Afghans agree to take over U.S. prison at Bagram

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan officials agreed on Saturday to take over responsibility for the U.S. military’s Bagram prison north of Kabul, a move that could close a chapter in the troubled history of U.S. detentions since 2001.

The jail at Bagram, where U.S. troops beat to death two prisoners in 2002, stands beside Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq as a symbol of harsh treatment of detainees under the administration of ex-President George W. Bush.

Set up to hold prisoners caught in the campaign against the Taliban after the September 11 attacks on the United States, it was housed for eight years in an ex-Soviet aircraft hangar, until last month when that was shut and replaced with a purpose-built $60 million prison Washington says meets international standards.

U.S. forces have long said the goal was eventually to hand the prison over to Afghans. President Hamid Karzai has called for an end to detentions by foreign countries on Afghan soil.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said in a statement an agreement had been signed that would see the Afghan government take over operation of the prison and responsibility for “investigating, detaining, observing and trying” its inmates.

“The Afghan Defense Ministry will begin in a few days to train a unit which will take responsibility for the prison,” it said.

Colonel Stephen Clutter, spokesman for U.S. military detainee operations in Afghanistan, said Saturday’s agreement was a memorandum signed by Afghan ministries, setting out their responsibilities. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, attended the meeting but did not sign.

The Afghan Ministry of Defense would first take the lead, eventually transferring the prison to the Afghan justice ministry, responsible for ordinary prisons under Afghan law, Clutter said.

“They are working to an aggressive timescale,” he said. Afghan personnel could be stationed in the prison by March, and could eventually take it over by the end of 2010, depending on how quickly they could be trained.

Clutter said there were now about 750 prisoners at Bagram, including about 30 non-Afghans, some of whom may have been brought there after being captured outside the country.

U.S. authorities in the past have used Bagram to hold terrorism suspects they capture in other parts of the world, although Clutter said it would probably be used only for detainees caught in Afghanistan once it is transferred.

Prisoners held in Bagram are not given lawyers or trials, a practice that Washington was required to end in Iraq last year under an agreement with the Iraqi government.

Washington set up a new system last year to allow Bagram detainees hearings to contest their detention and “personal representatives” from the military who are not lawyers. Human rights groups say those safeguards are insufficient.

Clutter said the eventual goal would probably be for prisoners to be given normal legal rights under Afghan law, although precise procedures would ultimately be for the Afghans to determine once they take responsibility.

Washington would ensure that Afghans are trained to guard the prisoners humanely before the prison is turned over, he said.

“President Karzai himself has said detention and prosecution of suspects should be the responsibility of the Afghan government. So that’s where this is heading. This will eventually help Afghanistan strengthen its own security.”

Editing by Dominic Evans