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Shackled by the feet, many inmates arrive at Sarpoza prison suffering from injuries sustained in custody of the NDS, the Afghan secret police. (2006 Photo) (Graeme Smith/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)
Shackled by the feet, many inmates arrive at Sarpoza prison suffering from injuries sustained in custody of the NDS, the Afghan secret police. (2006 Photo) (Graeme Smith/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

From Canadian custody into cruel hands Add to ...

Afghans detained by Canadian soldiers and sent to Kandahar's notorious jails say they were beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation.

In 30 face-to-face interviews with men recently captured in Kandahar province, a Globe and Mail investigation has uncovered a litany of gruesome stories and a clear pattern of abuse by the Afghan authorities who work closely with Canadian troops, despite Canada's assurances that the rights of detainees are protected.

Canadian forces regularly hold detainees for a few days of questioning at Kandahar Air Field, then give them to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's feared intelligence police. Over and over, detainees described how Canadians tied their hands with plastic straps, marking the start of nightmarish journeys through shadowy jails and blood-spattered interrogation rooms.

None of the abuse was inflicted by Canadians, and most Afghans captured -- even those who clearly sympathized with the Taliban -- praised the Canadian soldiers for their politeness, their gentle handling of captives and their comfortable detention facility.

Mahmad Gul, 33, an impoverished farmer, said he was interrogated for three days in May of 2006, without any meals, at Zhari District Centre, a small town west of Kandahar city.

His tormentors were the Afghan police, he said, but the Canadian soldiers who visited him between beatings had surely heard his screams.

"The Canadians told me, 'Give them real information, or they will do more bad things to you,' " Mr. Gul said.

The farmer said he's lucky; during two months of questioning in Afghan jails, the worst that happened to him was that an interrogator punched out the teeth on the left side of his mouth.

Other survivors describe more grisly horrors. At times they pointed to Afghan soldiers or police officers as their abusers, but the worst stories came from Afghans who endured captivity in the cramped basement cells underneath the NDS headquarters in Kandahar.

Most of those held by the NDS for an extended time said they were whipped with electrical cables, usually a bundle of wires about the length of an arm. Some said the whipping was so painful that they fell unconscious.

Interrogators also jammed cloth between the teeth of some detainees, who described hearing the sound of a hand-crank generator and feeling the hot flush of electricity coursing through their muscles, seizing them with spasms.

Another man said the police hung him by his ankles for eight days of beating. Still another said he panicked as interrogators put a plastic bag over his head and squeezed his windpipe.

Torturers also used cold as a weapon, according to detainees who complained of being stripped half-naked and forced to stand through winter nights when temperatures in Kandahar drop below freezing.

The men who survived these ordeals often seem like broken husks. They tell their stories with quiet voices and trembling hands. They can't sleep, they complain of chronic pain and they forget the simplest things, such as remembering to pull down their pants when they use the toilet.

After interrogation, the NDS often sends Taliban suspects to Sarpoza prison, on the western edge of the city. Detainees who arrive at the facility's tall metal gates are occasionally so badly impaired that they're incapable of caring for themselves properly and prison officials and fellow inmates complain that they're left with the chores of washing, dressing, and feeding them.

The Kandahar police department is aware of only two complaints of beatings in police custody in the past year, Colonel Shir Ali Saddiqui, human-rights ombudsman for the force, said.

The police have already taken steps to prevent such abuse from happening again, Col. Saddiqui said. His colleagues at the NDS, on the other hand, sometimes need to get rough with their suspects, he added.

"In these cases, these people need some torture, because without torture they will never say anything," Col. Saddiqui said.

Sadullah Khan, Kandahar NDS chief, initially denied all allegations of torture during a telephone interview last week. After repeated questions, however, Mr. Khan acknowledged that minor mistakes may have occurred during interrogations.

"We never beat people," the NDS chief said. "Maybe small things happened, but now we're trying to leave those things behind."

The majority of the detainees interviewed were picked up by Canadian troops on suspicion of involvement with the Taliban insurgency. Most identified their captors by describing the Canadians' vehicles, which look different from the American or British models used recently in the same districts.

Many of those interviewed have never been convicted; some were released, some await judgment, and a handful were found guilty. Kandahar's justice system remains so flawed that it's hard to say which of them, if any, are Taliban. Canadian military and government officials have spent almost a year consistently defending the human-rights record of their Afghan allies.

Most recently, on April 2, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day visited Kandahar and heard a reporter tell him about the complaints of torture of people in Afghan custody, including whipping with electrical cables.

Mr. Day was asked whether he remains confident about Canada's relationship with Afghan security services.

"We've got good confidence levels," said Mr. Day, whose portfolio includes the Correctional Service of Canada, the agency trying to improve Kandahar's prisons. "We're seeing an increased understanding and appreciation for human rights," he added.

