Welfare of Prisoners in Afghanistan: A Guide to Upholding Human Rights and a Call for Accountability in the Care of Detainees

Prisoners on hunger strike Pul-e-Charkhi

(Image via Islamic Emirate Afghanistan, IEA)

 “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated at all times with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. There are no exceptions”

Human Rights and Prisons: A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials (UN and Geneva 2005)

The rights of prisoners in Afghanistan has long been a bone of contention. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghan Taliban) has repeatedly made representation to the government in Kabul, their allies abroad and to international organizations through official statements demanding better conditions for those detained. Despite fierce declarations from authorities pertaining to be upholding human rights, this is often not the case and those incarcerated are repeatedly failed.

On the 8th May 2016, IEA issued a press release entitled, “Open letter by the families of vulnerable prisoners to the UN and Secretary General of NATO concerning appalling treatment of detainees” Part of the letter read as follows,

“Following the American invasion of Afghanistan, the thousands of Afghans imprisoned by foreigners and their internal supporters -on grounds of suspicion or due to accusations of their father, brother, friend or some other relative being a Mujahid- have had none of their rights given to them and their human dignity has repeatedly been violated.”

“Torture of detainees, inhumane treatment and killings under suspicious circumstances have been taking place since the onset of the invasion, documented reports about which have been published by international organizations at various intervals over the past one and a half decade. The shocking treatment of prisoners by the vicious Kabul regime and the US has only intensified while the silence and indifference displayed by the international humanitarian organizations and responsible entities towards these actions are encouraging the perpetrators of torture and their horrific treatment of prisoners has reached its climax under an organized programme.”

There was a further outcry when a report in Pajhwok News (November, 2016) highlighted that 800 prisoners were being held beyond their jail terms.

Prisoners wait for release (Image via Pajhwok News)

“Meshrano Jirga member, Nader Baloch said 144 prisoners at Pul-I-Charkhi jail were infected with incurable diseases.

Some of such inmates who should have been released had died inside the jail, he said”

“Baloch said 440 death row prisoners being held at the Pul-I-Charkhi jail complained they their fate remained unknown for years.

The prisoners had requested their sentences be changed into longer-term imprisonment because they had already spent several years in the prison”


Far from conditions improving, the situation within Afghanistan’s prisons has seemingly deteriorated even further culminating in a recent hunger strike at the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul. Photos circulating on social media showed inmates with their mouths held together by what appeared to be metal rods with concerns raised for their physical and mental wellbeing.

Fears grew for prisoners as they skewered their lips together (Image via IEA)

There are also concerns over prisons in Fayab, Farah and Khost. The US government were supposed to make improvements at Pul-e-Charkhi but an article published in painted a very grim picture indeed.

See following account of Pul -e-Charkhi,


Elizabeth Fry a famous English prison reformer gave good advice when she said, when you are building a prison you should build it with the thought in mind that you and your children may occupy the cells. Known as the “angel of the prisons” her work was so important in the history of penal reform that her image was depicted on the reverse of £5 notes issued by the bank of England.

Elizabeth Fry British prison reformer (1780-1845)

However this ideal is far removed from the reality of Pul-e-Charkhi jail where renovation was supposed to take place under the US. The “unfinished prison” is described as a filthy nightmare where renovations are still not complete after several years and despite an investment of $20 million. War is Boring article stated,

“SIGAR released photographs showing the bleak, and filthy and crowded conditions. There’s also  moments of the darkly absurd -such as a sign illustrated in comic style instructing illiterate guards not to beat their prisoners”

“The Soviet Union funded Pul-e-Charkhi in 1973. It was-and still is-the largest prison in Afghanistan. Originally built to hold 5,000 inmates, today it houses 7,400. Space is so limited that prisoners sleep in the halls.”

