Waiting in a long queue in front of the only four toilets at Kabul's Wolayat provincial jail, Khan Ali, a 44-year-old prisoner, said conditions at the antiquated, overcrowded facility were worse than torture. "We are not beaten or tortured but inadequate toilets, lack of health care, inadequate bedding and food, are themselves a continuous form of torture that we have to suffer every day," the ex-businessman, charged with fraud, told IRIN.
Some 59 people are housed in his cell - a poorly ventilated, dark room - 10 by 15 metres - with tiny windows and a damp, concrete floor. The stench of human misery permeates the air. "It is months since they [the authorities] promised to transfer prisoners to a proper jail with sufficient space and essential facilities," Ali's cell mates said.
According to Lt-Col Habibuallah, in charge of Wolayat prison, the present building with its 17 rooms and four toilets was built some 90 years ago to accommodate up to 200 people. "There are 511 men and 32 women imprisoned here," he said. There were no categories for offenders and the accused and convicted were generally mixed together, including some inmates on death row.
"There are no basic facilities, no ambulance, no proper medicine and health care, and the increasing problem of overcrowded rooms is a tragedy," Habibuallah said. Even the 35 staff members lacked access to a toilet and were forced to sleep on the roof or in the courtyard at night. "We have worse conditions than the prisoners," he claimed.
Women inmates fare slightly better. Located in a separate building, the painted cells house between five and seven prisoners each, but the lack of adequate health care is felt more by the detained women. "You are not given proper medicine, except for painkillers - no matter what your problem is," Zeba, a 35-year-old detainee, told IRIN. Suffering from high blood pressure, she said: "The food in prison is unhealthy with salty potato soup for dinner and heavy rice for lunch."
With prison rehabilitation low on the list of priorities for the government and donor community at present, such conditions look set to continue.
In a report published earlier this month, "Crumbling Prison System Desperately in Need of Repair", Amnesty International (AI) called on the government and donors to take immediate action. "All round the country, men and women suffer in detention, deprived not only of their liberty but stripped also of their dignity," Irene Khan, AI secretary-general, told IRIN following the launch of the report.
The watchdog group claimed that prisoners, some of them shackled, were held for months in overcrowded cells with inadequate food and bedding. "Prison buildings are unsafe and dilapidated, with poor sanitation," the report said.
Officials concede that conditions inside the prison system are poor, but resources limit what they can do to improve them. Abdul Salam Bakhshi, the general director of prisons at the Afghan Justice Ministry, told IRIN the government simply did not have the resources to meet minimum international standards. "We have had many people visiting prisons and many, many reports issued on their situation. But unfortunately no one has given us practical help so far," he said.
Amnesty recognises that the task of rebuilding the country's penitentiary system is enormous, but feels much more is needed in terms of donor response. "Unlike other key aspects of the criminal justice system, until March 2003 the prison system had no international donor taking the lead in its reconstruction," Khan said. She called on the Italian government, which has taken the lead in rehabilitating the penal system, to ensure that donors came up with the money, training and technical skills desperately needed by the Afghan Justice Ministry.
Khan welcomed the shifting of prison affairs from the police to the Ministry of Justice, but expressed concern over government plans to transfer prisoners with long sentences from the provinces to the capital, Kabul. "This is not a good idea because people will no longer have contact with families," she said.
AI also said it had received reports of private prisons operating in the country. "The widespread existence of such unofficial systems jeopardises attempts by the Afghan transitional government to establish a legitimate law enforcement apparatus," the report said. AI was also concerned that the National Security Directorate (NSD), Afghanistan's intelligence service, was operating its own prisons and detention centres. "NSD is carrying out arrests across the country and it is unclear on what basis they are operating."
There were widely reported to be at least two prisons in Kabul operated by the NSD; one holding suspected Al-Qaeda members and Taliban, the other political opponents of the Afghan government. "AI was able to visit the former and met all those in detention who were foreign nationals, including prisoners from Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other countries," the report said.
Khan said AI had not had access to those detained by US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "AI has repeatedly raised its concerns about the conditions of detention in Bagram air base, approximately 40 km north of Kabul, but we have been denied access to the detention facilities," she said.
AI also emphasised that all detainees must be brought promptly before a judge and those being held without evidence of having committed a crime must be released immediately. Most prisoners interviewed by IRIN complained that they had been held for months without trial. "My son has been accused of fraud and has been detained for five months without trial," Mohammad Malik, a 70-year-old illiterate farmer, told IRIN in Kabul.
Trial delays were even worse in the provinces. Deputy attorney general Karimullah Malekzai told IRIN there was an acute shortage of judges in rural areas. Delays were possible in some provinces, he said, "but I doubt if such delays happened in Kabul". Malekzai said there were qualified judges in Kabul who did not go to the provinces because government salaries did not meet their expenses.
AI said building an effective police force, judicial system, and prisons based on international human rights standards, will be a long and complicated process in Afghanistan. The government and donor community had to show sustained long-term commitment. "There should be no compromise on the promise to deliver security, justice and human rights," the group said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.