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British Defense Chief Confirms Detentions of Afghans at Base

By STEPHEN CASTLE

May 30, 2013

LONDON — The British Defense Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that it had been holding up to 90 Afghan detainees for months at a military base in southern Afghanistan, after legal action filed by some of the detainees’ lawyers in Britain raised human rights objections.

The issue of transferring detainees to Afghan control has been a lasting source of tension between the international military coalition and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai.

A spokesman for Mr. Karzai, Adela Raz, reiterated that the president had long demanded that "any Afghan citizen held or imprisoned on Afghan soil by foreign troops should be handed over to the Afghan government." She added that the government was investigating reports of the detentions at the British base, Camp Bastion, in Helmand Province.

However, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC in London that the number of suspected insurgents held by British forces at their base in Camp Bastion was higher than normal because of problems in handing them over to the Afghan legal system.

"The system has been blocked up because of the problems with transfer into the Afghan system," Mr. Hammond said. "We would normally expect to be holding probably in the region of 20-odd people that are in the process of being passed on to the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan internal security service."

"These people are being held pending transfer to the Afghan national security system," he added. "Within that system they would have access to Afghan lawyers."

But British lawyers acting for some of the men want them charged or released soon, arguing that they have been held for up to 14 months without the start of formal legal proceedings in what could amount to unlawful detention. They filed a complaint with the British government in April, according to a news report on Wednesday by the BBC, and a full hearing on the case is set for July.

In making their case, the lawyers called the detention center at Camp Bastion a "secret facility," and raised comparisons with the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects have been held for years without charge.

Mr. Hammond on Wednesday rejected that comparison, saying, "The assertion that this is a secret facility is patently ridiculous." He noted that there was a framework in place for transferring detainees to Afghan control, though Britain put that on hold beginning in December because of worries about possible mistreatment of some prisoners.

He added that Parliament had been informed about the detentions, which he described as "a vital part of our force protection" that had occurred during military operations in southern Afghanistan.

That is a similar point posed by American officials involved in long negotiations with the Afghan government over the transfer of Afghan detainees out of the American detention center at the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. The issue became a major sticking point in recent months after several failed attempts to hand over control of the prison, with Mr. Karzai demanding immediate and full Afghan sovereignty over the prison and American officials seeking to ensure that hardened militant leaders would not be immediately released back onto the battlefield.

Azam Ahmed contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.



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