KABUL, Afghanistan — Over strong U.S. objections, Afghanistan on Thursday released 65 prisoners it has said it cannot prosecute despite American warnings that they could return to attacking coalition forces and civilians.
The U.S. military had expected the move and denounced it in a series of news releases in recent weeks. But the Afghan government maintained that there was insufficient evidence to try the prisoners or continue to hold them at the formerly U.S.-run detention facility at Bagram, north of Kabul.
The dispute has further inflamed tension between the United States and Afghanistan in the final year of the U.S.-led military intervention. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has angered U.S. officials by refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow a few thousand American troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, has sharply criticized the prison at Bagram, likening it to a "factory" for creating Taliban insurgents.
The 65 prisoners, released to their homes, are directly linked to attacks that have killed or maimed dozens of coalition soldiers and Afghan civilians, the U.S. military alleges. They are among 88 prisoners at Bagram who the U.S. military had contended shouldn't be released.
The government-owned RTA television channel showed the detainees after their release, wearing traditional clothes and white hats. One unnamed former prisoner said they were treated well by their Afghan army jailers. "We didn't have problems with the ANA [Afghan National Army]. We don't have problems with them now and we will not have any in the future," he said.
The dispute over their release has simmered since early last year, when the United States turned over the prison to Afghan control as part of its plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. The U.S. argument, experts say, is that by letting the prisoners go free, Afghanistan is violating agreements it made to hold inmates deemed to be security threats in "continued detention under Afghan law."
"The release of these dangerous individuals poses a threat to U.S., coalition and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the Afghan population," the U.S. military said in a statement Thursday. "Insurgents in the group released today have killed coalition and Afghan forces."
The U.S. military even took the rare step of publicly releasing information about some of the prisoners, citing biometric data and explosives residue tests as indications that they were linked to the insurgency.
One former detainee, Mohammad Wali, captured by coalition forces in Helmand province in May, was described by U.S. military officials as "a suspected Taliban explosives expert" who placed roadside bombs targeting Afghan and coalition forces. Another, Nek Mohammad, allegedly participated in rocket attacks against pro-government forces and was found to be possessing artillery shells, mortar rounds and at least 25 pounds of homemade explosives.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen backed the U.S. position, saying the decision "appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts."
Afghan officials said they carefully reviewed the evidence and leads supplied by the United States but judged them to be insufficient to prosecute the men.
"The U.S. may be right — in part — in claiming the Afghan government has violated the agreement" governing the transfer of control of Bagram, Kate Clark, an expert with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote in a commentary. "Yet this bitter dispute also shows just how weak the Americans have become in the face of the Afghan state's assertion of sovereignty."