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Reza Ibrahimi, 25, assistant investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has conducted hundreds of interviews with detainees about their treatment in Kandahar.
Reza Ibrahimi, 25, assistant investigator at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has conducted hundreds of interviews with detainees about their treatment in Kandahar.

Canada ignores local lawyers offering free advice to detainees Add to ...

Canada has ignored Afghan defence lawyers who want to supply free legal services to detainees in Kandahar, frustrating a local initiative to repair the justice system.

Reza Ibrahimi, a lawyer with several years experience in Kandahar, recruited colleagues last year to write a proposal outlining problems with the handling of detainees and suggesting steps for improvement. The lawyers estimate that at least 100 prisoners held in Kandahar have endured violations of their constitutional rights, including torture, and recommend that detainees should have access to legal advice.

The idea was not welcomed by a Canadian official from the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, Mr. Ibrahimi said. After a disappointing conversation with a Canadian aid representative last year, he says, his group searched fruitlessly for other sources of funding.

"The detainees don't know anything about the legal system, so they need our help," Mr. Ibrahimi said.

The 28-year-old lawyer, now working in Kabul, has already found several Afghans qualified for the dangerous work of defending the suspected criminals, Taliban, and others who end up inside Sarpoza prison on the west side of Kandahar city. The majority of those prisoners don't have legal representation. Despite a requirement to process cases within two months, the lawyers claim some detainees are held more than three years before going to court.

Mr. Ibrahimi calculates his group could tackle the problem with an eight-month pilot program costing $47,600 (U.S.). That is a modest sum by the standards of foreign-assistance efforts in southern Afghanistan. Canada has spent $4-million on physical upgrades to Sarpoza, but has never supported legal aid for detainees in the prison.

This emphasis on fixing the prison infrastructure, as opposed to reforming the system, has frustrated human-rights groups for years. A memo by Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin in June of 2006 shows the Red Cross noted its "main concern is not the prison itself but overall treatment of detainees."

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs did not respond directly to a question about Mr. Ibrahimi's proposal, but noted that Canada already supports a legal-aid group, the International Legal Foundation - Afghanistan (ILF-A) with $2.9-million over four years.

The foundation has offices in Kandahar, but Mr. Ibrahimi says it has only two lawyers on staff and they don't represent any of the Sarpoza detainees.

More broadly, the spokesman added: "Canada is also supporting a number of projects designed to improve justice-sector infrastructure in Kandahar and expand access to the justice system."

Mr. Ibrahimi says the situation started to improve in mid-2007, after an investigation by The Globe and Mail discovered that Kandahar police and intelligence agents routinely tortured prisoners. Those stories prompted Canada to start monitoring the detainees transferred into local custody.

"It is better now," Mr. Ibrahimi said. "But if you go into a prison, maybe still you see signs of torture."

Even if they obtain funding, the Afghan lawyers understand their jobs in Kandahar would involve significant personal risk. Anybody who works on detainee issues faces a double threat, becoming known not only to Taliban operatives, but to Afghan intelligence agents as well.

Mr. Ibrahimi's former boss at the human-rights commission in Kandahar, Abdul Qadar Noorzai, was threatened with arrest by Afghan security forces after the publication of The Globe and Mail's investigation of detainee abuse in 2007. He remained free, but was persuaded to stop his outspoken criticism of the system.

Even more frightening for human-rights campaigners in Kandahar was the disappearance of Amir Mohammed Ansari in late 2007. At the time, Mr. Ansari was working with Mr. Ibrahimi in the small investigations unit of the human-rights commission's office in Kandahar. They were among the only Afghans who dared to visit the local prisons and ask about the torture of detainees. Mr. Ansari, a dignified man with a neatly trimmed grey beard, also travelled to the battlefields in rural districts to investigate reports of civilian casualties. It was during one such trip into neighbouring Helmand province that he went missing.

His friends and family heard nothing about his whereabouts for half a year, Mr. Ibrahimi said, until an anonymous caller claimed to be holding him captive. Mr. Ansari's family paid a ransom but received only his identification card and directions to his grave.

The corpse had been beheaded, suggesting an execution by insurgents, but Mr. Ibrahimi remains unsure who was responsible for his death.

"He was a great man," Mr. Ibrahimi said. "When I think about him, it's very painful for me."

Instead of scaring Mr. Ibrahimi away from human-rights work in Kandahar, however, the memory of his dead mentor serves to inspire the young lawyer. Mr. Ibrahimi now lives in the relative safety of Kabul, but says he would be willing to return to Kandahar if he gets funding for the legal-aid project.

Working with a local non-profit group called the Mehrana Women Social and Heath Organization, the lawyers could provide legal assistance for male and female prisoners in Kandahar, he said. Afghan women are sometimes jailed for so-called social crimes, such as leaving their husbands. Their children often accompany them to prison and have uncertain legal status.

The lawyers would also try to uphold Articles 29 and 30 of Afghanistan's constitution, Mr. Ibrahimi said, which could disqualify any confession obtained by force or torture.

"This work is not easy," he said. "But we need to improve the situation."

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