Richard Colvin dropped a bombshell on the Harper government recently when he told a Parliamentary Committee that detainees handed over to Afghan government authorities by the Canadian Forces are routinely tortured and that senior government officials in Ottawa ignored repeated warnings that this was happening. Instead of admitting that mistakes were made, the government went on the attack, trying to discredit a well-regarded diplomat who is hardly new to hardship postings, having spent time in both Palestine and Sri Lanka before becoming the deputy head of mission in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Peter Mackay fired back in the House of Commons last week, claiming: "There has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian Forces." Such a statement is almost laughable to anyone who has had any direct contact with Afghan security institutions over the past eight years. Three independent surveys of the Afghan prison system undertaken since 2004 – one by the UN, one by the Red Cross, and one by the U.S. Military – all came to the same conclusion: the vast majority of Afghanistan’s prisons are uninhabitable by international standards and cruel and inhumane treatment is the norm. These reports paint a picture of a prison system that is chronically overcrowded, lacking basic amenities like clean water and sanitation, and devoid of effective government oversight. While donor states like Canada have assisted in the rehabilitation of the country’s main prison in Kabul, Pul-i Charkhi, and a number of provincial facilities, such as Saraposa Prison in Kandahar, district-level detention centres have often been left untouched.

Of all the institutions in Afghanistan’s security system, the prison sector has received by far the least funding and attention. Prisons are not an attractive target for development agencies. Pictures of rebuilt cells simply don’t play as well for domestic audiences as newly constructed schools and clinics. Moreover, many donors are legally prevented from giving development aid to prison rehabilitation because of concern that those facilities could be used to lock away dissidents and innocent citizens. The irony is that the lack of investment in the Afghan prison system has condemned the majority of Afghanistan’s inmates, many of whom have spent years awaiting trial, to a life where their basic human rights are violated on a daily basis.

Many of the detainees that Colvin referred to would not, however, have ended up in one of Afghanistan’s crumbling district prisons, but would have found their way to detention centres operated by the country’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). NDS detention facilities – intended for interrogation, not long-term incarceration – are subjected to virtually no oversight. Although international monitors are granted access from time to time, these prisons largely remain off the grid. Stories of torture in these facilities are pervasive in Afghanistan, with many of the procedures employed, such as beatings with electrical wire and electrocution, having a long pedigree in the country dating back to the days of the notorious Soviet-era Khad secret police.

Sadly, as an observer of Afghanistan who has closely monitored the security apparatus for almost a decade now, the revelations of Colvin are nothing new. Most Afghans would also express little surprise; their only shock would be over the naïveté of those who believe some form of torture is not a routine aspect of prison life in Afghanistan. You would be hard-pressed to find an Afghan who does not know someone, whether a family member or friend, that has not been mistreated in some form or another by the security establishment over the past eight years. One Afghan police official I spoke to during a recent trip looked puzzled when I inquired about prisoner abuse. He didn’t understand why Canadians are so fixated on the issue.

One way the Government of Canada can start to make up for this embarrassing episode is to push for prison reform in Afghanistan by making new funding commitments to this needy area and galvanizing other donors to do the same. Even after Canadian troops withdraw from Kandahar in 2011, Canadian assistance to the prison sector and other aspects of the security system can and should continue.

The problems with Afghanistan’s prisons, however, cannot be solved overnight, as I was reminded by an anecdote from a UN corrections advisor in Kabul a few years ago. The official had received a memo in 2004 about a jailbreak in southeastern Afghanistan with the title: “Prison break: Four prisoners and two guards escape.” While surprised and somewhat amused at first, he came to realize over time that the guards were often as eager to escape the horrible conditions of prison life as the inmates.

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