authorites.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week ordered authorities to stop torturing suspects in a tacit admission that the practice had been carried out.

Amnesty International's press release gets more specific (and, of course, the full report, "Detainees Transferred to Torture: ISAF Complicity?", even more so):

Over the past two years, Amnesty International has received repeated reports of torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the NDS, including detainees being whipped, exposed to extreme cold and deprived of food. Many of them have been arrested arbitrarily and detained incommunicado, without access to lawyers and families.

AI dates concerns about detention practices in Afghanistan back to 2002. They cite "failures by all parties to the conflict", including both the U.S. and the Taliban, to meet international norms and obligations regarding prisoners and detention. From the full report:

The two international agreements on the future of Afghanistan - the Bonn Agreement and the Afghanistan Compact - include clear international human rights obligations. Thus the Bonn Agreement provides for the establishment of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission,(14) as well as providing, in Article V(2):

"The Interim Authority and the Emergency Loya Jirga shall act in accordance with basic principles and provisions contained in international instruments on human rights and international humanitarian law to which Afghanistan is a party"..."

The Afghanistan Compact lists "Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights" among the "three critical and interdependent areas or pillars of activity for the five years from the adoption of this Compact".(16) The Compact provides, among other things, that by 2010:

"Government security and law enforcement agencies will adopt corrective measures including codes of conduct and procedures aimed at preventing arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, extortion and illegal expropriation of property with a view to the elimination of these practices"...

International Cover-Up

Needless to say, this story has been met with deafening silence in the country that initiated "Operation Enduring Freedom". In Canada, there was a more circumspect response from some, with Michael Byers of the Toronto Star opining:

The world's most respected human rights organization has just accused this country of complicity in torture. Canadians should hang their heads in shame....

One alleged victim claimed to have been taken to a room in the NDS compound in Kandahar where "the walls were covered with blood." There, he was hung from a hook on the ceiling and repeatedly beaten into unconsciousness.

As Amnesty International explains, Canada's current reliance on occasional verification visits is misplaced. Monitoring "is a technique to detect torture only after it happens, and cannot substitute for prior precautions that prevent torture from happening in the first place."

The human rights organization also criticizes Canada for downplaying the number of transfers that occur. (emphasis mine)

But the press is one thing, and the State another, and Stephen Harper's Canadian government has announced that endorses NATO's official pronouncement that there is "no evidence" of any such mistreatment given transferred prisoners. [I've been made aware that blueness at Daily Kos wrote a diary on the controversy in Canada over this issue some months ago. It complements the material in this diary very well: "Torture? What Torture?"] Not to be outdone, the Dutch have also backed NATO's see-no-evil stance, and refuse, moreover, to stop handing prisoners over to the NDS until the situation is remedied, as AI is demanding. I guess someone should tell General Ramms to get with the program!

While all this denial can be chalked up to a knee-jerk defensive reaction, all the evidence points to a long-term cover-up. Reading the U.S. State Department's own Human Rights report on Afghanistan, one wonders who ever reads these things, unless you work for AI, Human Rights First, the UN, or some such agency. Certainly NATO personnel haven't read them (except that damn General Ramms). Here's a bit from the last such report, dated March 6, 2007:

In November 2005 Kabul's Police Chief General Abdul Jamil Junbesh, allegedly tortured and killed a civilian named Hussain. In December 2005 police beat and killed a detainee at the Kabul police station. In both cases human rights activists characterized official investigations as ineffective and no formal charges were made....

Complaints of serious human rights violations committed by representatives of national security institutions, including arbitrary arrest, unconfirmed reports of torture, and illegal detention were numerous.

There were allegations that local commanders operated private prisons where they abused individuals in detention, in some cases resulting in their death....

For example, human rights organizations reported that local authorities in Herat, Helmand, Badakhshan, and other locations continued to routinely torture and abuse detainees. Torture and abuse consisted of pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy. (emphasis mine)

Not surprisingly, the role of the NDS is never mentioned, unless to place it in a positive light. Also not surprisingly, as a "media alert" by Human Rights First pointed out last March, the U.S. State Department report remains mum on "the detention and interrogation activities of the United States in the country". The U.S. is believed to hold hundreds if not thousands of individuals in uncertain legal status in unknown prisons and holding centers around Afghanistan.

The full AI report details how the ISAF coalition signed Memorandums of Understanding around the transfer of prisoners to the Afghanistan government. These MoUs are routinely have failed to guarantee the rights of transferred detainees. In many cases, it's not even certain to whom a prisoner will be turned over, although AI reports it's usually the NDS.

In practice, however, even the monitoring safeguards contained in such agreements are not met. The AIHRC (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission) has indicated that it has often been denied access to detention centres run by the NDS, and lacks the resources and capacity to carry out extensive monitoring. An AIHRC Commissioner stated that "the AIHRC has monitored NDS detention centres, but we had to contact them in advance. It is not free access, although recently we received a letter signed by the head of NDS to provide access to AIHRC’s monitors, but this is not happening at the moment…in Kandahar, we have not [been] provided [with] full access and still we don’t feel confident about their full cooperation"...

AI is concerned that provisions in the MoUs governing monitoring are only implemented in part. More fundamentally, the organisation emphasises that - even where carried out by a professional, independent and dedicated organization - visits to places of detention, while constituting a crucial element in the prevention of torture and other ill-treatment, are far from being sufficient on their own. These concerns are reinforced by the experiences of the ICRC in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay – and indeed in relation to Bagram in Afghanistan, where torture and other ill-treatment were inflicted extensively despite ICRC’s regular visits, monitoring of reported abuse and relaying of concerns. (emphases mine)

A "Good" War Goes Rotten

The war in Afghanistan is often positively compared to the travesty of an occupation by the U.S. and its faux-coalition in Iraq. It's supposed to be the "good" war, fighting the Taliban, helping the Afghans, etc. But recent reports from top officials outside the U.S. are saying the war may already be lost. Well, now we can get some idea why. Just as Abu Ghraib belied the supposed U.S. good intentions in Iraq, a similar scandal surfaces in the war everybody is supposed to support. (Not one U.S. politician running for president is calling for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, as far as I can tell.)

One keeps thinking that the scandals around torture can't get any worse. Oh, sure, some of the pictures and videos from Abu Ghraib, showing the worst forms of rape and torture in that prison, have been suppressed. And, yes, the Democrats failed to even discipline their own members to prevent Congressional approval of a new Attorney General for Bush who knows how to read the script on legal double-talk when it comes to U.S. torture. But now the precious adventure in Afghanistan is shown to be an international travesty, with supposed liberal countries like Canada and the Netherlands, complicit in the rendition of detainees to a country that tortures. In this case, it's the same country they are supposedly fighting to protect.

How much tortured can the logic of support for this sick country and the existing international order can it get? When you recover from the vertiginous vertigo instilled by the latest revelation of crimes by this government and its allies, send a letter or email of protest to NATO, asking it to "1. Revise all detainee transfer policies and provide support to member states in the creation of minimum standards regarding detainee transfers for ISAF states operating in Afghanistan; and 2. Work with relevant partners including member states, the EU, UN, ICRC and AIHRC to develop a national plan for the Afghan prison system in line with UN Security Council resolution 1776."

NATO Headquarters
Blvd Leopold III
1110 Brussels, Belgium

And while you're at it, send a little loving AI's way. (And lest anyone think AI is unfair or one-sided in its coverage, read its April 2007 report, "All who are not friends, are enemies: Taliban abuses against civilians". I haven't bothered to cover it here, as coverage of Taliban atrocities are widely reported already in the mainstream press.)

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