The South Asia Channel

Karzai's bid for a dictatorial detention law

In March, the United States and Afghanistan announced that the U.S.-run Bagram prison near Kabul will soon be handed over to Afghan control. It was a major diplomatic breakthrough that paved the way for the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement by President Obama and President Karzai on May 2. But the agreement to handover Bagram is leading to a dramatic and dangerous expansion of detention power in Afghanistan-and a potentially disastrous legacy for the United States.

As part of the agreement to transfer control of Bagram, the Afghan government is creating the authority to hold individuals without charge or trial for an indefinite period of time on security grounds-a power it has never before said it needed.

While such "administrative detention" regimes are permissible under the laws of war, this new detention power is being established in order to hand over a U.S. detention facility, not because changes in the conflict have convinced Afghan officials that it is necessary. A surge in U.S. detention operations like night raids has driven the prison population to over 3,000 detainees, most of whom the United States lacks evidence against for prosecution under Afghans law. Because the Afghan constitution, like the United States', protects individuals from being detained without charge or trial, the Afghan government needs a new detention law, which is now being modeled on deeply problematic U.S. detention policies and practices.

As a result, Bagram's real legacy may be the establishment of a detention regime that will be ripe for abuse in a country with pervasive corruption and weak rule of law.

Despite potentially far-reaching consequences, the development of this new detention power has been hidden from public view. When I met with leading Afghan lawyers and civil society organizations in Kabul several weeks ago, few knew that the government was proposing to create a new, non-criminal detention regime. Their reaction was disbelief and dismay. None had even seen a copy of the proposed regime, which the Afghan government has not made public and is trying to adopt by presidential fiat.

The Open Society Foundations recently obtained a copy of the proposed detention regime, and after review, we have found what it details deeply troubling. The proposed changes leave open critical questions about the nature and scope of this proposed detention regime, which if left unanswered make it ripe for abuse. Who can be held in administrative detention and for how long? Where will it apply? When will the government cease to have this power? How will the government ensure it will not be abused to imprison the innocent or suppress political opposition?

Most alarming is the failure to address the serious, long-term risks posed by such a regime. From apartheid South Africa to modern day China, administrative detention regimes adopted on security grounds have too often been used as tools of repression. In Egypt, the former government used administrative detention for decades to commit gross human rights violations and suppress political opposition, relying on a state of emergency declared in 1958, and nominally lifted only after last year's revolution.

Across the border in Pakistan, the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations are another stark reminder of the long, dark shadow that such legal regimes can cast. The ongoing imposition of these British, colonial-era laws, which among other things legalize collective punishment and detention without trial, are cited by many as a key driver of the rise of militancy in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

But there is still time for the United States to avoid this legacy in Afghanistan. If the Afghan government cannot be dissuaded from adopting an administrative detention regime, then the United States should urge the Afghan government to include provisions that limit its scope and reduce its vulnerability to abuse.

First, a ‘sunset' provision should be adopted, which would impose a time limit on such powers, or require an act by the Afghan Parliament to extend their duration.

Second, the regime should be limited to individuals currently held by the United States at Bagram prison. There is no clear reason why the handover of Bagram detainees requires the creation of a nation-wide administrative detention regime. More generally, the scope of who can be detained must be clearly defined and limited.

Third, detainees must have right to counsel as well as access to the evidence used against them in order to have a meaningful opportunity to challenge their detention-a fundamental right in international law. At present it seems the government will follow the well-documented due process shortfalls of the U.S. model.

The United States and its Afghan partners must be honest about the serious, long-term risks of establishing an administrative detention regime in Afghanistan-particularly one that lacks clear limits and is democratically unaccountable. Protection from arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life or liberty is at the constitutional core of the United States, and is essential to lasting stability and security in Afghanistan. Living up to the President's promise of responsibly ending the war in Afghanistan requires defending, not betraying this principle.

Chris Rogers is a human rights lawyer for the Open Society Foundations specializing in human rights and conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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