Pul-e-Charkhi Prison (Image via Pajhwok News)

As a result of the deplorable conditions at the prison, in August 2018, IEA took the decision to withdraw protection for Red Cross workers in Afghanistan stating,

“The International Red Cross has not made any arrangements to treat the prisoners or demand the prison officials provide proper medical care for the patients,

Therefore (The Taliban) announces the withdrawal of the security commitment that it had given to the International Red Cross for their activities in Afghanistan.”


In its defence the ICRC argued it must maintain impartiality and highlighted that the organization provides medical facilities for wounded persons, provides prisons visits focusing on welfare and repatriates bodies to both sides after clashes. The follow link link details ICRC role and responsibilities.

ICRC: Helping Detainees

“The IRCR aims to secure humane treatment and conditions of detention for all detainees, regardless of the reasons for their arrest and detention. We also seek to alleviate the suffering of their families, particularly by restoring communication between detainees and their relatives”

See website for more details and a specific section on the role of the ICRC in Afghanistan


However if ICRC role is limited in its actions by its impartiality, an independent prisoner commission must be set up to inspect prisons, assess welfare of prisoners, ensure rights are upheld and monitor any complaints.

Issues raised in relation to other Afghan prisons include being made to wear inappropriate dress, preventing or delaying family visits (also considered too short), small food portions of low standard, illness due to poor food, suicide attempts, issues over corruption and health care, sport activities and hygiene compromised, offensive guards and restrictions on reading material.

IEA have also highlighted individual cases such as that of Mawlawi Abdul Raqib who had been detained in the notorious prisons of Nangarhar and Bagram and “was martyred after extreme beating, torture and cruelty.” IEA stated,

This is not the first time that our imprisoned countrymen have been brutally martyred in the notorious prisons, detention centers and dark cells of intelligence agencies of America and her stooge Kabul regime and their bodies displaying signs of torture handed over to their family members.

IEA feel more must be done to uphold the rights of detainees and the following areas are highlighted as essential for prisoner wellbeing.

There is no place for torture in detention

Reports continue to record allegations of torture in custody which must be investigated hen complaints arise.

Conflict -related detainees in Afghanistan tortured, ill-treated in government facilities- UN

“A record number of people detained by Afghan police say that have been tortured or ill-treated in the past year, according to a new United Nations report, which notes however that the Afghan Government has committed to eliminating torture and ill-treatment in national detention facilities.

“The continuing torture and ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees is a matter of serious concern, but we acknowledge the genuine commitment and the efforts of the Government to deal with this issue,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.”

“The UN reported that about 45 per cent of those who were held in ANP custody reported torture – 38 out of 85 children interviewed – gave “credible” accounts of being tortured or ill-treated.

The torture appears to be linked to forcing confessions, according to the report, and stopped once detainees signed a “confession” – even in cases when the interviewed detainees did not understand or could not read what was written in the “confession.”



Rights of Prisoners

  • Adequate food of a decent standard


  • Appropriate medical and dental care for all detainees


  • Exercise, educational and recreational facilities


  • Right to practise own faith


  • Family visits, letters, phone calls


  • Clean living conditions


  • No overcrowding


  • Avoidance of solitary confinement


  • No torture, beatings or extra-judicial killings


  • An independent body to visit and assess prisons and prisoner rights


Afghanistan’s female prisoners

A UN booklet Human Rights and Prisons: A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials (UN and Geneva 2005) details the international standards which can be expected of those in professions caring for detainees and can be found in the Juvenile Prisoner section of this article. The booklet has specific sections dealing with the rights of women and of juveniles in detention which require particular attention and whose needs in some areas may be different to adult male prisoners.

Photo… Afghan female prisoners wait for release (Image via Getty)

“In women prisons, specific accommodation, facilities, and medical care must be provided for women to use, similar to any such facilities outside prison. Similarly if pregnant woman prisoners need medical facilities not available in prison, they must be transferred to maternity hospital to give birth. They must be provided with the care and facilities they need before and after giving birth. Mothers should be allowed to keep their babies and should be provided with the necessary facilities for their babies, and they must have their freedom as if they were outside prison. They should also be allowed to keep in touch with their children outside prison.”


