Afganistan's Abuse Charges Surprise Washington

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is demanding that the United States hand over control of a prison facility that houses about 3,000 inmates. An Afghan commission has alleged abuse of prisoners there, and says that conditions violate the Afghan constitution. The demands may have more to do with a growing animosity between President Karzai and Washington, however, as NPR's Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence tells host Rachel Martin.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that the United States hand over control of a prison facility that houses about 3,000 inmates. An Afghan commission has alleged abuse of prisoners there and that conditions violate the Afghan constitution. The demand has taken U.S. officials by surprise, since they'd been negotiating a gradual handover of the prison, also because earlier this year the United Nations detailed consistent abuse in Afghan prisons.

The demands may have more to do with a growing animosity between President Karzai and Washington, D.C.

Here to tell us more is NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Good morning, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, what can you tell us about this prison and these allegations that President Karzai is making?

LAWRENCE: Well, as you mentioned, quite suddenly last week, President Karzai's office announced that this largest U.S. prison in the country must be handed over within a month. And this detention facility, it's newly built. U.S. officials have been holding it up as a model for Afghan prisons and courts to aspire to.

And there are some problems in the prison. There's some problems with due process that human rights advocates have pointed out, that inmates up there or not allowed proper lawyers at their hearings. But most foreign and Afghan observers agree that the Afghan justice system is completely unprepared to take over this prison, and is having trouble handling its own prisons. As you mentioned, the United Nations put out a damning report about systematic torture in some Afghan prisons.

So, this weekend, President Karzai's commission reported that the prisoners at this jail, they said they have been denied would at times; that the guards have used teargas to control them. American embassy officials say they're taking these allegations seriously but that something of a pro forma response. It's more likely that American officials there are sort of gritting their teeth after being blindsided by President Karzai again in public, in a way that they probably see as quite hypocritical.

MARTIN: And this isn't the first flare-up between President Karzai and the U.S. Just in recent weeks there've been other points of tension, right?

LAWRENCE: Yes, but it's not so much the topics as the way the Afghans and the Americans seem to be sending each other these rather poorly-coordinated, let's say, messages in public. Instead of what you would expect would be for them to sit down behind closed doors and make a decision and present a unified front.

Even the seeds of dialogue that were started with the Taliban, the government of Qatar - the Gulf island state of Qatar - offered to host a Taliban office and perhaps the beginning of peace talks there. And when Qatar did that, President Karzai briefly pulled his ambassador in protest.

MARTIN: Why would he do that though? I mean President Karzai has advocated peace talks with the Taliban for years now.

LAWRENCE: Well, the official statement was that the Afghan government hadn't have been sufficiently consulted. They since have given this Qatar office the green light. But longtime observers of Karzai are speculating that this might be Karzai worried that he's being cut out of the process. And they say this is supposed to be Karzai's legacy. He sees it as his mission to make peace here and perhaps that would be his lasting historical contribution here in Afghanistan.

Now it's not even certain that he would be involved if these peace talks are going on without him. And the Taliban have consistently refused to talk to Karzai, who they call an unpopular and corrupt puppet regime.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Rachel.

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