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UN Finds Rampant Torture of Afghan Detainees

Taliban prisoners watch through the door inside a prison after an attack in the city of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 3, 2020.

A report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights finds torture, which is prohibited under international law, is widely practiced in Afghan prisons. The report covers the period from January 2019 through March 2020.

The report is based on 656 interviews with men, women and children held in 63 detention facilities across Afghanistan. It finds about one-third of the inmates who were suspected, accused or convicted of security or terrorism-related offenses had been tortured or subjected to other forms of ill treatment.

Rupert Colville is spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. He tells VOA the percentage of detainees claiming to have been tortured has decreased slightly compared to the previous two-year monitoring period. Nevertheless, he says the very high percentage of people subjected to torture remains alarmingly high.

“Now, we have not been able to individually verify each case that it is true, that it really happened but, obviously, in some cases, you can see the physical evidence of torture…The total prohibition against torture does not appear to be there with the security services or with the prison officials, etc. So, it still appears to be rampant in detention facilities,” said Colville.

The Afghan government has allowed the U.N. to monitor the treatment of people in places of detention since 2011. The monitoring of those imprisoned on charges of security or terrorism-related offenses was temporarily suspended in early March of last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That makes prisoners particularly vulnerable to abuse. The report highlights that procedural safeguards for detainees are rarely followed. Colville notes none of the detainees interviewed were informed of their right to a lawyer. He says few received a medical examination or were able to contact their families early in their detention.

“Perhaps most alarming of all, nearly half of those interviewed were apparently asked to sign or place their thumbprint -- because many, many Afghans are not literate -- were asked to sign or place their thumbprint on a document without knowing what that document actually said. That, of course, leads to forced confessions and so on,” said Colville.

The report recognizes the Afghan government has taken steps to prevent torture in places of detention. But it says more needs to be done. It recommends measures to increase the capacity, resources, and training of law enforcement agencies so they understand the illegal practice must stop.