An Afghan investigative commission accused the American military Saturday of abusing detainees at its main prison in the country, saying anyone held without evidence should be freed and backing President Hamid Karzai's demand that the U.S. turn over all prisoners to Afghan custody.
The demands put the U.S. and the Afghan governments on a collision course as negotiations continue for a Strategic Partnership Document with America that will determine the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign troops are due to withdraw. By pushing the detainees issue now, Karzai may be seeking to bolster his hand in the negotiations.
At the center of the dispute are hundreds of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida operators captured by American forces. The controversy mirrors that surrounding the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. There, as at the prison in Afghanistan, American forces are holding many detainees without charging them with a specific crime or presenting evidence in a civilian court.
Members of the Afghan investigation said U.S. officials told them that many of those militant suspects held at the U.S.-run portion of the prison outside Bagram Air Base north of Kabul were taken based on intelligence that cannot be used in Afghan courts.
Detainees interviewed during two visits by the investigators complained of freezing cold, humiliating strip searches and being deprived of light, according to Gul Rahman Qazi, who led the investigation ordered by Karzai.
Another investigator, Sayed Noorullah, said the prison must be transferred to Afghan control "as soon as possible," adding that "If there is no evidence ... they have the right to be freed."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall said Saturday that American officials only received the commission's report after its press briefing. He said the U.S. investigates all allegations of prisoner abuse.
"We will certainly take seriously the report and study it," he said. He added that the U.S. is committed to working with the Afghan government on a joint plan to turn over detainees "in a responsible manner."
Karzai on Thursday abruptly demanded that the U.S. military turn over full control of the prison, officially known as the Parwan Detention Center but generally referred to as the Bagram prison, within a month. A spokesman for the president said Saturday that he made the announcement in response to the investigation team's report.
The president's demand for full control of the prison so soon took many by surprise, since the U.S. and Afghan governments had been working on a gradual timetable for transferring responsibility for the prison over the next two years.
In the ongoing negotiations over the Strategic Partnership, Karzai has demanded an end to night raids by international troops and complete Afghan control over detainees.
Karzai is walking a fine line in the brinkmanship over the negotiations. He needs America's military and financial strength to back his weak government as it battles the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, he is under pressure from the public, where there is widespread resentment of U.S. methods in the fight against the Taliban _ and Karzai has in the past sought to demonstrate his independence from the Americans with anti-U.S. rhetoric.
The Taliban mocked the president Friday in a statement that specifically mentioned Afghan detainees
"Ostensibly, he speaks of national sovereignty and of the welfare of people but practically, we see that there are thousands of Afghan detainees who have been suffering in the Bagram Air Base and other American bases now for years, and without a trial," the Taliban said.
The detention center near Bagram was opened in 2009 to replace an older prison inside the base itself. The deaths of two Afghan prisoners at the previous facility in 2002 led to prison abuse charges against several American troops.
Officially, U.S. and Afghan militaries jointly run the facility, but the Afghan side controls a small portion with about 300 detainees whose cases are slated to be tried by Afghan judiciary. The U.S. military runs the larger portion of the prison.
Qazi, who led the ad hoc investigation of the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution, said U.S. prison officials told only about 300 of the nearly 3,000 detainees had legal cases against them.
He said he was told that that 2,700 others were suspected Taliban who were captured using classified intelligence.
"The foreign friends told us they are held based on the rules of the battlefield, and they are dangerous and cannot be set free," Qazi told reporters Saturday.
Prison officials also made it clear that many of those being held had no evidence against them that would hold up in court, said Abdul Qader Adalatkhwa, the deputy leader of the commission.
"The Americans told us that according to their rules and regulation, whenever they detain somebody, after taking photos of the evidence at the site, they eliminate all the evidence of the site _ bullets, weapons, any other evidence," Adalatkhwa said.
"So this is their concern," he said. "That when they hand over the detainees to the Afghan side, because of the differences in the civilian Afghan system and the U.S. (military) system, most of these people might get freed."
The prison near Bagram also holds foreign al-Qaida suspects from several different countries captured in what the U.S. considers battlefield conditions.
It's unclear what would happen to those foreign suspects if they were turned over to Afghan custody, but Adalatkhwa implied that they, too, might be released unless there is evidence to charge them with a crime.
"The legal procedures of Afghanistan would apply to them," Adalatkhwa said.
Meanwhile, NATO statistics show that violence had increased in two of the three most contested areas of Afghanistan in the past 11 months, but dropped in the other.
In southern and eastern Afghanistan, enemy-initiated attacks rose by 5 and 20 percent respectively, while in the southwest there were 29 percent lower than in the same period in 2010, according to a month-by-month review.
While there has been a dramatic drop in insurgent attacks in southwestern Afghanistan, the figures indicated that enemy activity in the Taliban's heartland remained high in 2011 despite the NATO's overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.