The United Nations has once again found that torture and abuse of prisoners — even children — is rampant in the Afghan prisons to which Canada once sent its detainees.
A new report, released this week by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, found that the country's infamous National Directorate of Security (NDS) still regularly engages in torture and abuse in its facilities across the war-torn country.
The problem is particularly severe in Kabul and in Kandahar.
The Kandahar NDS facility is where Canada agreed to send its Afghan detainees after credible allegations of torture were first raised in 2007.
The issue of torture and whether the Canadian government had committed war crimes dogged the military throughout its combat mission in the dangerous south.
That mission came to an end in July 2011, but Canada still has about 1,000 trainers in Afghanistan.
Over 300 credible abuse allegations
The UN sent investigators into prisons across Afghanistan and spoke to 635 detainees — the vast majority of whom were alleged to be tied to the Taliban. Most of those were consequently imprisoned by the NDS.
Of the 635 prisoners interviewed, 377 alleged they were subjected to torture or ill treatment. The UN assessed 51 of those claims to be bogus, but that still leaves 326 credible allegations of abuse.
"UNAMA found sufficiently credible and reliable evidence that more than half of 635 detainees interviewed (326 detainees) experienced torture and ill-treatment in numerous facilities of the Afghan National Police (ANP), National Directorate of Security, Afghan National Army and Afghan Local Police," the report said.
But they weren't just allegations, either. UN investigators claimed to have seen the results of torture first hand.
"UNAMA interviewers observed injuries, marks and scars on numerous detainees that appeared to be consistent with torture and ill-treatment and/or bandages and other evidence of medical treatment for such injuries."
Although rumors of torture and abuse have swirled for years, the UN has now revealed information that paints a horrifying picture of a culture of abuse. The UN says it found credible evidence that even children were routinely tortured by police and security forces.
Of 105 prisoners under the age of 18 interviewed by UNAMA, 80 claimed to have experienced torture or ill treatment.
The UN report found the torture problem to be particularly acute in NDS prisons, and even more acute in NDS prisons in Kandahar City, where torture was found to be "systematic."
The UN says it found compelling evidence that 46 percent of the detainees who had been in NDS custody, "experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture," the report said.
"UNAMA documented one death in … NDS custody from torture in Kandahar in April 2011."
6 minors among abuse cases
When it comes to children, the UN found there were at least six cases of torture and abuse by NDS officials in Kandahar.
"NDS officials in Kandahar consistently used plastic pipes, electric cables, and sticks to beat detainees on the soles of their feet, heads, thighs, back, and hands during interrogations of children," the report found.
In the Canadian context, the mention of systematic problems at NDS prisons in Kandahar ought to be hair-raising.
It's to the NDS in Kandahar Canada handed its detainees.
That policy was subject to a series of court challenges in Canada, led by Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
They argued Canada committed war crimes by knowingly transferring detainees to jails and jailers where there was a risk of torture.
Paul Champ was one of the lead Amnesty lawyers on those torture challenges. Champ says the new UN report details a deeply rooted culture of torture in Afghanistan — in particular at NDS Kandahar.
"Tragically, the report confirms what Amnesty and BCCLA were saying all along, that the Canadian military were handing over prisoners, including children, to professional torturers," Champ told CBC News.
"Electric shocks, beating with cables, hoses and pipes, sexual humiliation — these were all things that we warned the Canadian military about."
Prisoner transfers suspended
Over the years, the Canadian government responded to those allegations by promising to monitor the conditions of its detainees transferred to Afghan custody. It agreed to help train jailers in human rights and prisoner treatment.
Despite those efforts the military was still forced to suspend its transfers on a handful of occasions — in some cases for several months — because of credible allegations of torture.
In the end, the NATO International Security Assistance Force itself was forced to suspend transfers to the NDS and also to Afghan National Police in Kandahar.
That happened in September 2011, and transfers have yet to be resumed.
Jay Paxton, spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, highlighted the fact the UN focused its efforts on Afghan and not international forces.
"No Canadian-transferred detainees have been transferred to, or held within facilities controlled by either of these organizations since before the last UNAMA report was released in 2011," Paxton said.
That report also found torture was widespread in Afghanistan, and in particular in Kandahar.
Canadian-transferred detainees monitored
In the meantime, Canada has transferred all of its prisoners to an Afghan government facility in Parwan, Afghanistan, where jailers are under Western supervision and monitored by Canadian officials, said Foreign Affairs spokesperson Christiane Roy.
"All Canadian transferred detainees held at the continue to be monitored regularly by Canadian officials and have not reported any concern with their treatment or conditions of detention," Roy said.
The UN does not inspect that prison. Even if it is clear of any allegations of abuse, it appears there's barely another jail in Afghanistan that can say the same thing, according to the UN.
"Despite [Afghan] government and international efforts to address torture and ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees, torture persists and remains a serious concern in numerous detention facilities across Afghanistan," the report concluded.
The widespread nature of torture and abuse suggest a political problem for the Canadian government and its long-held position that for the most part, things were okay.
If the UN report is to be trusted, torture regularly occurred in the prisons where Canada sent its detainees at the hands of those it sent them too.
Investigations started later
The question is whether it can be proved that torture occurred while Canada was still active in Kandahar, and to Canadian-transferred detainees.
The UN investigators didn't start their investigations until October 2011: after Canada had stopped its transfers and quit Kandahar.
The UN examinations lasted until 2012 and apparently had no trouble finding evidence of torture. That makes it hard to believe the problem didn’t exist before UN investigators started looking.
Indeed, the UN warns the prevalence of torture may yet lead to legal trouble for countries that transferred detainees to Afghan custody.
"This situation raises continuing concerns about states' legal obligations prohibiting them from transferring detainees to another state's custody where a substantial risk of torture exists," the report said.
Because that would be a war crime.