From… Rights of a Prisoner according to Islamic Teachings

(Some prisoners may be Shia and there are also many overlaps in what they both Sunni and Shia prisoners require during incarceration and the specific needs of women must be identified also  )



Afghanistan: Female prisoners jailed far from home



Female Prisoners and their social reintegration


Children Detained in War Zones

Thousands Held Without Charge, Tortured


“Thousands of children in conflict-affected countries have been detained without charge for months or even years as national security threats, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. (July 28th, 2016) Untold numbers have been tortured or have died in custody. Governments should immediately stop detaining children without charge and appropriately punish those who mistreat them.”


A boy prisoner looks out from his one man cell at a juvenile prison

(Mintpress News)


Human Rights and Prisons: A Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials (UN and Geneva 2005)

“Children are to benefit from all the human rights guarantees available to adults” plus additional rules apply according to the following handbook.”

“Children who are detained shall be treated in a manner which promotes their sense of dignity and worth, facilitates their reintegration into society, reflects their best interests and takes their needs into account.”

 “Children shall not be subjected to corporal punishment, capital punishment or life imprisonment without possibility of release.”

“Children who are detained shall be separated from adult prisoners. Accused juveniles shall be separated from adults and brought for trial as speedily as possible.”

More on the rights of children can be read here…



The Religious Rights and Duties of Muslim Inmates in Prison

A Guide for Criminal Justice Personnel




IEA with prisoners waiting to be freed at Eid -ul-Adha (Image via IEA)

The IEA have an obligation under Islamic law to treat all prisoners fairly and observe international law also. Prisoners may be Sunni, Shia, Christian or other and have particular requirements. The following article from Arab News lays out guidance for prisoners of war.

Treatment of Prisoners of War


prisoner of war (POW) is a person, whether combatant or non-combatant who is held in custody by a beligerent power during or immediately after an armed conflict 


Under the Third Geneva Convention, prisoners of war (POW) must be:

  • Treated humanely with respect for their persons and their honor
  • Able to inform their next of kin and the International Committee of the Red Crossof their capture
  • Allowed to communicate regularly with relatives and receive packages
  • Given adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical attention
  • Paid for work done and not forced to do work that is dangerous, unhealthy, or degrading
  • Released quickly after conflicts end
  • Not compelled to give any information except for name, age, rank, and service number[27]

In addition, if wounded or sick on the battlefield, the prisoner will receive help from the International Committee of the Red Cross.[28]

When a country is responsible for breaches of prisoner of war rights, those accountable will be punished accordingly.




Prisoners of the Taliban, Timothy Weekes and Kevin King

 (Image via IEA video)


Those holding prisoners of war must ensure they do all they can to maintain the good health of captives, though this may be challenging in a conflict zone. Then the ethical question arises as to whether very ill prisoners should be released. Particular attention should be paid to those that are elderly or have known disabilities.

“We have periodically tried to treat and cure him, but since we are facing a war situation, we do not really have access to health facilities to provide him complete treatment,” Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement.

Mujahid said King suffered from heart disease, kidney problem and swollen feet and the Taliban would hold the US government responsible if anything happened to him.

The Taliban also have a duty to investigate any allegations of abuse of prisoners under their care including former foreign prisoners such as Bowe Bergdahl and The Coleman Boyle family.


The importance of Prisoner Exchange as a step on the path to peace

Exchange of prisoners is an important act of compassion, trust and reconciliation as all sides involved in the war in Afghanistan signal that they are interested in pursuing a route towards ending the 17 year conflict and establishing a peace process. The case of US prisoner Bowe Bergdahl who was successfully exchanged for 5 Taliban shows that this is possible and gives hope for further prisoner exchange.



