Female visitors to Afghanistan's main prison were still being subjected to body cavity searches Saturday despite a suspension of U.S. funding and orders from Afghan officials to stop the practice, a Western official said.
It's a situation that both shows the fading influence of the U.S. government in Afghanistan and provides an example of the type of issues of conduct and policy that may arise as the U.S. transfers its own detention facility to the Afghan government.
The commander of Pol-i-Charki prison outside the capital has had female guards performing the intrusive searches on all women visiting inmates for at least the past month, according to a Western official briefed on the procedures. Men are not submitted to similar searches. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
After trying to work behind the scenes to get the searches at Pol-i-Charki stopped without success, the Obama administration suspended U.S. assistance to the prison Wednesday in hopes that the financial pressure would force a change.
"Until we have determined that this utterly unacceptable practice has ceased, the United States government has suspended all mentoring activity other than that specifically focused on monitoring visitation search procedures," said Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He said delivery of equipment to the prison had also been halted.
He did not provide a dollar figure for the blocked assistance. The United States has spent $14.2 million on infrastructure improvements alone to Pol-i-Charki since 2009, expanding its capacity to 7,000 inmates from 4,000 previously.
The U.S. government has a host of mentors who regularly visit the prison to run training sessions and also has been building facilities for vocational programs and business training, along with medical facilities, at Pol-i-Charki.
But body cavity searches were still going on Saturday, the Western official said. The searches were first reported by The New York Times.
The policy is against Afghan law and international human rights standards and is not even implemented according to standard hygiene practices, said Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch who has done extensive work on the prison system.
"We've been told they have a limited supply of gloves, so they change them every four of five women," Barr said.
The commander of the prison, Khan Mohammad, appears to be continuing the searches despite an order to cease by his superiors. The head of Afghanistan's prisons, Gen. Amir Jamshid, ordered Mohammad to stop the searches before the U.S. aid stopped, the Western official said. It was not immediately clear if his decision had been overruled by someone higher in the Interior Ministry.
Khan did not respond to calls seeking comment.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry denied that any illegal searches had occurred since the Interior Ministry took over control of the prisons from the Justice Department three months ago.
"It's not happening, this kind of invasive search. That's not happening in Pol-i-Charki prison. It's against our law," said the spokesman, Sediq Sediqi. Afghan rules for searches provide only for cavity searches conducted by a medical professional and not as a matter of a routine search, according to government documents.
The standoff comes down to a larger debate in the Afghan government over who should have control of the country's prison system _ a collection of underfunded facilities where U.N. investigators found evidence of torture in September. The Justice Ministry agreed to give up control of the system after it was embarrassed by a massive jailbreak last year in which some 500 Taliban prisoners tunneled out of the main jail in southern Afghanistan.
But the switch to Interior Ministry control means that the same officials are overseeing detention and criminal investigations, which could make abuse more likely.
"The people who are trying to solve the crime and the people who are holding the prisons can't be the same people. There's too much danger that they'll resort to torture to get information," Barr said.
It also means that many of the people that the U.S. and other international allies spent millions to train to run the prison system are no longer involved in overseeing the facilities. Beyond the issues of human rights abuse, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the transfer of their detention facilities needed more time because the Afghans did not have the expertise needed to run the 3,000-inmate facility in Parwan.
But now the Afghans have signed an agreement with the U.S. government giving them nominal control of the Parwan facility immediately, along with the gradual transfer of responsibility for prisoners over six months. The agreement signed last week was seen as an important move toward satisfying President Hamid Karzai's demand for more control over international forces operating in his country.
At Pol-i-Charki, it's unclear if the misconduct is a result of political gamesmanship, ego or a lack of resources being dealt with in a very disturbing way.
The former commander of Pol-i-Charki said that his guards never performed body cavity searches on visitors, but he said he didn't have to because he had X-ray machines donated by the British government for screenings.
"I've just recently heard that now both those X-ray machines have broken down," said Gen. Abdul Balqi Behsudi.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.
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