UN officials urge greater efforts to ensure rights of Afghan detainees

Senior United Nations officials in Afghanistan have urged the Government to look at alternatives to imprisonment as well as ways to ensure the rights of detainees, citing the growing number of people being held in pre-trial detention and various abuses such as being kept in prison even after a sentence has been completed.

“Pre-trial detention is supposed to be the exception, not the rule. But here it is more the rule, especially if you are poor and without powerful friends,” Christina Oguz, Country Representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told a news conference in Kabul today.

She described what she called “telephone justice,” whereby a phone call by powerful friends may be enough to set someone free or help evade trial. “If you don’t have these powerful friends you may end up in jail even if you are a child,” she added.

While there were 600 prisoners in Afghanistan in 2001, that number has now grown to 12,500, some 350 of which are women, she noted.

In addition to pre-trial detention, another issue is the fact that people remain in prison after they have served their sentence. This is partly due to the “strange” practice of having a double sentence of a prison sentence and a fine.

Someone who is poor may end up staying in prison even after a sentence has been completed due to inability to pay the fine. “We have found many cases of people who are still in prison after they have already served their time,” she stated.

“Therefore, I believe that Afghanistan has to look into alternatives to imprisonment,” Ms. Oguz said, noting that there are a number of other possibilities to pre-trial detention and prison in the country’s penal code and in the juvenile code. “The challenge is to ensure that these alternatives are applied in practice. They are very seldom applied in practice today.”

Alternatives include bail, fines, suspended sentences, early conditional release, house arrest – particularly for women who have to care for children or the elderly – and drug treatment for addicts rather than jail terms.

Norah Niland, Chief Human Rights Officer with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that corruption and other abuses within the justice sector could result in detention, conviction, and punishment of individuals who may be innocent.

“They may also result in the abuse of the rights of people who are detained and a failure to punish individuals who are actually guilty of serious crimes,” she said.

She pointed out that Afghans are sometimes detained for actions that are not crimes in Afghan law, and some are detained for far longer periods than the law allows. In addition, people are being detained because trial standards and fair trial procedures are not being observed.

“Quite often a lot of Afghans do not have access to legal help, they don’t have a defence lawyer or they are not brought before a judge after they are detained in the pre-trial period,” she noted.

At the same time, Ms. Niland said the Afghan Government has recognized that there is a problem with arbitrary detention in the country and has committed to tackling the problem. “Successfully tackling the problem of arbitrary detention will contribute to the development of Afghanistan as a democratic, peaceful and prosperous country.”

She added that the UN and its partners have launched a week of activities focusing on issues related to detention, ahead of next week’s observance of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to dignity and justice.