Last May, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated that perhaps 30 per cent of prisoners in Kandahar jails had suffered some kind of abuse. At the time, the Canadian commander of forces in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier-General David Fraser, reacted with outrage to the suggestion that the AIHRC's research might imply that Canada's detainees are mistreated by the Afghans.

"Do you have facts?" he asked, in a June 2, 2006, interview with The Globe and Mail. The Canadian commander added that his soldiers had established close relationships with Afghan security services and only gave detainees to local officials who could be trusted to treat them properly.

"We respect the rights of individuals," Brig.-Gen. Fraser said. "We will make sure that those rights are maintained and nothing bad happens to those people."

Canada's appointed watchdog has always expressed less confidence in Afghan system.

"The NDS is torturing detainees," said Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the regional head of the AIHRC. "I've heard stories of blood on the walls. It's a terrifying place: dark, dirty, and bloody. When you hear about this place, no man feels comfortable with himself."

Few people hear firsthand accounts of such torture, however. Afghans are often afraid to talk about the NDS. If they whisper its name, they usually call it KhAD, the acronym for the Communist-era Ministry for State Security, created in 1978 as a copy of the Soviet KGB. The KhAD was infamous for torture and summary executions; a study in 2004 found that half the officers now filling the ranks of the new NDS are veterans of the old Communist agency.

Besides the AIHRC, the only other human-rights group that monitors Kandahar detention facilities is the International Committee of the Red Cross, but that group keeps its findings secret from everybody except the institutions it inspects.

The AIHRC itself does not usually release information about individual cases, preferring to gather data for broad reports. One exception to this policy is its agreement with Canada, which stipulates that the group will immediately inform the Canadians if any detainee transferred from Canadian custody is mistreated.

A Foreign Affairs spokesman said last week that the AIHRC has not given any such notification.

However, AIHRC staff agreed to cross-check the details of several cases discovered by The Globe and Mail that appear to fit the criteria of detainees transferred from Canadian custody who later suffered abuse at the hands of the Afghan authorities. Using existing records and new interviews, the AIHRC confirmed key elements of these stories.

Gul Mohammed, 25, a farmer, said he was captured by Canadians while working the fields west of Kandahar city. The Canadian troops handed him over to Afghan soldiers, starting what he described as a bloody six-month odyssey at the hands of Afghan interrogators from the military, police and intelligence services. He said they beat him with rifle butts, deprived him of sleep, shocked him with electrical probes, and thrashed him with bundles of cables.

Sherin, 25, a driver, said he was detained at a checkpoint operated by Canadian and Afghan troops in a district north of Kandahar city. A small man with a quiet voice, he gripped his elbows with both hands and rocked back and forth while describing how he was interrogated by a man who identified himself as a Canadian, before he was thrown in the back of a pickup truck and taken to NDS headquarters. He spent a 1½ months in NDS custody, he said, where interrogators punched his face, pulled his beard, and beat him with bundles of electrical cables for 60 strokes at a time.

Abdul Wali, 23, a tailor, said he was arrested by the Canadians and was treated politely until they handed him over to the Afghan soldiers, who beat him. He said the beatings were constant, except for pauses when Canadians soldiers visited the outpost. Worse thrashings came later, he said, at the hands of the police and NDS.

The Canadian role in these detentions is often confusing for ordinary Afghans. Noor Mohammed Noori, 44, sipped tea in a Kandahar guesthouse and furrowed his brow as he contemplated his short, painful experience in custody.

Mr. Noori described how Afghan police officers pushed his face into the filthy floor of an interrogation room in late February. He said two officers pinned him down, placed an iron bar across the back of his legs, and sat on either end of the rod, crushing him with their weight. A third officer sat on the back of his head, he said, and they beat his backside with electric cables until he fell unconscious, then woke him with a splash of water and repeated the abuse. He was so badly bruised that one of Mr. Noori's tribesmen didn't recognize him afterward.

This kind of treatment makes it hard to understand why the Canadian soldiers who originally detained him were so polite, Mr. Noori said.

Many of those captured by Canadian troops expressed similar puzzlement. They describe the foreign soldiers handling their personal belongings carefully, and giving them sips of cool water on hot days.

In the case of Mr. Noori, what surprised him was the way a Canadian soldier gently placed a hand over his head while he was sitting in the back of a troop carrier with his wrists tied. The soldier's gesture prevented Mr. Noori from bumping his skull as the vehicle jounced along a dirt road.

It gave him reason to wonder, afterward, why the Canadian had bothered to protect his head during the ride, as they were driving toward the Afghan jail where he would be tortured later the same day.

"Did he know?" Mr. Noori asked with a look of honest curiosity. "Do the Canadians know what happens to us?"

Rules of engagement

Article 12: Prisoners of war are

in the hands of the enemy Power, but not of the individuals or

military units who have captured them. Irrespective of the individual responsibilities that may exist, the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given them. Prisoners of war may only be transferred by the Detaining

Power to a Power which is a party

to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied

itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention.

The third Geneva Convention

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