By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan handed control of all its prisons on Tuesday to the interior ministry, which commands the police force, raising concerns among human rights activists that prisoners could be at greater risk of torture and mistreatment.
President Hamid Karzai passed a decree last month ordering the transfer from the justice ministry, saying the move would result in improved supervision of prisoners.
"The interior ministry has more resources and capabilities to handle the control of the all prisons properly," interior ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said on Tuesday.
Afghanistan was humiliated in April when hundreds of prisoners escaped from a jail in the country's south through a tunnel dug by Taliban insurgents.
New York-based Human Rights Watch warned the police have long been implicated in cases of "torture and other ill-treatment".
"Criminal justice in Afghanistan will not be improved by giving the police free rein of the prisons," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"Greater police involvement in jails is likely to lead to more torture, not less," he said. Adams said the move reversed a 2003 decision to pass control of prisons from the interior ministry to the justice ministry.
In September 2010, NATO-led forces said they had stopped sending prisoners to several Afghan jails because of U.N. warnings of torture, raising fresh questions about the capacity of Afghan security forces.
The U.N. report on torture, released in October, said the Afghan intelligence agency and police force had been "systematically" torturing detainees, including children, at a number of jails in breach of local and international laws.
But the head of the United Nations in Afghanistan said the torture was neither institutional nor government policy, and praised the ministry and intelligence agency for allowing access to their prisons for research.
The interior ministry said the prison transfer would bring positive change and fears of ill-treatment were misplaced.
"We want to reassure (everyone) that there will be no human rights violations under the leadership of interior ministry and, with the passing of time, we will prove all allegations wrong," Sediqqi said.
Foreign forces fighting Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan are in the process of handing control of security over to the Afghan army and police, with foreign combat troops due to leave by the end of 2014.
(Editing by Paul Tait)