Afghans take over Bagram jail: A step forward for justice?

Some Afghans and Americans have questioned whether the Kabul government will be able to manage Bagram prison justly, now that the United States has handed over control.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan soldiers attend the hand over ceremony of U.S.- run prison to Afghan government in Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 10. US officials handed over formal control of Afghanistan's only large-scale US-run prison to Kabul on Monday, even as disagreements between the two countries over the thousands of Taliban and terror suspects held there marred the transfer.

When American authorities arrested Qari Muhiudin Hanifi on charges of maintaining ties to the Taliban, he was taken to the then US-run Bagram prison facility.

There Mr. Hanifi, the leader of a mosque in Logar Province, says the Americans interrogated him for four straight days and detained him for a total of two months before finding him innocent. During that time, he says, he was never tortured and always treated well.

As a formality, Hanifi was then handed over to Afghan authorities to conduct their own investigation. There, he says, he was tortured and interrogated for three months before authorities asked for a $4,000 bribe in exchange for his release. After a total of 14 months in Afghan custody, he was eventually set free when his family managed to pay authorities a $1,000 bribe.

A day after US officials handed over authority of the Bagram prison, now called the Parwan Detention Facility, many locals say they’re now concerned that inmates may fall victim to an Afghan justice system that is widely perceived as one of the most corrupt parts of the Afghan government.

“Looking at the major corruption within our government, it was not a good decision to hand over Bagram to the Afghans. I wish the Americans would have controlled Bagram as long as they were here in Afghanistan,” says Hanifi.

With the transition of the prison coinciding with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the event that propelled the US to war in Afghanistan, these persistent concerns about the justice system here highlight the challenges that remain more than a decade and at least $100 billion in reconstruction spending later.

Throughout Afghanistan, it’s common to hear stories like Hanifi’s about men who were arrested and found innocent but were forced to pay a bribe to secure their release. In a survey by Integrity Watch, a local anti-corruption watch dog, half of those interviewed said they saw the courts as the most corrupt organization in the country.

“It takes them months to finalize a case, and you have a corrupt justice system,” says Sayad Ahmad Najeeb Mahmoud, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University. “This will create more problems when the Bagram detention facility is handed over to Afghans.”

Still, the formerly American-run prison, which has been operational since 2002, has long been a topic of debate in Afghan political life, sparking much criticism. The US has often detained insurgent and terrorist suspects without charges, and had its own allegations of torture, prompting a number of complaints among Afghans who have accused the US military of not respecting the Afghan government’s authority.

In the days before the handover, President Hamid Karzai’s office issued a statement calling the transition an “important step toward the recognition of Afghan national sovereignty.”

Even after the handover of the detention center, this issue remains controversial, as US officials have said they will continue to hold several hundred inmates they suspect of involvement with the Taliban or terror groups. US officials say they are concerned Afghan officials will release these detainees who they say are still dangerous.

American officials are not alone in questioning the Afghan government’s ability to manage their prison system.

In tours of government prisons run by the Afghan ministry of interior and intelligence services, Heela Achakzai, a member of Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament, says she saw a number of devices that she believes were used to torture inmates. Her constituents also regularly approach her with complaints about family members who are still being held in prison, despite having served their sentence.

“This government is drowning in corruption. No prisoner can get released, even if his sentence is completed, without paying money. I think now the problems of the detainees at Bagram will start. Those who can pay money will get released and the poor people will sit in there forever,” says Ms. Achakzai

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

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