The Afghan government has set up a delegation to investigate reports of torture in Afghan-run detention facilities.
The delegation, which was announced on Tuesday, was created two days after the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan published a report on the “ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees in Afghan custody.”
The fact-finding team – including advisors from the interior ministry and the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, which were both implicated in the report – will be “tasked to fully investigate the claims of torture, mistreatment, death threats and sexual abuse in prisons, and any faults or misconduct during questioning and trial of detainees.”
The UN report, based on interviews with hundreds of detainees held in 89 facilities between October 2011 and October 2012, details 14 abusive practices, including the twisting of genitals, extracting fingernails and electric shock.
Perhaps most damning is a statement by an unnamed operative within the agency, who is quoted as saying “NDS has several secret places in which they detain and torture people.”
The response to the allegations has highlighted the conflicted relationship that Afghan officials have with international agencies.
The initial response upon the report’s January 20 publication was denial. An NDS official, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, called the claims against the intelligence agency baseless.
“People say they were beaten, but where are the bruises? If we rip out people’s fingernails, then show the scars. Prove it,” the official said, adding that the NDS only detains “the enemies of Afghanistan.”
“When people manage to speak to them alone, the stories change. They are looking to defend themselves, so they make up these false stories.”
The official argued that the 635 detainees interviewed by the UN were duped by a “welcoming war” of words by critics of the Afghan government, an increasingly common narrative in Kabul.
These doubts were echoed by Aimal Faizi, a presidential spokesman. “While the Afghan government takes very seriously the allegations made in the UN report, we also question the motivations behind this report and the way it was conducted,” he said.
When asked about the claim in the report that “all tortured detainees were taken out of their cells… and they were transferred to another building inside the same compound to hide them,” the NDS official said countless groups have observed the agency’s practices. “Anyone we interrogate, we document it all. Everything we’ve done is in writing.”
Both the official and Faizi pointed to “numerous groups” that have observed the conditions in Afghan-run detention facilities to question the findings of the report.
A tweet sent by Faizi only hours after the report’s publication said “the Red Cross and human rights groups have full access to all our detention facilities and the detainees within these facilities.”
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the International Committee of the Red Cross said they have “good access to detention facilities in Afghanistan and good collaboration with Afghan and international military forces in the country.”
Robin Waudo, a communications coordinator, said “if the [Red Cross] delegates witness ill-treatment first-hand while being present at a detention facility anywhere in the world, they would in every case intervene immediately and urge the authorities to put an end to it.”
But Sayed Mohammad Saeeq Shajjan, a Harvard law graduate now running a law firm in Kabul, said when legal and rights groups observe the conditions in the facilities, it is a closely monitored and guided process.
The president’s commission, which will conduct a two-week investigation, will “also not find anything,” Shajjan said. “They will only speak in front of NDS authorities, to people they are confident will not speak up against the detention authorities.”
A Kabul-based judge, speaking on condition of anoymity, because he is not authorised to speak to the media, agreed.
“The NDS utilises not one, but several abusive methods to obtain information. But there is nothing we can do, no one is allowed to interfere, especially in terrorism-related cases,” the judge said.
Shajjan said he has heard repeated stories of torture methods being used for false confessions in cases based on false accusations.
He recalled one client, Shah Mahmood, who turned to show Shajjan where the blood would drip from on his back after being lashed by ropes. “During his detention in Takhar, he was tortured badly, he was beaten with ropes, slapped and punched,” Shajjan said.
Unarmed at the time of his arrest, Shah Mahmood, an Uzbek, was accused of being a member of the Taliban by a district governor in northern Takhar province.
“The district governor wanted Shah Mahmood to divorce his wife, who was known for her beauty. After demanding he divorce his wife three times, the district governor, who wanted to marry Shah Mahmood’s wife, accused Shah Mahmood of being part of the Taliban.”
Shah Mahmood spent nine months in NDS detention where he was beaten on a daily basis until he would confess to being a member of the group.
In another case, Shajjan said, Asef, a Kabul resident, “was deprived of his sleep, beaten with cables, received electric shocks and hanged from his hands for anywhere from three to 12 hours at a time” while in NDS custody.
The torture led to a false confession and a 16-year sentence on allegations Asef had planted explosives in the house of a neighbour he was having a civil dispute with.
Another detainee reported threats of sexual abuse using bottles if they do not confess, a practice documented in the latest UNAMA report.
Like Shah Mahmood and Asef, Shajjan said many in NDS custody are innocent, but “they always arrest first and ask later”.