 (Images via Carol Anne Grayson, Radical Sister blog)

Bowe Bergdahl exchanged for 5 Taliban: A determined father and establishing dialogue


Historic cases of prisoner abuse continue to go unpunished and must be fully investigated

Photographic proof of a mass grave in Dasht-i-Leili, Afghanistan in a Physician for Human Rights (Photo published in the New York Times) 

There are also horrific historical cases of mass prisoner abuse which have still to be investigated such as the “Convoy of Death” and the discovery of mass graves by Boston, Massachusetts based group Physicians for Human Rights, at Dasht-e-Leili where Taliban prisoners are alleged to have been buried. Back in 2009, CNN reported, “President Obama has ordered national security officials to look into allegations that the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA- backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001”. Where is the justice for their families?

See following stories,

Afghan Massacre, Convoy of Death (video clip)

“Telling the horrific journey undertaken by thousands of prisoners who surrendered to America’s Afghan allies after the siege of Kunduz, this compelling documentary reveals how the Pentagon lied to the world in order to cover up its role in the greatest atrocity of the Afghan War. With unique footage captured by award-winning Afghan filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi, it shows how American Special Forces re-directed containers carrying living and dead Afghans into the desert, and stood by as survivors were executed and buried in mass graves.”



Obama orders review of alleged slayings of Taliban in Bush era


This further case at a prison near Mazar-i-Sharif involving Taliban prisoners documented in 2002 published in the British Medical Journal demonstrates a long history of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan.

Conditions at Afghan prison violate human rights, report says

“The appalling conditions in an Afghan prison near Mazar-i-Sharif violate international standards for the treatment of prisoners, says a report from Physicians for Human Rights.”

“Up to 3500 Pakistani and Afghan Taliban fighters are being held at Shebarghan prison, which is severely overcrowded. Cells built to house 10-15 prisoners now contain 80-110 men. The water supply is unclean, the food inadequate, the sanitation non-existent, and prisoners are exposed to the winter cold.”


Further articles to read regarding Taliban concerns for prisoner rights

Remarks by spokesman of Islamic Emirate concerning mistreatment of inmates in prisons


Islamic Emirate: Inhumane conduct of the Kabul Administration with prisoners


Reaction by spokesman of Islamic Emirate concerning the martyrdom of Mawlawi Abdul Raqib in Bagram prison


How acting on prisoner complaints can help change conditions

The following article from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting highlights what can be achieved by monitoring detainee conditions and responding to their concerns

IWPR report brings change at Afghan prison

“The Afghan authorities have taken steps to improve conditions at a prison in Badakhshan province after an IWPR report revealed serious failings at the institution.

Not only was the building was at risk of collapse, with construction on a new site still incomplete after six years, but illness was rife amid severe overcrowding and little fuel or warm water.

In late December, shortly after the story was published, Afghanistan’s council of ministers sent a high-ranking government delegation to Badakhshan.”



All sides holding political and other prisoners in Afghanistan and prisoners of war must recognize their rights under International Law and respect Islamic teachings on the treatment of prisoners and prisoners of war. No person should be “disappeared” and anyone doing so must be held accountable. Prisoners have the right to legal representation whilst detained in Afghan jails, must not be abused nor held beyond their prison sentence. Those working in prisons have a “duty of care” towards those in their custody and are expected to adhere to international rules of conduct. Official bodies must be in place both to inspect conditions at prisons and for independent investigation of prisoner complaints. As efforts are made towards establishing peace in Afghanistan, treatment of detainees will come under greater scrutiny with possible future investigations so it is essential that all involved in prisoner welfare uphold their human rights or risk the consequences of their actions.

Note: This article was written on Seotember 11th 2018 and shared with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a former Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development (Distinction). Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.

About Carol Anne Grayson

Blogging for Humanity.... Campaigner/researcher global health/human rights/drones/WOT/insurgency http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/PO/experts/Health_and_Wellbeing.aspx Exec Producer of Oscar nominated documentary Incident in New Baghdad, currently filming on drones.
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