Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his top justice officials on Thursday ordered the release of 72 imprisoned terrorism suspects for lack of evidence to prosecute them, defying U.S. objections to freeing men still considered a security risk.
The prisoners at the Parwan detention facility at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, were captured by U.S. and NATO forces over the course of the 12-year-old U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda-backed militants.
But a case review by Afghan officials of 88 prisoners deemed by the United States to be too dangerous to set free found enough evidence to prosecute only 16 of them, Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi told reporters after the president met Thursday with the Afghan attorney general and justice minister.
"We cannot allow innocent Afghan citizens to be kept in detention for months and years without a trial for no reason at all," Faizi told foreign journalists in Kabul, the capital, the BBC reported.
The move is likely to further strain U.S.-Afghan relations, already damaged by Karzai's refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement that would keep about 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan even after the NATO combat mission winds down this year.
Karzai, due to leave office in April after a new presidential election, surprised and angered U.S. officials in the fall when he decided to put off signing the post-withdrawal agreement, even though a 2,500-strong council of Afghan elders had approved the plan. U.S. officials warned that budget and deployment plans had to be in place by the end of 2013 to ensure a continued U.S. presence to fight terrorism and train Afghan security forces, but Karzai said he would leave it to his successor to make the decision.
The Obama administration has expressed its concern to Kabul about the imminent prisoner release, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
"These 72 detainees are dangerous criminals against whom there is strong evidence linking them to terror-related crimes, including the use of improvised explosive devices, the largest killer of Afghan civilians," Psaki said at a news briefing.
Faizi said the Afghan judicial review of the detainees' files found that 45 of the men in question were "completely innocent," and the evidence against 27 others was too flimsy to bring a case to trial, the Guardian reported.
The U.S. military-backed newspaper Stars and Stripes, however, quoted an unidentified Pentagon official with access to the detainee list as detailing the alleged crimes of four prisoners set for release. The men were said to have been involved in organizing suicide bombings, ambushes of Afghan and NATO forces and a fatal bombing at a school in Paktia province.
As U.S. and other NATO forces have prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, responsibility for security operations gradually has been transferred to Afghan forces. Kabul authorities took over the running of the Bagram prison in March, and have since released hundreds of inmates held for months or years without trial or charges against them.
The Karzai government's decision to release 72 of the men on the U.S. list of those posing a continued threat suggests that the mercurial Afghan president has finally rejected the U.S. policy of "administrative detention," which Washington has practiced for more than a decade.
Beginning with President George W. Bush and continuing with President Obama, the U.S. government has claimed the right to indefinitely imprison terrorism suspects for the duration of the proclaimed war on terror to prevent their returning to the battlefield.
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