By Jessica Donati and Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - The United States handed control of the controversial giant Bagram prison and its 3,000 suspected Taliban inmates to Afghan authorities on Monday, amid concerns by activists over rights abuses and U.S. questions about Kabul's ability to keep key detainees behind bars.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers watched as an Afghan flag was hoisted in front of the prison at the huge U.S.-run airfield north of Kabul, as part of a plan to withdraw foreign troops from combat operations in 2014.
"Today is a historical and glorious day for Afghanistan where Afghans are able to take charge of the prison themselves," acting Defense Minister Enayatullah Nazari told a large crowd including U.S. military officials.
But, in a move that has angered the Afghan government, the U.S. plans to keep at least one block at the prison, where any suspected Taliban fighters or terrorists captured in future raids will be held before being handed over.
Since the agreement on the handover was signed in March a further 600 people have been jailed at Bagram. The United States has no time frame on when these new prisoners will be handed over, and how long they plan to keep future captives.
The United States is also keeping another roughly 30 of the original group of detainees, amid concerns that Kabul might process them out instead of keeping them behind bars, as stipulated in the transfer agreement.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Monday he spoke with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about the need to "continue to detain those that are a threat to their country," pursuant to the handover agreement.
"I expressed to him that it was important to celebrate this day that we are transferring authority of a large number of prisoners to the Afghan government. It's an important step," he said. "We want to make sure that they in every way abide by the agreements that we work out with them."
Afghan officials maintain that detention without trial is illegal under Afghan law. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, declined to comment on the possibility of detention without trial happening anyway, simply saying: "We are against detainees not being processed by Afghan law."
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
Afghanistan has long sought control of the sprawling prison, which has been likened to Guantanamo in Cuba and Abu Graib in Iraq for its association with torture and long detention times.
Prisoners have often been held for years without trial, and human rights activists say they will be vulnerable to more rights abuses once the handover is complete.
Afghan lawyers say Afghanistan's social system of powerful tribes and influential families could mean that inmates are exposed to abuse if individuals are imprisoned without trial and on the basis of little, if any, evidence.
"A wealthy figure or a person of authority, if offended for whatever reason, can arrest an innocent citizen over personal or family vendettas," the president of Afghanistan's Independent Bar Association, Rohullah Qarizada, told Reuters.
The Open Society Foundation, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group, said "there is nothing that prevents the Afghan government from using the transition procedure to not only intern post-handover, but to subject anyone it deems to meet the detention criteria to internment anywhere in the country".
One former inmate, who spent five years at Bagram before being released without being charged, said conditions behind bars worsened when he was handed over to Afghan custody.
"The Afghans are no better than the Americans," said Karim Shah, adding that they had not let him pray during that time, a grave insult in ultra-religious, Muslim Afghanistan.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) served as a safeguard while the prison was under U.S. control.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is expected to monitor Bagram under Afghan control, though no agreement has been reached with the government, according to an Open Society Foundation report last week urging the government to grant the monitor unrestricted access to the prison.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Todd Eastham)