Still No Safeguards to Stop Torture in Afghanistan

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Taliban prisoners look out a prison door in the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, August 3, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

It has been five years since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that his government would “not tolerate torture.” If that were so, the latest United Nations report wouldn’t be needed. Instead, the report documents the government’s failure to implement even the most basic safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment in Afghanistan.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) suspended its visits to Afghan detention facilities in March 2020, so the report covers only 2019 and early 2020. It documents a slight reduction in the use of torture overall, with more improvement in National Directorate of Security (NDS) detention centers than police facilities. But with no monitoring in remote and secret facilities, and no visits to detention centers in almost a year, any such conclusions remain tentative.

What is clear is that the government has carried out few investigations and prosecutions of police and other security force personnel accused of using torture against detainees, despite changes to the penal code making torture a crime.

In almost all cases, detainees have been unable to access a lawyer prior to questioning. Police human rights officers are supposed to monitor detentions, but only 3 percent of detainees reported being visited. Most NDS detainees who made complaints of torture or ill-treatment received no response from the authorities. In nearly half of all cases, detainees were presented a document to sign without knowing its content. In Kandahar province, where nearly 60 percent of detainees report being tortured, enforced disappearances have also continued.

In the former Bagram US detention facility (now called Parwan), prolonged incommunicado confinement is still widely used, as is hooding, sometimes for the entire period of detention. Sensory deprivation from hooding can have lasting harmful psychological effects.  It also makes identification of torturers more difficult, thus hindering prosecutions.

The UNAMA report makes for troubling reading at a time when talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents appear stalled.  The Taliban also torture and mistreat detainees, but a government proud of its post-2001 gains needs to do better. President Ghani once observed that: “When a person is tortured in an inhumane way, the reaction will be inhumane.” He called it “a vicious cycle”—prophetic words, perhaps, but a cycle that can only be broken by implementing measures to prevent torture, most importantly by prosecuting those responsible.