KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN The dark concrete hallway that leads to the centre of Sarposa prison ends with three sets of bars that separate inmates from guards. Behind them live the men who have been jailed since the spectacular attack last June that freed more than 1,200 convicts, many of them Taliban.
Common criminals are housed in the huge open cell on the right side. Political prisoners are on the left. They are free to sit together, to talk with each other, to make lunch over small cook stoves in a communal hall outside their sleeping quarters.
And on Sunday, they were able to chat with politicians from Canada, the country that has fortified the walls that surround them and helped to train their keepers.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day visited the prison and a new police substation in one of the most uncertain parts of this dangerous city before announcing Tuesday that Canada will spend $21-million (U.S.) on new Afghan law-and-order initiatives.
The ministers spoke to a couple of inmates on both sides of the prison to ask how they were being treated. The exchanges took place under the watchful eye of Sarposa's deputy warden, Colonel Ishmail. And the responses were all quite favourable – though one of the political prisoners claimed he had been wrongly accused and convicted.
Mr. Day said he was pleased with the feedback.
“We were able to talk to prisoners ourselves and choose them at random,” he said during a news conference after the visit. “The response both from the political prisoners and those who were charged with criminal cases were very positive about their treatment, [and their] high respect for the leadership at the prison.”
Two years ago, members of Canada's Conservative government, including Mr. Day, were playing down allegations of abuse which included charges that detainees had been subjected to electric shock and were made to stand for days.
But more than $1-million of the new Canadian funding will help promote human rights in Afghanistan, where torture is part of prison life.
Some of the money will be used to make additional reinforcements to the part of the prison where a huge patch of stone and concrete fills a hole, the length of two eighteen-wheelers, that was blown in the wall during the Taliban raid. Most of it – $20-million – will be used to pay the salaries of police officers and prison guards. As the ministers left Sarposa a day before the official announcement of funding for prison wages, Col. Ishmail made a plea for more money for his employees.
“We have very low payments for our personnel,” he said, explaining that many left to become full-time members of the Afghan National Police when the ANP recently got a raise.
But the police themselves are notoriously underpaid. That has made it difficult to find men who are willing to do a job that makes them constant targets of the Taliban – and many officers have resorted to nefarious activities, including the drug trade and the lucrative kidnapping industry, to pay the bills.
Because the newly announced money will be distributed through the law-and-order trust fund of the United Nations Development Program, it will not be targeted specifically at the province of Kandahar where the Canadian military is stationed.
But “Canada's contribution will pay for approximately 3,000 Afghan police salaries for two years – and this is comparable to paying the salaries of all Afghan police forces in Kandahar until 2011,” Mr. Cannon said.
Canada's total contribution to the law-and-order trust fund now stands at $70-million. Despite the cash and effort directed at law enforcement, a report by the Canadian government released on March 4 found that security in Kandahar deteriorated in late 2008 as Taliban militants stepped up their attacks and crime spiked.
“In Afghanistan generally, and in Kandahar specifically, security conditions remained especially dangerous and, by some measures, deteriorated during the quarter,” says the report.
A press conference with Mr. Day and Mr. Cannon on Sunday had to be moved from the governor's palace in downtown Kandahar to the grounds of the provincial reconstruction team for security reasons.
And on Saturday, a remote-control bomb exploded as a convoy carrying the mayor of Kandahar was passing, killing one man and wounding seven. The mayor was slightly injured.
But Mr. Day, who visited Afghanistan two years ago, said he was encouraged by the security situation in Kandahar.
The people of the city “are actually beginning to see enough stability that relative prosperity and economic progress is now within their grasp,” he said.