US plans Afghan jail for terror suspects

by Jimmy Burns in Londonand Rachel Morarjee in Kabul
Published: January 4 2006 22:00 | Last updated: January 4 2006 22:00

The US government has plans to build a high-security prison in Afghanistan to hold terror suspects, including some who would be transferred from the controversial US naval base at Guantᮡmo Bay.

The site selected for the jail is Pol-e-Charki, a rundown prison near Kabul dating from the Soviet era. Some of the base?s prison facilities have recently been refurbished as part of a European Union-financed criminal justice reform programme backed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The transfer of prisoners of Afghan origin from Guantanamo to Afghanistan is intended to take pressure off the US administration, which continues to face strong international criticism for holding detainees without trial or other legal recourse.

The administration is eager to return as many detainees as possible to their home countries, while bringing what it considers the most dangerous ones to trial before US military tribunals.

According to estimates by Amnesty International, the human rights group, about 750 people have been detained in Guantᮡmo since January 2002, many of them of Afghan origin.

As of August an estimated 510 detainees were still held, with 167 prisoners released and, according to the US defence department, a further 67 moved to the custody of other governments.

Under an agreement announced by the US administration last August, 110 Afghan detainees were to be repatriated from Guantᮡmo initially to be detained together with about 350 others held without trial at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

The prospect of terrorist suspects being held under indefinite detention in Afghanistan could fuel concerns about their treatment at a time when the Afghan judicial system is in its infancy. Human rights groups have made allegations of mistreatment of detainees in Afghan jails.

Last year, senior US administration officials were quoted as saying the US and Afghan governments had reached an understanding allowing for the gradual transfer of Afghan detainees held by US forces in Guantᮡmo and in Afghanistan to the control of the Afghan authorities. About 500 prisoners are under US detention at Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, with an undisclosed number of terrorist suspects believed held in secret locations elsewhere in the country.

Western diplomats say the UN and the EU have been resisting US plans to have the Pol-e-Charki base turned into a secure prison that would hold Afghan terror suspects. The UNODC project was intended to house prisoners involved in drug trafficking. Evidence that the US intends to push ahead with its plans emerged last month with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan issuing a public notice for the renovation and construction of a cell block at Pol-e-Charki. It said the project would be aimed at accommodating "detainees presently in sub-standard and/or overcrowded facilities". It added the cell block would be refurbished to accept "detainees to be processed through the Afghan courts".