Prison reform a long way off for Afghanistan

Citing lack of funds, officials say they expect poor conditions for inmates to persist.

In a cramped steel shipping container that once trucked smuggled goods to Afghanistan, Ghulam Sanai and about a dozen other prisoners sip tea and await their fates.

Some, like Mr. Sanai, are accused car thieves waiting for trial. Some are convicted murderers and rapists serving time. At least one is an insane man whose right hand has been chopped off for previous thefts. All live in conditions that even local prison officials admit are appalling.

Sanai, their self-appointed spokesman, hands a visitor a list of demands, which includes better food, ventilation, and a speedy trial. "We are all here in this container, and it is getting hotter and hotter day by day," says Sanai, who proclaims his innocence in the car-theft caper. "We ask from the central government and from you and from international embassies to help us."

Accused drug-smuggler Mohammad Shah Pahwan tugs the chains around his legs. "This is democracy in Afghanistan," he says, as the other men chuckle. But Mr. Pahwan is serious. "Is this democracy? No. It's just oppression."

The jail-prison-madhouse here in Logar Province is by no means the worst in the country, but it is a small window into the extraordinary task that Afghanistan faces in rebuilding its judicial and penal system. Across the country, prison guards work without pay, police arrest individuals without evidence, and Afghans serve time without appeal or adequate representation. But, lacking money, the Afghan government and its international backers say they have no choice but to accept the current penal system - even private prisons under the control of a local warlord - as it is.

"We don't have good staff. We don't have good healthcare in the jails. We don't have food for the prisoners or the guards. We don't have educated people to run the jails," says Mohammad Ashraf Rasooli, deputy minister of justice. "By our own laws, it's illegal to put juveniles together with adults, but we don't have a choice."

"We have a plan to bring new laws and to make changes, but we don't have [the money] to do anything about it," adds Mr. Rasooli, who among his other tasks must chair a committee to rewrite the Afghan constitution. "It all depends on the international donors."

United Nations officials say the task of rebuilding Afghanistan's legal and penal system is so vast that nobody quite knows where to start. Most public buildings in this country have been destroyed or badly damaged by two decades of war. Since jails were often used as interrogation and torture centers during the Soviet occupation and afterward, they were often among the first to be targeted by vengeful Islamic guerrillas.

Add the tendency of Afghan police to accept bribes to release those prisoners, and this has left the four post-Soviet governments in Afghanistan with few resources to maintain a semblance of law and order.

"There is a lot to do, sometimes it's hard to know just where to start," says Ana Katrina Gronholm, the UN's adviser to the Afghan government on penal reform. "The Afghans don't even know how many prisoners they have, so at first you have to get some idea of what kind of prisoners they have and how many." In the meantime, the UN Development Program has put forward $3 million to build seven or eight regional jails in Afghanistan's major cities.

Ms. Gronholm, a Finnish prison administrator who has visited most of the major cities of Afghanistan during the past year, says that there is little evidence of ill treatment toward serving prisoners, although torture is common during interrogations of accused persons. In fact, if the prison conditions can be considered violations of basic human rights, she says they aren't all that different from the conditions that average Afghans endure.

"Prisons are the last part of it; if the rest of society is living on the edge of poverty, you can't expect that prisoners will be getting anything better," she says, noting that most prisoners eat the same food rations as their prison guards. "But in the meantime, we make sure that while people are in prison they are treated well."

In his office, the Logar police chief, Gen. Noor Mohammad Pakteen, says that he has been trying to improve conditions at his tiny jail for a year. Repeated letters to the Ministry of Interior, requesting funds to pay the rent for the private house where police maintain the local jail, have gone unanswered. Last week, General Pakteen learned that responsibility for prisons has now been shifted to the Ministry of Justice, so he must start the process all over again.

But in truth, the jails are the least of his worries. Military men sent by the central government to apprehend Al Qaeda have taken to robbing Logar's citizens in their own homes. The Logar police officers themselves have not received their $32 monthly salaries for some three months now. Instead, they survive on food rations sent by the central government.

His list of complaints is interrupted by some devastating news. In Kabul, a multiple murderer named Gurgeshejah, who was apprehended that morning by Kabul police, has been released an hour later by Ahmed Shah, the top criminal officer in the Ministry of Interior. Logar police sent to bring Gurgeshejah home for trial say Mr. Shah accepted a bribe to release the killer, and then arrested another man to fill Gurgeshejah's cell.

Pakteen furiously writes a letter of complaint to Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali and sends it off to Kabul. But he knows it won't do any good now that Gurgeshejah is free.

"We have been chasing this guy for three months, he has killed more than 10 people, and they just let him go," says Pakteen, finally. He thinks about all his requests for funding to build a new jail, and what international donors would think about the Afghan justice system if it knew how the money would be used. "No country wants to put their money into the river. Afghanistan is that river."

Meanwhile, at the jail, Jamali Khaliqyar, a physician who is awaiting trial on car-theft charges, says that conditions in the jail are not all that bad.

"We have water and fresh air and whatever the officers eat, we have also," he says. "But in my whole life, I have had difficulties. If my life was good, would I be here?"

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