The long-demanded handoff of Parwan detention center, the facility’s official name, occurred amid tensions between Washington and Kabul over the Afghan army’s ability to guarantee security at the prison, and the Afghan court system’s preparedness to competently adjudicate detainee cases.
The pledges of continuing mutual cooperation at the ceremony at Bagram air base masked a behind-the-scenes dispute over approximately three dozen captives whom the United States has refused to release. The U.S.-led military coalition also held back the transfer of more than 600 more newly captured prisoners, but officials said that process would begin next week.
Even some Afghan officials fear that Afghan courts will end up releasing dangerous captives from the prison, because judges often don’t accept evidence gathered from intelligence sources. The United States has held some suspected militants for years on the basis of classified, undisclosed evidence, drawing international criticism. Allegations of abuse of detainees at the prison have stoked anti-American feeling here.
At Monday’s mid-morning ceremony, the Afghan army formally took custody of hundreds of inmates accused of fighting for or supporting the Taliban and other Islamic militants battling Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces during the 11-year war.
The handover marked a victory for President Hamid Karzai, who has considered U.S. control of the prison a violation of national sovereignty, and fulfilled an agreement Karzai struck six months ago with the United States.
“This is a day of national pride for Afghanistan,” said Afghan Army Gen. Farouq Barakai, the commander taking over the prison, as hundreds of his troops stood at rigid attention
Karzai did not attend the ceremony at the Bagram air base, 30 miles from Kabul.
U.S. Army Col. Robert M. Taradash, who has overseen the prison, said that by transferring responsibility to Afghanistan, the United States has “ensured that those who threaten Afghan and coalition forces will not return to the battlefield.”
The ceremony also included the freeing of 12 prisoners who had been cleared by a joint U.S.-Afghan review board.
Parwan at one point held more than 3,000 inmates, but hundreds have been transferred to other facilities or released, Afghan officials said.
The United States will retain custody of nearly 50 foreign nationals accused of fighting for the Taliban.
“We are not interested in them,” said Zahir Azimi, an Afghan defense ministry spokesman.
The U.S.-led military coalition, in a statement Sunday night, alluded to concerns about transferring some of the high-value detainees to Afghan custody, but did not give specifics.
“Some 99 percent of the detainees captured before 9 March have already been transferred to Afghan authority, but we have paused the transfer of the remaining detainees until our concerns are met,” said Jamie Graybeal, a coalition spokesman.
“That’s something that’s being resolved between our two governments,” Taradash said after the ceremony. “The governments are working together, and we continue to partner with the Afghans at this facility.”