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Exclusive investigation

From Canadian custody into cruel hands

Savage beatings, electrocution, whipping and extreme cold: Detainees detail a litany of abuses by Afghan authorities

From Monday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Afghans detained by Canadian soldiers and sent to Kandahar's notorious jails say they were beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation.

In 30 face-to-face interviews with men recently captured in Kandahar province, a Globe and Mail investigation has uncovered a litany of gruesome stories and a clear pattern of abuse by the Afghan authorities who work closely with Canadian troops, despite Canada's assurances that the rights of detainees are protected.

Canadian forces regularly hold detainees for a few days of questioning at Kandahar Air Field, then give them to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's feared intelligence police. Over and over, detainees described how Canadians tied their hands with plastic straps, marking the start of nightmarish journeys through shadowy jails and blood-spattered interrogation rooms.

None of the abuse was inflicted by Canadians, and most Afghans captured — even those who clearly sympathized with the Taliban — praised the Canadian soldiers for their politeness, their gentle handling of captives and their comfortable detention facility.

Mahmad Gul, 33, an impoverished farmer, said he was interrogated for three days in May of 2006, without any meals, at Zhari District Centre, a small town west of Kandahar city.

His tormentors were the Afghan police, he said, but the Canadian soldiers who visited him between beatings had surely heard his screams.

“The Canadians told me, ‘Give them real information, or they will do more bad things to you,' “ Mr. Gul said.

The farmer said he's lucky; during two months of questioning in Afghan jails, the worst that happened to him was that an interrogator punched out the teeth on the left side of his mouth.

Other survivors describe more grisly horrors. At times they pointed to Afghan soldiers or police officers as their abusers, but the worst stories came from Afghans who endured captivity in the cramped basement cells underneath the NDS headquarters in Kandahar.

Most of those held by the NDS for an extended time said they were whipped with electrical cables, usually a bundle of wires about the length of an arm. Some said the whipping was so painful that they fell unconscious.

Interrogators also jammed cloth between the teeth of some detainees, who described hearing the sound of a hand-crank generator and feeling the hot flush of electricity coursing through their muscles, seizing them with spasms.

Another man said the police hung him by his ankles for eight days of beating. Still another said he panicked as interrogators put a plastic bag over his head and squeezed his windpipe.

Torturers also used cold as a weapon, according to detainees who complained of being stripped half-naked and forced to stand through winter nights when temperatures in Kandahar drop below freezing.

The men who survived these ordeals often seem like broken husks. They tell their stories with quiet voices and trembling hands. They can't sleep, they complain of chronic pain and they forget the simplest things, such as remembering to pull down their pants when they use the toilet.

After interrogation, the NDS often sends Taliban suspects to Sarpoza prison, on the western edge of the city. Detainees who arrive at the facility's tall metal gates are occasionally so badly impaired that they're incapable of caring for themselves properly and prison officials and fellow inmates complain that they're left with the chores of washing, dressing, and feeding them.

The Kandahar police department is aware of only two complaints of beatings in police custody in the past year, Colonel Shir Ali Saddiqui, human-rights ombudsman for the force, said.

The police have already taken steps to prevent such abuse from happening again, Col. Saddiqui said. His colleagues at the NDS, on the other hand, sometimes need to get rough with their suspects, he added.

“In these cases, these people need some torture, because without torture they will never say anything,” Col. Saddiqui said.

Sadullah Khan, Kandahar NDS chief, initially denied all allegations of torture during a telephone interview last week. After repeated questions, however, Mr. Khan acknowledged that minor mistakes may have occurred during interrogations.

“We never beat people,” the NDS chief said. “Maybe small things happened, but now we're trying to leave those things behind.”

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