Progress against torture in Afghan detention centres, but Government needs to do more, says UN report

UNAMA/Eric Kanalstein An elderly woman being held at a female detention centre in northern Afghanistan (2010).

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Torture is likely still widespread in Afghanistan’s State-run prisons for detainees linked to ongoing conflict there, the UN said on Wednesday, while also noting an “encouraging reduction” in the level of abuse since 2016.

Based on interviews with more than 600 detainees and published jointly by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), their latest report on the treatment of prisoners in 77 facilities in 28 out of 34 provinces indicates that an average of nearly one in three, provided “credible and reliable” accounts of suffering.

In the previous reporting period, covering 2015 and 2016, the ratio was closer to four in 10.

Beatings represented the most common form of torture and ill-treatment, according to the data, which also noted that “the vast majority” of detainees held for alleged links to extremist group ISIL (also known as Daesh) or other opposition forces, said they had been tortured or ill-treated to force them to confess – and that the treatment stopped once they did so.

Significant differences in the treatment of detainees were found depending on where they were held, with one Afghan National Police (ANP) facility in Kandahar, linked to a 77 per cent torture rate – well above the 31 per cent ANP average.

The Kandahar findings included allegations of “brutal” forms of torture such as “suffocation, electric shocks, pulling of genitals and suspension from ceilings”, UNAMA and OHCHR said, while underlining that abuse allegations in ANP detention centres had fallen – from a 45 per cent average – since 2016.

The report, which finds that youngsters are at higher risk of suffering mistreatment, discusses how detainees’ rights are violated in other areas.

These include a lack of legal safeguards to prevent torture, difficulties in gaining access to lawyers and the continued absence of accountability for perpetrators, with very limited referrals to prosecution.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, said the report’s findings demonstrated that the embattled Government’s policies put in place to combat torture and ill-treatment were having an effect, but they were far from sufficient.

“A year ago, on this day, the Government of Afghanistan committed itself to the prevention of torture by acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture,” Ms. Bachelet said.

“I urge the Government to work swiftly to create a National Preventive Mechanism to ensure independent, impartial scrutiny of the treatment of detainees. A well-resourced watchdog of this sort, which is able to make unannounced visits to places of detention and raise awareness of what constitutes torture and ill-treatment according to international human rights law, can go a long way towards the ultimate goal of fully eradicating torture.”

Also highlighted in the report are concerns over an Afghan National Army-run detention facility in Parwan, in the north-east of the country.

These include overcrowding and the use of solitary confinement as the sole disciplinary measure, despite progress and “tangible results” made by the Government in implementing a national plan to eliminate torture.

“We welcome the steps taken by the Government to prevent and investigate cases of torture and ill-treatment over the past two years,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan.

“However…there is still a long way to go to eradicate this horrendous practice among conflict-related detainees,” he added. “Respect for the rule of law and human rights is the best way to create the conditions for sustainable peace.”

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