Afghans agree on handover plan for US-run prison

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KABUL (AP) — The Afghan government agreed Saturday on a transition plan to take over responsibility for the U.S.-run prison at the Bagram air base following criticism of human rights abuses at the facility. U.S. and Afghan officials said the handover could occur by the end of the year.

Treatment of inmates at the facility has been under scrutiny since the 2002 deaths at Bagram of two Afghan detainees, which led to prisoner abuse charges against several American troops. Concerns about lengthy detentions also have drawn comparisons with U.S. detention centers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Iraq.

President Hamid Karzai has said he wants operations at Bagram to be re-evaluated and has called for the release of inmates being held without evidence. He said arrests are turning ordinary Afghans against U.S. and NATO forces.

The U.S. military welcomed the memorandum of understanding signed by senior Afghan officials on Saturday, saying the facility could be handed over to Afghan control by the end of the year. Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and other senior Afghan officials signed the agreement. The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal attended the ceremony but did not sign the deal.

The Afghans decided that the Ministry of Defense will initially assume responsibility for the transition, but will eventually transfer its role as custodian and manager of the facility to the Ministry of Justice, according to a U.S. statement.

The ministry of defense said in a statement that the Afghans would take over operation of the prison and responsibility for investigating, detaining and trying the inmates.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the defense ministry, said training of two army battalions of about 800 soldiers each to take over responsibility for Bagram would begin within days although he acknowledged the process would take time.

“We are very hopeful that this handover will take place in the first six months of the current year,” he told The Associated Press. “This is a very good and important step for the Afghan government so it will have responsibility for the Afghan prisoners.”

Second Vice President Karim Khalili said the move would boost public trust and confidence in the Afghan judicial system.

The U.S. military opened a new prison named after the surrounding Parwan province in November to replace the original facility in an effort to improve living conditions and reintegration programs.

U.S. military spokesman Air Force Col. Stephen Clutter said the roughly 750 prisoners — most accused of being Taliban supporters who pose a threat — had all been moved to the new prison by the end of December.

He said Afghan personnel could be stationed at the prison by March.

“We haven’t put an exact time figure on how long it’s going to take to do the transition but it is a very aggressive schedule,” he said, adding the Afghans would be working alongside the Americans for training and mentoring.

“But there will come a time when the facility will be transferred to Afghan control and it’s possible by the end of the year,” he added.