The United States handed control of the controversial giant Bagram jail and its 3,000 suspected Taliban inmates to Afghan authorities on Monday, amid concerns the transfer could leave prisoners vulnerable to further rights abuses.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers watched as an Afghan flag was hoisted in front of the prison at the huge U.S.-run airfield north of Kabul, as part of a plan to withdraw foreign troops from combat operations in 2014.
"Today is a historical and glorious day for Afghanistan where Afghans are able to take the charge of the prison themselves," acting Defence Minister Enayatullah Nazari told a large crowd including U.S. military officials.
In a move that has angered the Afghan government, the U.S. plans to keep at least one block at the prison, where any suspected Taliban fighters or terrorists captured in future raids will be held before being handed over.
Prisoners have often been held for years without trial, and activists say they will be vulnerable to more rights abuses once the handover is complete.
Afghan authorities will maintain the American policy of detention without trial at Bagram, and many fear the practice could be extended to the rest of the country heralding a new chapter of rights abuses by powerful tribes and families.
Afghan lawyers say Afghanistan's social system of powerful tribes and influential families could mean that inmates are exposed to abuse if individuals are imprisoned without trial and on the basis of little, if any, evidence.
"A wealthy figure or a person of authority, if offended for whatever reason, can arrest an innocent citizen over personal or family vendettas," the president of Afghanistan's Independent Bar Association, Rohullah Qarizada, told Reuters.
Afghan officials maintain that detention without trial is illegal under Afghan law.
President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, declined to comment on the possibility of detention without trial happening anyway, simply saying: "We are against detainees not being processed by Afghan law."
RED CROSS SAFEGUARD LAPSES
But the Open Society Foundation, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group, said "there is nothing that prevents the Afghan government from using the transition procedure to not only intern post-handover, but to subject anyone it deems to meet the detention criteria to internment anywhere in the country".
One former inmate, who spent five years at Bagram before being released without being charged, said conditions behind bars worsened when he was handed over to Afghan custody.
"The Afghans are no better than the Americans," said Karim Shah, adding that they had not let him pray during that time, considered a grave insult in ultra-religious, Muslim Afghanistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) served as a safeguard while the prison was under U.S. control.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is expected to monitor Bagram under Afghan control, though no official agreement has been reached with the government, according to an Open Society Foundation report last week urging the government to grant the monitor unrestricted access to the prison.
The U.S. military defended its decision to keep at least one block at the prison.
"That will leave us with sufficient residual capacity to continue to capture, process and then transfer detainees," Major Lori Hodge wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.
Since the agreement on the handover was signed in March a further 600 people have been jailed at Bagram. The U.S. has no time frame on when they will be handed over, and how long they plan to keep future captives. (Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Jeremy Laurence)