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Afghanistan Moves to Close Local Warlords'  'Private Jails' - 2003-11-28

Afghan officials want to close the country's private jails, which are often used by local warlords to imprison their personal enemies or to extort money.

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission says it has documented the existence of at least 12 private jails around the country.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, who chairs the commission, says warlords and corrupt local officials use private prisons to intimidate political rivals and other people they dislike.

"They are not only political enemies, but they are, as well, some personal enemies that they had some family problems with or some financial problems with," he explained.

Mr. Nadery says many of the private jails are in fact registered as government prisons but are used for the arbitrary incarceration of anyone who displeases a local military commander or other local official.

He cites one case in which a heroin-dealing police chief used a prison under his authority to intimidate business partners.

"You can find that the head of police tried to detain somebody because they were not agreed on a deal for drugs. So he just put him in detention to get the money," he said.

After the overthrow of Afghanistan's hard-line Taleban leaders in 2001, the transitional government placed most of the country's administrative districts under the authority of anti-Taleban commanders.

Some of these have since been accused of acting as warlords, running their own mini-states and ignoring central government authority.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali says he is working to track down commanders who use local prisons to extort money from the populace.

"Fortunately, the situation is improving, but still there are people who are jailing persons in order to tax them or to milk the family [for money]," he said.

Mr. Jalali says that provincial governors and major commanders are not as much of a problem as district officials and the commanders of smaller units.

He says these "mini-warlords" employ their militias, which often serve as the local police force, to project their power.

To counter the problem, the interior ministry is training a national police force with the aim of replacing corrupt law enforcement units.

The ministry also is working with the human rights commission to investigate cases where local prisons are being misused as private jails.

While Human Rights Commissioner Nadery praises the interior minister's efforts, he adds that sometimes warlords can achieve their aims without the use of private jails.

In such cases, the U.S.-led coalition forces hunting remnants of the Taleban often serve as unwitting jailers for the warlords.

"Some of the warlords and commanders, they're pushing some others to pay some ransoms, otherwise they will introduce them to the coalition as a member of Taleban or al-Qaida," he explained.

But Mr. Nadery also points to a number of successes in the effort to close the private jails. For instance, a top police official was recently dismissed in the western province of Herat, after he was found to be arbitrarily imprisoning locals.