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Afghanistan: Female Prisoners Complain of Bullying

Fear of retribution means victims feel they have no choice but to stay silent.
By Arezo Mohammadi

Inmates at a women’s prison in Baghlan province in Afghanistan’s northeast say a culture of bullying and abuse inside the jail is making their lives miserable. Although the prison has an anonymous complaints system, women say they are too frightened of retribution from guards or powerful inmates to lodge formal protests.

There are currently 28 prisoners in the women’s section of the jail, some of whom have young children with them. It is normal for babies and infants to live with their mothers in Afghan prisons, although there is generally little provision for their welfare.

One woman in her late twenties, awaiting trial for murder, said inmates with close ties to prison officials took advantage of the power this gave them.

“These women force others to do their work for them,” she told IWPPR. “They bring mobile phones into the jail and force prisoners to buy them. If anyone doesn’t obey their orders, they beat her up.”

As well as bullying more vulnerable prisoners, the privileged convicts helped facilitate sexual abuse by the guards, she continued.

“Women who have links with prison officials coerce women into having relations with the warders. One female prisoner has also been raped by male officials,” she said.

She said that she could not name any of these women or guards for fear of retribution.

Another woman in her early twenties has been in the Baghlan jail for the last year simply for running away from home. Such behaviour falls into the category of “moral crime”, a loosely-defined term which refers to women accused of sexual misconduct, leaving their home or refusing to get married. These are not offences in the written criminal code, but it is common for courts to impose custodial sentences.

She named one inmate in particular – an older woman in her fifties – who she said was abusive to the other prisoners.

“When I pray, she… makes fun of me. When I eat, she laughs at me, saying that I eat like an animal. She threatens me so that I have to obey her every order,” she said. “I cannot complain, because she has the backing of prison officials.”

Other prisoners also made similar claims, but the particular woman accused in this case said the allegations of bullying were false.

“I have good relations with everybody,” she told IWPR. “When I stop other women from doing bad things, they start hating me. I’m older than they are, and I consider it my duty to advise them. I have not been violent towards anybody.”

After the IWPR reporter left the jail, she received an anonymous call from a woman who said that she was an inmate and was using a smuggled phone. She claimed that ahead of IWPR’s visit, prison officials had warned that anyone who complained about conditions or the behaviour of the guards would be punished.

The anonymous caller also claimed that guards sexually abused some prisoners.

Prison governor Mohammad Hanif Haidari said all such allegations were entirely unfounded. He told IWPR that the warders maintained a calm atmosphere in the facility and ensured that prisoners were well looked after.

“We have not witnessed any bullying or violence in the jail,” he said. “We do not allow prisoners to hit each other. The prisoners do sometimes argue with each other over their children; these issues exist in every family situation. I think that personal animosities between some of the women has caused them to complain and make such allegations.”

Haidari pointed out that a complaints box existed so that inmates could inform prison administrators of any problems anonymously, if they so wished. But the only concerns that had been raised were related to health issues, and these had been addressed rapidly.

Shafiqa Sepehr, who represents the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in the neighbouring Kunduz province, said no complaints had been made by inmates when her organisation inspected the Baghlan prison.

“All the same, I cannot confirm or deny this,” she said about the complaints IWPR heard.

Sepehr said violence was often a problem among female prisoners, and was exacerbated by overcrowding.

“The reason for violence among female inmates is that they don’t have enough space to accommodate their children or their physical possessions. There are no special bedrooms for the children and most of the violence is caused because of these family issues,” she said.

Uranus Atifi, justice director at Baghlan’s department for women’s affairs, agreed that the presence of little children meant that mothers were prone to arguments.

“Prisoners are under emotional stress,” she added.

Atifi said that although her office had not received any complaints from inmates in Baghlan, it was nonetheless important for officials to explain to them what their rights and responsibilities were.

Baghlan provincial council member Nur Zia Aimaq told IWPR that she found the allegations of abuse plausible.

“As a women’s rights defender, I’ve asked several times about prisoners’ conditions, but they never complained about any kinds of violence or abuse by prison officials,” she continued. “I don’t know whether they haven’t complained because there is no violence, or because they are too frightened to do so.”

Abdul Qayum Shariati, a legal expert in Baghlan, said recent studies by human rights institutions had shown rising rates of violence against women, particularly inside prisons.

“The prison bullies, most of whom are supported by gangs on both the inside and outside, force others to serve them. For instance, they must hand over their food or move places for them. They must wash their clothes and perform other large and small chores. Otherwise, they face violence.”

Shariati blamed a lack of official oversight for such abuses, adding, “It is state mismanagement that causes violence in jails.”

Arezo Mohammadi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Baghlan province.

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiativefunded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.


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