Red Cross acts as middleman in Afghanistan POW deals
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Such incidents, and the knowledge that other Soviets were being held by the resistance, prompted the Red Cross to step up its efforts to find a solution.Skip to next paragraph
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But the humanitarian transfer, of captured uniformed members belonging to a conventional army, from the hands of an irregular resistance force to a third country for proxy internment represented a totally new concept of POW treatment. It has also fomented a highly controversial moral and legal imbroglio among human rights activists, international jurists and the Red Cross itself.
Earlier this year the Red Cross finally managed to work out an arrangement with the resistance and the Kremlin for the transfer of Soviet prisoners to Switzerland. As a result, for the first time the Geneva-based Red Cross has found itself responsible for the holding of war captives.
The long-awaited breakthrough came toward the end of May, 1982. The transfer was the first comprehensive agreement between the Red Cross and the USSR since 1945.
In accordance with the 1949 Geneva Convention, the Red Cross promised to assume full responsibility for the prisoners for two years, or the duration of the war, which ever turned out to be shorter. The Swiss government would provide internment facilities while the Soviets paid for all costs. In return, the Red Cross would have access to Afghan prisons to visit captured mujahideen.
Two more Soviets were transferred in August followed by another two in November. The Red Cross, however, after visiting several hundred prisoners in Kabul (but not the notorious detention centers of the Khad, the Afghan security police, in the capital and other towns) were obliged to leave by the communist authorities.
At present, all seven Soviets are held at the Zugerberger military detention center and hospital. Although they are allowed relative freedom such as guarded outings into the Swiss countryside and ample television viewing, they are kept well away from the public eye and, in particular, the press. Soviet embassy officials are permitted regular visits.
European human rights activists have argued that because some of the prisoners have gone on record with anti-Soviet remarks made in interviews before the transfers, their lives are in danger if they are eventually returned to the USSR.
One of the prisoners said that he had personally seen Soviet troops ''killing innocent people, breaking the locks of houses and then looting them for souvenirs to be sent back home.'' Another bitterly condemned the Soviet intervention, calling it an ''absurd'' war, and said the Kremlin should ''reconsider its position and withdraw its troops.''
The Red Cross maintains that in principle it would never oblige a prisoner to return against his will. But at the same time, Red Cross officials point out that the Soviet POWs were informed of the agreement with the Kremlin that they would be repatriated eventually.
It is evident that the Red Cross would like to keep all doors open for continued prison transfers.
At the same time, however, some Soviet prisoners inside Afghanistan are said to be unwilling to go to Switzerland in the knowledge that they might be sent back to the USSR to an uncertain future.
Resistance circles are also demanding that the communists stick to their part of the bargain and allow the Red Cross to continue visiting Afghan prisoners.
For the moment, internment in Switzerland appears to be the only satisfactory solution for guaranteed humanitarian treatment of Soviet prisoners. But the Red Cross, and the international community, have failed to ensure that Red Cross officials be granted the right to regularly and without hinderance visit all the prisons in Afghanistan, and not just a select one or two.
As refugee and resistance testimony has shown, there is no shortage of torture chambers in Afghanistan.
One suggested possibility to satisfy all parties is to permit an organization such an Amnesty International to visit both Soviet prisoners in Switzerland as well as the Afghan prisoners in conjunction with the Red Cross.