NEW DELHI, India – U.S. forces in Afghanistan use excessive force during arrests, mistreat prisoners in detention and commit other human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch charged in a report to be released today.
Human Rights Watch
“In doing so, the United States is endangering the lives of Afghan civilians, undermining efforts to restore the rule of law in Afghanistan, and calling into question its commitment to upholding basic rights,” the New York-based human rights group said in its report.
The group also said the U.S. Defense Department has not adequately explained at least three deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody, two of which were declared homicides by U.S. military doctors.
The report focuses on eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, where U.S.-led coalition forces continue to battle the ousted Taliban militia, members of al-Qaida and supporters of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The U.S. military said it was aware of Human Rights Watch’s accusations and had already addressed some of the problems cited in the report, entitled “Enduring Freedom: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan.”
“We do take them seriously,” Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said from Kabul. He said U.S. soldiers follow the law during operations in Afghanistan.
“Our combat operations comply with the Law of Armed Conflict and are conducted with appropriate, and strict, rules of engagement,” Hilferty said.
The spokesman acknowledged that the U.S. military changed its procedures at Bagram Air Base following the deaths of two Afghan prisoners last December.
The two prisoners were declared homicide victims by U.S. military doctors who performed autopsies. Their death certificates cited “blunt force injuries” to the legs.
U.S. officials have refused to provide any details about the June 2003 death of a man in a detention facility near the eastern town of Asadabad, Human Rights Watch said.
“We investigate all credible reports and there is an ongoing investigation into the deaths of persons under custody,” said Hilferty, the U.S. military spokesman.
But Human Rights Watch said its investigations, and those of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, have found a pattern of abuses at Bagram and at least two other detention centers, and it believes U.S. authorities have failed to stop the mistreatment of prisoners.
“There is credible evidence of beatings and other physical assaults of detainees, as well as evidence that the United States has used prolonged shackling, exposure to cold and sleep deprivation amounting to torture or other mistreatment in violation of international law,” the group said.
Militant groups in Afghanistan routinely attack civilians and aid workers, and bomb nonmilitary targets such as markets. Five aid workers have been killed in the past three weeks.
On Saturday, armed men on motorcycles killed a senior Afghan aid worker in southeastern Zabul province as he was driving home from work in the provincial capital, Qalat.
Human Rights Watch said militants responsible for attacks on civilians should be investigated and prosecuted. “But the activities of these groups are no excuse for U.S. violations,” the report added.
The group estimates that U.S.-led forces have detained about 1,000 people in Afghanistan since 2002. While some of the captives were involved in combat, others were “civilians with no apparent connection to ongoing hostilities,” the report said.
U.S. soldiers have killed Afghan civilians unnecessarily by repeatedly using deadly force, including attacks from helicopter gunships, in areas under the control of their Afghan allies, the report charged. In some cases, the attacks may amount to violations of humanitarian law, the report stated.
“U.S. forces regularly use military means and methods during arrest operations in residential areas where law enforcement techniques would be more appropriate,” the group said.
Hilferty responded that U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan to fight a war, not for law enforcement.
“Afghanistan is currently a combat zone, and forces here are engaged in combat operations against determined enemy forces,” he said. “Al-Qaida and (the) Taliban have stated repeatedly that they are at war.”
Human Rights Watch cited several examples of what it called excessive force, including what the group described as indiscriminate shooting to ward off potential attackers in an eastern Afghan village under the control of Afghan allies.