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The United States Is Mostly Out of Afghanistan, but Torture of Detainees There Continues

A new report finds that 35 percent of detainees in Afghan-run detention facilities interviewed by the U.N. had been tortured or mistreated.

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A Senate report late last year on the CIA’s torture program vividly highlighted the extent of U.S. abuses against detainees in a range of countries, including Afghanistan, home to a notorious facility known as the “Salt Pit.” But a new United Nations report on torture in Afghan-run facilities is a reminder that Afghan security personnel can be just as brutal as their American counterparts, and that the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan won’t disappear with the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from the country.

The report, released Wednesday, found that 35 percent of the nearly 800 people detained for conflict-related activities who were interviewed by the U.N. had been tortured or mistreated in Afghan government facilities across the country. That’s a 14 percent decline from the last report two years ago. But with 278 detainees, including 44 minors, reporting abuse to U.N. investigators, torture is clearly still a widespread problem.

One detainee told U.N. investigators that the Afghan National Army, or ANA, had arrested him and accused him of links to the Taliban because he had a radio. “For three nights, ANA soldiers applied electric shocks to my knees. They also set a dog on me and it bit me,” he said. After other torture, including choking, beatings, and being forced to drink excessive amounts of water, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Another detainee said that the Afghan National Police, or ANP, “pulled and squeezed my testicles until my urine had blood,” and shocked him using power from a wall socket.

The report, released by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, found that security forces use torture to obtain confessions of involvement with the Taliban or other conflict-related activities. One detainee accused of terrorism ties told investigators that Afghan police officers shocked and beat him and threatened more beatings if he didn’t confess.

“They pulled off one of the nails of my left hand and two toe nails,” he said. “I told them that I would confess anything they wanted and my confession was video-recorded.”

Other torture methods included threats of sexual assault and execution, jumping on detainees’ bodies, forcing them to stand in extremely hot or cold environments, and denying them food and water, the report says.

While the report attributes the slight decline in torture since the 2013 report to efforts by the Afghan national government, it points out that only one case of reported torture has been prosecuted since 2010, despite numerous credible reports. It adds that the lack of accountability in the country, which has a long history of torture, isn’t helped by the fact that the criminal justice system largely relies on confessions as the basis for conviction. An independent national monitoring body is necessary to improve oversight, it argues.

“There is a general spirit of impunity for human rights violations,” a human rights officer at the National Directorate of Security told U.N. investigators. “Colleagues shrug their shoulders and advise me to ‘just leave it.’”

In fact, the report says, many law enforcement and security personnel continue to think torture is the best way to protect Afghan lives and don’t recognize that it’s not only morally and legally wrong but also often counterproductive. Citing December’s Senate report on CIA practices, which found that torture is “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees,” the U.N. report argues that evidence from Afghanistan also supports that conclusion. Many Afghan detainees “confessed to whatever crime they were accused of, or agreed with whatever formation was put to them by interrogators to end the torture.”

The U.N. report notes that the Afghan government has stated that it “accepts some of the allegations and concerns” the U.N. has raised but disputes some specific accounts. “It is not the official policy of the Government of Afghanistan to use torture and ill-treat detainees to obtain information and confessions in detention facilities under its control,” the Afghan response says.

Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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