By Martin Petty
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's intelligence agency and police force have been "systematically" torturing detainees including children at a number of jails, in breach of local and international laws, a United Nations report said on Monday.
Scores of people told the U.N. that the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Afghan National Police had physically or mentally abused them, using beatings, electrocution and toenail removal, according to the report.
But the head of the U.N. in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, said that torture was neither institutional nor government policy, and praised the ministry and intelligence agency for allowing access to their prisons for research.
The Afghan government rejected many of the allegations, but conceded there may have been some abuse, and added that steps were being taken to prevent further problems.
Interviews with 379 pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners were conducted at 47 different facilities by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) from October 2010 to August 2011.
The report said 324 of the detainees were accused of crimes related to the war.
There was systematic torture found at five NDS "facilities," the report said, and "multiple, credible allegations" of torture at two others. There were also some allegations from 17 other facilities that the U.N. said it was still investigating.
Almost half of those interviewed were suspected insurgents, 20 percent were arrested while carrying explosives and 11 percent were failed suicide bombers.
UNAMA said almost half of those it interviewed at NDS facilities experienced interrogation techniques that constituted torture. Of those in police facilities, more than a third of the 117 suspected insurgents or those believed to be assisting militants told UNAMA they had been subjected to torture or inhumane treatment.
Beyond physical mistreatment, which included sexual humiliation, many prisoners also said they had been held beyond the maximum duration allowed by law and denied family visits.
The United Nations said Afghanistan's difficult security situation did not justify any mistreatment.
The intelligence agency said in an official response that "reference has been made to some issues that are not in conformity with work principles of the NDS," and specifically rejected some allegations of mistreatment.
"Torture methods such as electric shock, threat of rape, twisting of sexual organs etc. are methods that are absolutely non-existent in the NDS," an official government response said.
The statement suggested some insurgent prisoners might be making false claims to discredit the government. However it also said several officials had recently been dismissed or suspended, and the agency was "keen for reform and improvement in the field of interrogation."
UNAMA said it had designed its study to take into account concerns from the Afghan authorities that detainees might give false accounts to discredit security agencies and further insurgent propaganda.
The Interior Ministry accepted there were cases of poor treatment of detainees in police custody, but said they were in the minority and it was committed to punishing violators and ensuring police were trained to protect human rights.
"It is evident ... that the outcome of the report cannot be totally rejected/denied due to some existing problems," it said.
The report follows a similar U.N. investigation into alleged torture that prompted NATO to halt transfers of prisoners to several southern Afghan jails in July.
Those findings raised questions about the capacity of Afghan security forces at a time when they are meant to be taking on greater security responsibilities ahead of a planned withdrawal of all foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was made aware of UNAMA's findings last month and has since helped the Afghan government develop a six-stage plan to tackle torture, which included inspections, monitoring, training in human rights protection, and formal certification procedures.
"Initiatives being implemented will help strengthen rule of law, continue to enhance government credibility, and limit the appeal of the insurgency," ISAF said in a statement.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Daniel Magnowski)