British troops have been banned from transferring suspected Taliban prisoners over to the Afghan authorities because of claims of torture by local forces, it was revealed yesterday.
The moratorium on passing on any captives to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) throws into disarray a central plank of the UK exit strategy from Helmand, that authority is being transferred to local security services with combat forces due to leave by the end of 2014. The High Court heard allegations yesterday that the NDS operated an underground interrogation chamber near the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah and that "torture was entrenched" in the organisation.
Despite the fact that the British can only hold detainees for 96 hours – or 30 days with ministerial approval – it was revealed that the allegations of torture had led to a complete ban on sending detainees for questioning to the NDS, the prosecuting authority.
The issue was raised as Mr Justice Collins gave leave for two cases to seek a judicial review into the transfer of prisoners as well as the involvement of the NDS in British interrogations.
Highlighting the dilemma faced by the British military, Mr Justice Collins said: "If our troops are attacked by the Taliban insurgents and there is the capture of some rather than being killed, then after 96 hours they have to go free. That is a somewhat worrying situation to say the least." However, he added an equally serious issue was that the UK could not be seen to be complicit in torture or mistreatment. In the first case, a farmer, Serdar Mohamed, claims he was abused after being arrested by the British following a firefight and held for three months.
He was subsequently transferred to the NDS in Lashkar Gah and then on to Kabul where he said he was beaten, hung by handcuffs from bars and hit by guards when he fell asleep until he gave a false confession. He was later convicted in a trial his lawyers say lasted just 15 minutes in a language he did not understand. His 16-year sentence was reduced to six years and he is currently appealing against his conviction.
Yesterday, his barrister, Ben Jaffey, argued that his situation was particularly relevant because his transfer came in 2010 immediately after British courts demanded safeguards for detainees following a case brought by peace activist Maya Evans.
The Divisional Court banned transfers to the NDS in Kabul two years ago after claims of systematic abuse but "hesitantly" allowed prisoners to be sent to its facility in Lashkar Gah, as long as there were safeguards that it would be monitored and captives would not be sent on to Kabul.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The UK does not transfer detainees to any facility where there is a real risk at the time of transfer that a detainee will suffer torture or serious mistreatment."