Afghanistan
3:22 pm
Thu February 13, 2014

Afghan Prisoner Release Promises To Inflame Tensions

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 6:58 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Afghan government has released dozens of prisoners from a top detention center this week. And that move is aggravating already bad relations between Kabul and the U.S. and NATO. Prisoner releases are one of the major sources of friction as U.S. and allied presence in the country winds down. And these 65 prisoners are accused by the West of plotting and carrying out bombings and other attacks. They're estimated to have killed more than 30 coalition military personnel, as well as more than 20 Afghans.

To learn more about the prisoners and the reaction to their release, we're joined by Nathan Hodge of The Wall Street Journal, who's in Kabul. Welcome to the program.

NATHAN HODGE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: President Karzai has wanted to release these men and others for weeks now, despite warnings from senior U.S. and NATO officials. What's his reason?

HODGE: Well, for President Karzai, who's slated to step down after presidential elections that are scheduled for this spring, this is really an issue of sovereignty, Afghan sovereignty. And he struck a very defiant tone today following a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, where he said that the U.S. was harassing Afghanistan's judicial system by raising these complaints. He said Afghanistan is a sovereign country, and if Afghan judicial authority decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S.

SIEGEL: But here's the reaction from the secretary-general of NATO today to this release. He said it was based on political calculations and "without regard for due process before the Afghan courts," that's a quotation. And also, he called it a major step backwards for the rule of law in Afghanistan that poses serious security concerns.

Let's just take that last point: poses serious security concerns. Do the Afghans not believe the evidence that the U.S. has presented about the people who've been let go?

HODGE: Well, Afghan courts do review things like the forensic evidence - the DNA evidence, the fingerprints that have been lifted from bomb making materials - that are presented by the coalition. But it's not always that cut and dried. The U.S. military has warned for many months now that it is concerned about a number of these what they consider high threat detainees, because of the concern that they may return to the battlefield.

But what Afghan officials tell us, especially the review board, is that they've reviewed the evidence that's been presented. The Afghan security agencies have reviewed it. And they find no reason to continue to detain them.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear. These are people who have been detained. They have not been convicted by a court. They're not serving a sentence that's based on a verdict.

HODGE: Right and what the U.S. military would like is for the Afghan justice system to simply run its course. And they have recourse through a Memorandum of Agreement with Afghanistan, to appeal cases of detainee releases before they're, in fact, set free. That being said, again, this is a case where the Afghan government is asserting its sovereignty. Detainees were released over strenuous objections not only from the U.S. military leaders but we've had Senators McCain and Graham, who visited earlier this year, who also warned that there would be strings attached to this.

In other words, if Afghanistan were to take the step of setting free these dangerous detainees, it would be perceived as a slap in the face and that lawmakers would take a look at - very hard look - at the funding that Afghanistan receives from the U.S.

SIEGEL: We've heard the criticism from the Americans and from NATO. How are these releases playing in Kabul?

HODGE: Afghans in general have become much or anxious about this face-off between President Karzai and Washington over his refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. troops and their allies to stay, as a residual force, after the end of this year. And this confrontation only further sharpens the divide between Washington and between Kabul.

Particularly at a time when there's an uncertain political transition, there's a presidential election coming up with no clear front runner, and there's just a lot of general uncertainty about how Afghanistan will fare in the coming months and years, as it continues to face a very robust insurgency.

SIEGEL: Nathan Hodge, of the Wall Street Journal in Kabul, Afghanistan, thank you.

HODGE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.