UK handed over prisoners to Afghan torturer believed to have killed UN workers

November 15, 2012

UK handed over prisoners to Afghan torturer believed to have killed UN workers

Ministers are tomorrow in court seeking to prevent the release of evidence detailing their relations with an Afghan official believed by the UN to have ordered the killing of five of its workers, and said by Canadian officials to run a narcotics operation and his own private torture chamber.

The UK Government’s policy of handing over prisoners to the Afghan secret police (NDS) is being challenged, after clear evidence emerged that they are being tortured despite the assurances given that they would not be.

Assurances given by Asadullah Khaled, the head of the NDS, were accepted by UK minister Baroness Warsi despite his having been publicly identified by a senior Canadian official as the head of a “criminal gang” who was “known to be running a narcotics operation” and had a “dungeon under his guest house.” In 2007, Mr Khaled was identified by the deputy UN special representative in Afghanistan as having ordered the deadly bombing of a UN vehicle in Kandahar, which killed five of the organisation’s workers.

During multiple visits to NDS interrogation centres in 2011, British officials found torture equipment including whips made from electric cables, but did not raise objections “for fear of causing a scene.” Now the UK Government is seeking to lift a moratorium on the transfer of prisoners to the custody of Mr Khaled’s organisation, while simultaneously fighting in the courts to keep the details of their dealings with the NDS chief secret.

Meanwhile, ministers are seeking to push plans for secret courts through Parliament, which would allow them to keep such cases from ever seeing the light of day.

The evidence, which the UK Government is seeking to hide from the Court and the public, relates to the case of an Afghan man, Serdar Mohammed, who was captured by British forces in Afghanistan and handed over to Mr Khaled’s NDS. The NDS then repeatedly tortured Mr Mohammed, extracted a false confession from him and convicted him in a flagrantly unfair trial, conducted in a language he did not understand. Mr Mohammed’s torture included being beaten with sticks, cables and pipes for hours at a time and having his testicles twisted, causing pubic bleeding. Mr Mohammed remains in Afghan detention to this day.

Mr Mohammed was handed over to the NDS in July 2010, only one month after a UK court ruled that such transfers would be lawful, subject to the observance of specific safeguards. The Government assured the Court that, whilst torture may occur in Kabul prison, it did not occur in one of the NDS’ other major facilities, Lashkar Gar prison. The Government further asserted that, as the Afghans did not have the logistical capacity to transfer detainees between prisons without the UK’s knowledge, it was safe for the British to hand over detainees to the NDS at Lashkar Gar.

Mr Mohammed’s case demonstrates that all of the assurances that the Government provided were false. He was tortured in Lashkar Gar, he was transferred to Kabul prison without the British Government’s knowledge, and when British officials visited Lashkar Gar prison and found torture equipment, they did nothing about it. Mr Mohammed was therefore essentially subjected to the very things that the Government told the Court were impossible.

The Secretary of State for Defence has recently been forced to hand over evidence demonstrating that he knew that torture was taking place in Lashkar Gar prison.

During multiple visits in 2011, British officials found torture equipment including an electric flex fashioned into a whip. On at least one occasion, they found such a whip on the floor when interrupting an interview between a NDS interrogator and a prisoner. British officials did not seize the torture equipment, nor did they even ask the interrogator about the whip “for fear of causing a scene”, according to the documents disclosed by the government to the claimant’s lawyers. They did however take photographs, which Reprieve and Leigh Day, Mr Mohammed’s solicitors, have obtained.

The risk of torture was therefore clearly known to the British Government. In fact, the British Government has not sought to dispute Mr Mohammed’s account and moreover decided, of its own volition, to halt all transfers to the NDS when Mr Mohammed’s claim came to light.

However, in yet another astonishing move the Secretary of State for Defence later sought to recommence transfers, based on “commitments” given by none other than Mr Khaled to “uphold human rights standards” and provide 48 hours prior notification of transfers to facilities in Kabul. Despite his overwhelmingly dubious track record, senior government officials including Baroness Warsi sought to negotiate with Mr Khaled and subsequently relied on his assurances. At an interim hearing 2 weeks ago, the Court decided to issue an injunction to prevent any further transfers until the full hearing.

The case will go to a full hearing at the end of this month when a Court will be asked to determine whether Mr Mohammed’s transfer to the NDS was lawful. In the meantime the Government appears to be seeking to avoid further damage to its reputation by asking the Court to withhold evidence from Mr Mohammed.

Earlier this month the Court referred to a “whole room full” of documents that have yet to be shown to Mr Mohammed’s lawyers. This Friday Mr Mohammed’s lawyers will ask a Court to ensure that Mr Mohammed has an opportunity to see these documents so that his case can be fairly and properly argued.

Kat Craig, Reprieve’s Legal Director, said: “The Government must not be allowed to place itself above the law and withhold evidence that causes it embarrassment in the name of national security. We believe that the evidence currently available to us is simply the tip of the iceberg. If the Government’s proposals for secret courts go ahead, evidence of torture such as this would never see the light of day.”

Richard Stein of Leigh Day said: “We are deeply concerned at the cavalier approach the government appears to be taking about torture in Afghanistan. Despite the extremely serious and well known allegations regarding Mr Khaled and his personal involvement in torture, the UK government was willing to re-instate detainee transfers on the basis of his reassurances to “uphold human rights standards.” This is simply not acceptable. Had we not managed to obtain an injunction from the Court preventing the proposed transfers taking place, it is very likely that many other young men, like our client, would have been transferred from UK custody to the NDS and suffered serious mistreatment, abuse and torture. ”


Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell on +44 (0) 207 553 8166

2. The deputy UN special representative in Afghanistan told told Canadian officials that the UN’s internal assessment of a deadly bombing of a UN vehicle in Kandahar concluded it was ordered by Khaled. Chris Alexander also alleged that Khaled had ordered the deaths of five UN workers in a bombing:

3. Pictures of the whips found in NDS detention centres can be provided upon request.