KABUL: Afghanistan Thursday said it would release scores of alleged Taliban fighters from jail as there was no evidence against them, despite U.S. objections that the men could return to the battlefield as NATO troops withdraw.
The releases will further strain U.S.-Afghan relations as pressure mounts for the two countries to sign a long-delayed security deal allowing some American soldiers to stay in the country after 2014.
A meeting chaired by Afghan President Hamid Karzai “ordered the Bagram prisoners’ dossier review board to free those prisoners who are innocent and against whom there is no evidence,” a statement said.
U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, had earlier lodged an official objection over the releases, saying they were against an agreement signed when Bagram jail was handed over by the U.S. in March.
Bagram jail was eventually passed to Afghan control after a public standoff with Karzai, who sees the jail as a symbol of Afghanistan’s efforts to regain its national sovereignty.
The statement from Karzai’s office said that of the 88 prisoners, there was no evidence against 45 of them and only circumstantial information against 27. The other 16 will be kept in jail and their cases reviewed.
“We cannot keep Afghans in detention without any evidence – that would be illegal,” presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told AFP.
But the U.S. says the 88 men were responsible for over 60 NATO coalition and 57 Afghan deaths.
“At least 59 of the 88 cases could be sent directly ... for prosecution in an Afghan court,” a U.S. official said in a briefing ahead of Thursday’s announcement.
“The remaining 29 cases have significant investigative leads necessitating immediate referral to NDS [intelligence services] for investigation.”
Washington and Kabul are edging closer to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would see several thousand U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan to provide training and assistance after the NATO combat mission ends in December.
Faizi said the prison releases would not affect U.S.-Afghan ties, which hit a fresh low in recent months when Karzai made a surprise decision not to sign the BSA promptly despite having vowed to do so.
Signing the BSA is a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in Western aid for Afghanistan, which will hold an election to choose Karzai’s successor in April.
President Barack Obama’s deputies have warned that unless Karzai relents on the security deal soon, there will be no option but to prepare for a full U.S. troop exit – the so-called “zero option.”
Some analysts believe the Afghan government hopes that the Bagram prison releases could help kick-start moribund peace talks with Taliban insurgents who were ousted from power in 2001.