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A prison riot and reality check

Filed on February 28, 2006

THE rebellion in the Afghan prison, Policharki in Kabul, has highlighted the deteriorating situation in the Central Asian country. At least, seven people have died in the clashes between hundreds of inmates and guards, which led to the inmates taking control of the high security prison. At the time of writing, the standoff is still on.

How, the Policharki prison riot shouldn't really come as a surprise. There are over 2,000 inmates stuffed in the facility and nearly 350 of them are said to be former Taleban members. And as a report in The New York Times pointed out yesterday, most of them are innocent people, randomly captured after the fall of Taleban and languishing in the prison in abominable conditions for over four years without trial and without due process.

It is possible that some of those angry Afghans, who took over the Policharki prison on Saturday, may have been misguided and instigated by some extremists in their midst. And it is possible that the rebellion could be used by some in high places to unleash a retaliatory campaign against the Pakhtun community to which incidentally most Taleban belongs.

This is why the US-led coalition forces and the Afghan authorities need to handle this explosive situation very carefully and sensitively without provoking the ire of the already restive Afghan populace. One wonders what is President Hamid Karzai doing to resolve this crisis. It is time for Karzai to show that he is in charge of his country.

In a time of crisis like this, shouldn't he come forward to offer leadership to his people? The Afghan government, which has rightly urged the US authorities to release scores of innocent Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and expressed concern over their living conditions, first needs to turn its attention to its own backyard.

The same report in The New York Times has argued that the awful conditions in the Policharki prison rival those at the Guantanamo Bay. The rundown prison was once known for routine disappearances and torture of prisoners during the Soviet occupation. Thousands of political opponents were imprisoned and executed and buried in mass graves nearby. Unfortunately, the situation is no better today. This is really shameful in a country which is seeking to usher in an era of genuine democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

Afghanistan cannot remain an exception to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of Prisoners of War and international treaties on human rights. It must either free the detainees or try them in fast track courts. In the meantime, the UN human rights commission or international rights bodies must be allowed to visit and inspect the prison.




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