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Afghanistan Releases Detainees Ahead of Trip by Karzai to Washington

January 4th, 2013 World

KABUL, Afghanistan — Just ahead of a trip to Washington by President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan government released 80 detainees on Friday, part of a continuing effort to assert its sovereignty over the contentious issue of how prisoners are handled.

American officials have long complained that the Afghans release prisoners too soon, raising the risk that many will return to the battlefield. Afghan officials counter that they are not legally allowed to detain people suspected of being insurgents without enough evidence to prosecute them, even if the Americans say they are too dangerous to release.

The releases stem from an agreement the Americans made to eventually transfer control of the Parwan Detention Facility, located at Bagram Air Base, to the Afghan government last March. Of the thousands of prisoners captured by American forces who have come under Afghan control, close to 1,000 have been released over the last year.

But Friday was a rare instance when the government made a public spectacle of releasing a large number together. A fleet of local television journalists lined up to film the ceremony, where the prisoners, dressed in new brown, yellow and blue shalwars, embraced family members most had not seen in more than a year.

“The Afghan government is not trying to open the gates of its prisons and release all prisoners,” said Gen. Ghulam Farooq, the superintendent of the Bagram Prison, which holds about 3,000 prisoners. “Those who are found guilty will be punished, but those who are innocent should be released.”

But, he added, “we don’t know how many are guilty and how many are innocent,” a reference to the limited evidence that, Afghan officials contend, makes holding the prisoners impossible under Afghan law.

Despite the government’s upbeat ceremony, the transfer of the prison has become a considerable source of tension as the Americans prepare to withdraw and Afghans take on increasing control over security in the country. The United States halted the transfer of a handful of detainees in September, arguing that the Afghan government had not held up its end of the deal. Two months later, Mr. Karzai ordered Afghan forces to take control of the American-built prison, although that has still not happened entirely.

On Friday, General Farooq dismissed the notion that the release of the detainees was contentious, saying it was part of the plan all along.

“The Afghan government and the Americans agreed that Americans would hand all prisoners to the Afghan government and that we would make a decision about keeping and releasing them based on the enforced laws of Afghanistan,” said General Farooq. “It is a 100 percent Afghan process, and the Americans don’t have any problem with it. They are not involved in it at all.”

American officials have disputed the Afghan interpretation of the agreement to handover the prison, arguing that the American military authorities have veto power over who is released. To date, Americans have not transferred all of the Afghan prisoners they are holding to government control. In addition, newly captured Afghan prisoners are being kept in American custody, a procedure the Afghans have disputed.

In the last year, 570 detainees have been released following acquittal in Afghan courts. Another 485 are in the process of being released, or have been released already, after a bilateral board of Afghans and Americans determined that there was not enough evidence to prosecute them. On Saturday, the government expects to release another 131 prisoners.

Some Western officials believe that the move by the Afghan government is designed to encourage reconciliation with insurgents to help put an end to the war. And by timing the move on the day before Mr. Karzai leaves for Washington to visit President Obama, it also highlights his independence as a leader.

“The main reason behind the release of these prisoners is to show the good intentions of the Afghan government,” said General Farooq. “We hope that their release will strengthen peace and stability in the country.”

Judging by the response of family and friends of the prisoners, the government’s move was well calculated.

“The release of these prisoners will definitely have a positive impact on people’s relationship with the government,” said Haji Sangeen, 48, a truck driver from Paktia who came to collect 12 of the detainees who hailed from his village. “It will bring the distance between the government and people to a minimum.”

The released prisoners, for their part, were pleased with the result, if not their detention.

Mohammed Naib, 15, from Logar Province, said he was arrested during a night raid at his madrassa when he was just 13.

“How would you feel if someone put you in jail for two years without even telling why they have arrested you,” he asked. “ I am happy that they have decided to release us, but my rights have been disregarded. Even if they give me the entire world they won’t be able to restore my dignity.”

After the ceremony concluded, the prisoners and their relatives went to a pink mosque nearby for lunch. They gathered in groups, chatting with one another and laughing, an air of jubilance filling the room. Some of the relatives started calling family members of the prisoners and handing the phones over to them to talk.

Abdullah, 32, also from Logar, said that he was arrested with his two brothers during a night raid about 20 months ago.

“They arrested me because I was the imam of our mosque, and they accused me of harboring insurgents,” he said. “But they couldn’t prove it.”

Like most other released detainees, Abdullah, who uses a single name, denied ever having aided the Taliban.

“I am not going to join the Taliban because I do not see a reason for that,” he said. “I will try to live a normal life, but I will not support the government or American efforts because I do not see a reason for that either.”