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Inside the national-security wing of the Sarpoza prison, on the west side of Kandahar city. (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)
Inside the national-security wing of the Sarpoza prison, on the west side of Kandahar city. (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

Afghanistan's Sarpoza prisoners begin hunger strike Add to ...

Housed in a prison known for fierce beatings and electrocutions, Kandahar's most volatile prisoners have found inspiration in an unlikely source: Gandhi.

More than 350 Taliban inmates in the city's notorious Sarpoza prison are staging a hunger strike, refusing to eat in a protest over their treatment within the prison's bleak walls.

The passive demonstration, which began Sunday, has left the prison's Canadian-trained guards - accustomed to suppressing far more aggressive insurrections - somewhat flummoxed.

Late last night, government security forces bolstered the armed presence at the prison over fears the demonstration is a precursor to an attempt at a prison break on the scale of the massive escape that unleashed more than 1,000 Sarpoza prisoners on the city last year.

Six days ago, prison officials learned that three tanker trucks loaded with explosives were bound for the jail with instructions to obliterate its walls.

"We are expecting an attack and then a big fight," said one prison official, who praised the Canadian training his guards have received. "The Canadians gave us good training in how to keep the prison secure and it has been very effective in this situation."

Last year's break set back regional efforts to round up Taliban figures by several months, and temporarily soured relations between Afghan law enforcement and the Canadian army. Not long after the June 13 escape, Kandahar's police chief accused the Canadians of sitting back while prisoners fled through city streets.

Since then, Canada has pledged more than $21-million toward law-and-order initiatives, and spent $4-million rebuilding Sarpoza's walls, erecting towers and training guards in human rights.

"We received a call from the prison informing us that prisoners refused to eat supper last night and breakfast this morning," said Gail Latouche, Canada's lead corrections officer in Kandahar. "Sarpoza officials are working on it. They are qualified and capable of handling this on their own."

The insurgents began fasting Sunday to protest poor prison food and abuse by guards, said a relative of a prisoner who spoke to The Globe and Mail on the condition of anonymity. He said one man had been severely beaten and others were suffering from malnourishment.

"We have a problem with the director of the prison. … Unless he goes, the strike will continue."

The inmates, all held in Sarpoza's political wing, are accusing the prison warden of lining his pockets with the stolen loot.

In March, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day visited the prison and reported that inmates regard the jail favourably, a stark contrast to reports two years earlier of electrocutions, beatings and fingernail removals taking place at Sarpoza.

Late Monday night, Afghan security forces turned out to the prison in force to prepare for a possible riot and escape attempts. The prison lies roughly one kilometre from a Taliban-controlled portion of the city and its defence is seen as central to the region's welfare. "They are making a plan to break out of the jail again," said one official. "This is another plot. And it will not work."

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