Cruel limbo - Prisoners pay for UK failures in Afghanistan

With 90 Afghan prisoners being held without charge for a year, the UK’s Afghan jail is being compared to Guantanamo by some, amid political bickering between the two countries and outrage from the detainees’ lawyers, demanding answers.

International Affairs Commentator Jonathan Steele, from Britain's Guardian newspaper told RT that while Britain’s concern for the prisoners’ human rights is understandable, the country’s treatment of the Afghan conflict as a whole is really to blame. Twelve years after the invasion, the atmosphere of negligence and a failure to instill any adequate conditions – political or otherwise – is causing all manner of problems.

RT: MP Barry Gardner has said the detainees have been held for 14 months because of paperwork. Is that true?

Jonathan Steele: It’s a problem because they don’t want to hand them over to the Afghans because it’s well known that in Afghan detention facilities – whether they’re run by the Afghan police or by the intelligence agencies – people are tortured: electrocuted, hung upside-down, blindfolded and so on. And Britain doesn’t want to collude with that. That’s a real issue. They shouldn’t be held, on the other hand, they shouldn’t be transferred. So, the only option is to release them, which is what the lawyers are demanding. But the Afghan authorities and the British think that there’s some reason to believe that these are people, who are involved in insurgency and they don’t want to put them back on the battlefield, as they say.

RT: So what spurred that move right now?   

AFP Photo / Poll / Stefan Wermuth

JS: Well, the lawyers for the detainees. I mean there have been previous cases before and the British High Court has gone the other way. They’ve argued that prisoners shouldn’t be handed over to the Afghan authorities because of the risk of torture. Now were getting a court case where the demand is that they should be released by the British, but not handed over to the Afghan authorities.   

RT: We've heard lawyers compare Camp Bastion to Guantanamo. Why do you think the two are fundamentally different?

JS: I think that there are two differences, actually. In the case of Guantanamo they should be released, the people in Guantanamo, but nobody really wants to take them – except in the case of Yemen that’s been agreed to about 20 or 30 people, who are Yemenites. But nobody else wants to take these people back. In this case, the Afghan government wants to take these people back. They say it’s a question of sovereignty; we should be holding detainees instead of foreign troops to be holding our own citizens in prisons and detention facilities. That’s one difference.

The other difference is that we haven’t yet had credible allegations that the British are using torture in Afghanistan themselves. We know that they were using it in Iraq. During the Iraq war there’s been plenty of cases of that, but nothing yet credible on Afghanistan whereas it’s the Afghans, who are using torturing. So there’s another big difference, I think.  The one similarity is the lack of access to lawyers, the lack of information, the indefinite detention. Whatever the conditions are like, even if they’re not being tortured by the British, they are being held in total limbo, with no access to lawyers, family or anybody.   
RT: How justifiable is that?

JS: It’s not justifiable at all and they ought to be charged or released because under the rules of engagement of the British in Afghanistan – after 96 hours people have to released or charged.

RT: British MPs learned about the number of detainees from the news. Why weren't they kept in the loop?

JS: I think that’s probably not correct. Because as I said there’s been a big high Court case here about three years ago on the same issue. The British tried to get assurances from the Afghan authorities that there wouldn’t be torture; they would have access to the Afghan prisons to check on all this. Then the Afghans rejected British efforts to go to the prisons and etc. So, it has been known about. There have been previous court cases. It may not have been known exactly how many people were being held and exactly, in which place in Afghanistan they were being held.

David Cameron (AFP Photo / Leon Neal)

RT: Just to clarify again – why do you think that many of these prisoners were held without legal representation?

JS: I don’t know. I think that it’s a disgrace. And it’s also very bad that the United Nations, which has been able to probe in all the Afghan police stations and detention facilities and has issued various reports on the mishandling of detainees – the UN does not have access to British, or indeed American detention facilities. The only outsiders who do are the Red Cross. And as you know, they have a policy of not talking publicly about individual cases. So whatever they’ve found, they’ve kept to themselves…well, they’ve discussed it with the British government, but not with the wider public.

RT: Prime Minister David Cameron has hailed the Afghanistan mission a big success. How does that fit in with what we are hearing now about Camp Bastion being used now as a detention facility?

JS: It obviously isn’t a success, because Britain’s been involved for 12 years in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban, and one of the pretexts they gave for being there was “We’re trying to modernize Afghanistan, bring it into the 21st century: to improve governance, improve health, education, the police, the prison arrangements. And after 12 years there’s still widespread torture. It’s a disgrace. The United Nations interviewed 635 detainees and 326 of them – that’s more than half – say they have been tortured by the Afghan authorities. If after 12 years you’ve been trying to bring Afghanistan up to better standards, they’ve clearly failed, if torture’s so widespread.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.