Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Hope for Afghan Prisoners

Legislative changes suggest prisoners need no longer fear ill-treatment and can even hope for training courses.
By Abdul Baseer

Abdul Rahman squatted on the iron bunk in his cell in Afghanistan's central Pul-i-Charkhi prison. The 60-year-old, his black beard streaked with grey, was deep in thought over what he saw as the injustice of life.


Sipping a glass of tea, he told IWPR he was detained four months ago in Kandahar province charged with kidnapping a 25-year-old Iranian woman. He denies it, despite being found guilty by a court.


Rahman says prison officials in Kandahar beat him with rubber hoses and wooden batons and then demanded 500 US dollars, promising to free him instead of transferring him to the Kabul prison. But he didn't have that kind of money.


A six-year sentence stretching ahead of him, the convict at least finds some consolation in a new law on prisons ratified by the government in May.


“With the new law in place, the prison officials will treat us like friends and we will be educated instead of beaten," he said with cautious optimism.


Pul-i-Charkhi stands alone in the desert some 15 kilometres east of Kabul. It is surrounded by mud-coloured, eight-metre high concrete walls, with a huge iron gate that swings shut ominously after one enters. Watchtowers in each corner are manned by alert armed guards.


There have already been some signs of improvement for Rahman and the five other inmates with whom he shares the second-floor cell in this grim place.


Now, instead of being allowed out of their cells for only an hour a day, the prisoners can exercise between 2 pm and 4 pm each day.


There are also signs that leisure activities may one day be available. A large room has been set aside for a library and while so far, there are no shelves, some books are already scattered on tables and will be available for the inmates, who include some 70 women held in a separate section.


The new prison law was drawn up by the Afghan justice ministry with the help of the Italian government, and approved by President Hamed Karzai.


Sayed Yousef Halim, a legal expert with the justice ministry, said the law was based on Italian legislation whose application in prisons was seen by a panel led by the then justice minister, Abdul Rahim, during a visit to Italy.


“As all international standards were observed in those prisons, which were in accordance with Islam, and in which the basic rights of all inmates were ensured, we drew on their legislation in drafting this prison law,” he said.


Afghanistan's new law explicitly bans torture, saying "no one is allowed to torture any prisoner". But if a detainee tries to escape, resist, attack others or cause any disturbance, prison officers may use force – the nature of which is not defined.


Article 3 of the law states "prisons officials, attorneys, judges and other people who deal with prisoners must observe their human rights while carrying out their duties and should treat them impartially" – in other words without regard to ethnic background, religion and gender.


There are other aims which may seem ambitious in a country where there are so many demands on the state's resources after more than two decades of conflict.


One is that prisoners should be sent to whichever detention centre - which have yet to be built - is closest to home so that relatives can visit more easily.


Under the law, prison officers cannot walk around inside the prison carrying guns. Prisoners must be given a chance to learn a trade such as carpentry or tailoring, they should be allowed special leave, for example to attend a funeral, and they should have access to television, radio and newspapers.


Televisions in prisons seems a long-term objective when millions of law-abiding Afghans lack basic facilities in towns and villages.


Justice ministry legal expert Halim acknowledges that not everything will change immediately. Noting that the food currently on offer is poor, he said only 60 US cents was spent per prisoner per day - not enough to provide each inmate with three good meals a day.


Zahruddin Zahir, the head of Pul-i-Charkhi prison, also accepts that some parts of the law will be difficult to put into practice in the present situation.


"We can implement the whole prisons law eventually, but we have problems with some articles," he said. "For example, if we let a prisoner go home on for a special occasion, he won't come back to prison because the situation there is still not good.”


Ratified on May 11, the new law was followed by a series of seminars held by the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to train prison officials in internationally-accepted ways of treating prisoners.


General Abdul Salam Bakhshi, director-general of prisons at the justice ministry, said the seminars were the best way to make officers aware of prisoners' rights.


"There were some private jails in Afghanistan several years ago where people's nails were pulled out, where they were burnt in oil and their heads were cut off," he said, adding that such prisons no longer existed.


Bakhshi said the ministry would try to set up training courses in prisons and ask traders to invest in small factories and businesses there. "On the one hand they will benefit and on the other hand the prisoners will be busy and… rapidly acquire a trade." he said. "The prisoner will be paid a wage that can help him support his family."


The law, for the first time, gives prisoners the right to put complaints to prison officials, the director-general of prisons, a lawyer or the justice minister.


Jolanda Brunetti Goetz, special coordinator for the justice sector assistance programme for which Italy has taken the lead role, says her government has spent eight million euros (some 9.7 million dollars) over three years on improving Afghanistan's judicial system, training lawyers and prison officials, and drawing up the new law.


In Pul-i-Charkhi, prisoner Abdul Razaq, a man in his mid-thirties who has been inside for three years now, was more optimistic about the remaining two years he had to serve.


He said that with the new law, mistreatment of prisoners was not allowed and there had already been moves to start a library, arrange some training courses and prepare some new floor-coverings in the jail.


Abdul Baseer Saeed and Amanullah Nasrat are IWPR reporters in Kabul. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, an IWPR reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif, also contributed material for this report.