KABUL: The United States is due to hand over formal control of a controversial prison housing Taliban fighters to the Afghan government Monday, in a move hailed by Kabul as a victory for sovereignty.
But the United States says it retains the right to arrest and detain people, raising questions about whether the transfer is symbolic as NATO accelerates the withdrawal of 117,000 combat troops and hands over national security to Afghans by the end of 2014.
Major questions also hang over the extent of Afghan control, as well as the immediate and long-term fate of the more than 3,000 inmates, said to include around 50 foreigners not covered by the agreement.
The Afghan government has said a ceremony will take place on Monday, brushing aside any question of a delay at what is officially called the Parwan Detention Facility but more frequently referred to as Bagram, the adjacent U.S. base north of Kabul.
Its transfer was set in motion by a memorandum of understanding signed on March 9 that paved the way for a six-month handover, after which the presidency says coalition forces will not have the right to control any prison.
President Hamid Karzai made addressing long-term Afghan-U.S. relations and possible legal immunity for U.S. troops -- the key to combat troops remaining in the country after 2014 -- a condition for the transfer.
On Saturday, Karzai called it "an important step towards the recognition of Afghan national sovereignty" in a meeting with U.S. commander General John Allen and U.S. ambassador James Cunningham.
Jamie Graybeal, a civilian spokesman for NATO, said 99 percent of the detainees were under Afghan authority but told AFP that the transfer of the rest had been put on hold.
He gave no specific reason, other than saying concerns needed to be met "regarding the intentions" of the Afghan government to fulfill the terms of the memorandum of understanding.
Karzai told the U.S. commander and ambassador that any question of a delay in the formal handover would be a breach of that sovereignty, according to a statement from his office.
Graybeal also said the United States retained the authority to capture and detain suspects in Afghanistan, but fully intended to continue to transfer Afghan detainees captured during military operations to Afghans.
But advocacy group the Open Society Foundations says the fate of around 50 foreigners, mostly from Pakistan and held for years, is not covered by the agreement, exposing them to the risk of indefinite detention.
As a result, it says the United States is likely to continue to control at least a portion of the jail, but has also raised concerns that Afghan detention without judicial review could be subject to abuse.
Relatives of detainees currently at the prison have expressed deep concern that conditions may worsen.
In Logar province, increasingly a flashpoint for Taliban violence, a farmer said his elder brother was arrested by the Americans two and a half years ago and was being held at Bagram.
Abdul Rahman, 38, says the family regularly visit Assadullah, a local imam whom they say is held on baseless accusations for links with the Taliban.
"My brother always says he is happy with the way Americans behave in the prison. They are provided good food, they have a mosque and if they get ill, there is a good health centre to treat them," he told AFP.
He had hoped that Assadullah would be freed before the transfer.
"Because once you are in the Afghan prison, you either have to pay money as a bribe to government people, prosecutors and judges, or they can easily frame charges against you and put you in huge trouble."
In March, a report by Afghanistan's human rights commission detailed torture in prisons run by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence service and the police.
It said beatings, being suspended from the ceiling, electric shocks, threatened or actual sexual abuse, and other forms of abuse, were used routinely to obtain confessions or other information.
The report also found credible evidence that some detainees transferred to Afghan authorities by international forces had been tortured.
Speaking to AFP, NDS spokesman Shafiqullah Taheri rejected the claims, saying that rights activists regularly visit detention centers.
"There are always unfounded allegations by some people, but if anyone has a credible and documented report of torture by NDS, then we are fully prepared to answer them," he said.