KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Canada still can't account for at least 50 prisoners it captured and turned over to Afghan authorities, several sources say, frustrating efforts to put to rest concerns the detainees were subject to torture.
Canadian sources offered a benign explanation for their disappearance, blaming the Afghans' shoddy record-keeping and suggesting the detainees have likely returned safely to their homes.
Prisoners often buy their freedom from Afghanistan's corrupt jails, which may also explain the lack of records. The Canadians say they have not received any indication the missing detainees ran into trouble inside Afghan jails.
Still, officials familiar with Kandahar's medieval justice system say the Canadians must not dismiss the possibility of foul play.
“There are lots of possible explanations for how people get lost in the detention system,” a Western official said. “Some are benign, others much less so.”
After stories of torture were published in The Globe and Mail this year, Ottawa asked for a full accounting of the approximately 200 people transferred by Canadian forces into Afghan custody before May 3.
Detainees transferred after May 3 have been monitored under a deal struck in reaction to uproar over the issue, but the Canadians were also anxious to know about the earlier transfers. Sending detainees into places where they face abuse or torture might constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Months later, however, a quarter of those 200 detainees remain missing, neither listed as released nor still in custody.
Canada's own diplomatic reporting has already warned of complaints that captives are sometimes killed inside Afghan prisons.
“Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all too common,” a report last year said.
Those problems have persisted in Kandahar. Provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib says he arrested 67 of his own uniformed officers in the past three months, on charges ranging from corruption to kidnapping and extrajudicial execution.
The most spectacular of these arrests was a sweep in August that rounded up 33 members of a rogue police unit on the main highway west of Kandahar city, he said.
Two of the unit's commanders were arrested in Kabul at the same time and one remains at large.
All of the captured police have been transferred to custody in neighbouring Helmand province so their local allies can't help them escape, Chief Saqib said. Alongside the arrests, he said, his men discovered the rogue officers had been operating a small private jail in the northern slums of Kandahar city.
“They were corrupt, killing people and taking bribes,” the police chief said.
He says he isn't aware of any other private jails operating in Kandahar, though the city is full of rumours about them. An Interior Ministry source recently named two warlords he suspects of holding prisoners in the same slum, Loy Wiyala.
This spring, a convicted Taliban prisoner at Kandahar's main jail said in an interview that he was arrested by local police in Maywand district and bundled into a Toyota Landcruiser that took him to an unofficial jail in the city, where he was tortured for days before being transferred to an official jail at the headquarters of the National Directorate for Security.
The idea of people disappearing in custody is not unusual for ordinary Afghans, who have learned to fear the police almost as much as the Taliban.
Haji Shaista Gul, 48, a wealthy landowner who lives west of Kandahar city, said his younger brother, Sher Mohammed, was arrested by the same rogue police unit described by the police chief.
The landowner sent his brother to water the family's grape vines near the main highway on May 12, when a roadside bomb exploded and killed five policemen. The surviving officers quickly captured two people standing nearby: Mr. Mohammed and his friend, Jema Gul.
When the older brother learned what had happened, he made frantic efforts to discover where his sibling was detained. It turned out to be a complicated job, he said, because Mr. Mohammed was not held at any of the legitimate jails in the city.
When the landowner finally managed to secure his brother's release, he heard that the younger man and Jema Gul had been taken with their faces covered to a mud-walled house somewhere in Loy Wiyala, and thrown into the basement together. Nobody else was held there, and although they occasionally saw men in police uniforms, they also had visits from children who wandered into their makeshift cell and looked at them curiously. The private jail was apparently a room in a family home.
Although Mr. Mohammed was released, Jema Gul was not fortunate enough to have a rich brother looking for him. His mutilated body was discovered in a canal on May 29.
“The skin was falling off him,” said the landowner, who saw the body at the morgue. “His neck was cut, and it looked like they cut him with knives all over his body.”
The fact that the police unit involved in the killing has now been arrested does little to reassure him that this sort of thing won't happen again.
“These problems will belong to the Canadians in the end,” he said.
“You have friendships with killers.”