US transfers Bagram detainees to Afghans

November 15, 2009: a U.S. captain during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul. (AFP PHOTO / Massoud HOSSAINI / FILES)

BAGRAM, Afghanistan: The United States Monday formally handed control to Afghanistan of more than 3,000 detainees at the controversial Bagram prison, but disagreements remain over the fate of hundreds of inmates.

Kabul has hailed the transfer of what has in the past been dubbed the Guantanamo Bay of Afghanistan as a victory for sovereignty as NATO prepares to hand over full national security to Afghans and withdraw its combat troops by the end of 2014.

Analysts, however, say the move is more symbolic than substantial and human rights advocates have raised concerns about abuses of administrative detention.

Questions remain over future releases of the inmates, who include Taliban fighters and terror suspects. The Americans continue to guard 50 foreigners not covered by the agreement and hundreds of Afghans arrested since the transfer deal was signed on March 9.

American advisers will also stay at the prison until March 9, 2013.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone this morning to discuss the issue, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.

Both "expressed a desire to implement the terms of the agreement," Little said.

"We believe we're going to reach a resolution with Kabul," he added.

There was only a paltry US attendance at the small handover ceremony at the Parwan Detention Facility, more commonly referred to Bagram after the neighbouring US airbase north of Kabul.

"We transfer more than 3,000 Afghan detainees into your custody," said Colonel Robert Taradash, the highest ranking US official at the ceremony.

Karzai issued a statement congratulating Afghans on a "big step towards sovereignty in Afghanistan" and said it marked the end of foreign-run prisons on Afghan soil.

"Bagram prison was an ominous symbol of terror in Afghanistan which will now turn into an ordinary detention facility from which the innocents will be freed and where criminals will remain to be punished," he said.

But further comment from the Americans and NATO was muted.

NATO spokesman Brigadier General Gunter Katz refused to discuss the handover, calling it a matter between the Americans and the Afghans.

Sixteen inmates, dressed in new clothes, were freed as part of the ceremony. Three of them who spoke to AFP all insisted they were innocent and had no links to the insurgency.

Karzai demanded authority over the prison as conditional to addressing long-term Afghan-US relations and possible legal immunity for US troops -- the key to troops remaining in the country after 2014.

But the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) governing the handover is not legally binding and more than 600 people detained since March 9 have not yet been transferred.

Other Afghan officials have been more critical, but on Monday Afghan army chief of staff, General Sher Mohammad Karimi, told reporters he expected that a "small misunderstanding" between the Afghans and the Americans would be resolved.

Jamie Graybeal, a NATO spokesman, said 99 percent of detainees held before March 9 are under Afghan authority and that the transfer of the rest has been put on hold, pending concerns about the intentions of the government to fulfil the MoU.

Graybeal said the United States retained the authority to capture and detain suspects, but intended to continue to transfer Afghan detainees to Afghans.

Afghan officials dispute NATO's right to hold detainees, saying that anyone arrested in extenuating circumstances has to be handed over within 72 hours.

Advocacy group the Open Society Foundations last week raised concerns about holes in the March agreement, the risk of indefinite detention and voiced fears that Afghan detention without judicial review could be subject to abuse.

In March, Afghanistan's human rights commission detailed torture in prisons run by the Afghanistan's NDS intelligence service and police force.

NDS spokesman Shafiqullah Taheri rejected claims of torture.

Abdul Waheed Wafa, analyst and director of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, has said the move is largely symbolic and believes the Americans will still detain some high profile suspects at Bagram or at other locations.





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