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Afghan police unaware of basic rights laws

Critics question whether Canada and NATO are properly mentoring army, police and law-enforcement officials

Globe and Mail Update

OTTAWA — Fewer than 20 per cent of Afghan law-enforcement officials are aware it's illegal to torture someone accused of a crime in that country, a report by a Canadian government-supported human-rights watchdog says.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose mandate comes from the Afghan constitution, also says “torture and cruel, inhumane and belittling behaviour” is widespread among that country's law-enforcement agencies. It says Afghan police are alleged to be responsible for more than 65 per cent of the incidents in its study.

Critics say the Afghanistan commission's findings raise questions about whether Canada and NATO allies are properly mentoring army, police and law-enforcement officials in the war-torn country. Canada was by far the biggest donor to this rights commission last year, funding more than one-third of its budget.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, whose party opposes the war in Afghanistan, said the 2008 study further undermines Canada's rationale for its military mission there, which he argues suffered a serious blow after the Kabul government passed a law in March that legalizes marital rape. Following pressure from Canada and other countries, Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed to change it.

“How can we work with a government that doesn't seem to care about the human rights of its citizens?” Mr. Dewar asked Yves Brodeur, the assistant deputy minister of Canada's Afghanistan task force, during a Commons committee hearing Thursday.

Canada's aid to Afghanistan – now the largest recipient of Canadian foreign assistance – includes significant funding for training and mentoring the Afghan National Police as well as corresponding justice and correctional initiatives to support law enforcement.

Mr. Dewar said the commission's report suggests Canadians and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries are not properly instructing Afghan law-enforcement officials on the illegality of torture. “Where is the training on human rights for police officers?” he asked Mr. Brodeur.

Mr. Brodeur repeated Ottawa's official line that it has never found any proof of torture in Kandahar, the province where Canada operates.

“We have at this stage no evidence that this has happened,” the federal official told the Commons committee on Afghanistan. “I'm not denying. I am just saying that right now we are in this situation.”

Mr. Brodeur said Canada is training Afghan police and Afghan army members “to make sure the mistreatment of detainees is not happening” and that instruction includes a focus on ethics and values.

The rights body's report, which surveyed 92 Afghan law-enforcement officials and 398 alleged victims of torture in detention, found that only 17.4 per cent of officials were aware of legal rights in Afghanistan affording the accused protection from torture. Only 12 per cent of those surveyed, who included prosecutors, police and court officials, recognized the rights of the accused as outlined in the Afghan constitution. Article 29 of the constitution prohibits torture and declares information obtained through it unusable.

The study, titled The Reasons for Torture by Law Enforcement Agencies, reported that only about 58 per cent of law-enforcement officials felt an accused should not be tortured for any reason. The report is written in Dari, a dialect of the Persian language spoken in Afghanistan, and is on the human-rights body's website. It has not been officially translated into English. However, the NDP was able to provide a translation by a Dari speaker on its staff.

The Canadian government declined comment on the report, saying it wanted to study it first.

Human-rights groups have said torture is commonplace in Afghan detention facilities despite Kabul's claim that abuses are isolated. Afghan officials have defended their practices, suggesting that foreigners fail to understand the grim reality of fighting the insurgency – an enemy that regularly tortures captives and uses hanging and beheading for executions.

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