US held responsible for conditions in Afghan jail

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America was condemned yesterday for conditions in an Afghan jail where more than 3,000 Taliban and al-Qai'da fighters are being held in conditions described as overcrowded and unhygienic, and where inadequate food and medical supplies have led to deaths.

An inspection team from Physicians for Human Rights said that conditions at Shebhargan prison, near Mazar-i-Sharif, were "in grave violation of international standards for those held in detention or as prisoners of war".

Groups of up to 110 prisoners were being held in cells designed for no more than 15. The organisation called on America to recognise the inmates, and those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as prisoners of war.

The prison, in northern Afghanistan, houses Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters captured after the fall last year of Mazar and Kunduz – campaigns in which US special forces played a key role. Until 14 January, America controlled access to the jail and was interrogating the inmates, transferring those it considered important to Kandahar or Guantanamo Bay.

The group said that even though control of the prison had now been transferred to General Rashid Dostum, the deputy defence minister in Afghanistan's interim administration, the Geneva Conventions made clear that the United States still had a responsibility.

Leonard Rubenstein, the group's executive director, added: "The moral point is that the whole world knows the people who have custody of [the prisoners] do not have the ability to meet their needs. They have no money, their government is a month old. The US has the capacity to meet those needs immediately."

The inspection team's report portrays a picture of gross overcrowding, inadequate food and an absence of medical and washing facilities. One bowl, 20 inches in diameter and eight inches deep, containing a stew of beans, rice and carrots, had to feed 10 men. Pneumonia and dysentery were rife, and the officer in charge said that "many, many, many prisoners had already died".

The officer said it cost $3 a day to maintain the current conditions, but that there was not enough money even for that in the long term.

Dr Jennifer Leaning, of the inspection team, urged America to provide more funds and recognise the men as prisoners of war. "We are dealing with a quiet atrocity. These men are ordinary Taliban soldiers. The US has led, controlled and organised this war – [it] understands the situation and is responsible."

The condemnation comes amid continuing controversy over the fighters held at Guantanamo Bay. The Bush administration appears divided on the issue. The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, insists that the 158 men, including three Britons, will not be granted prisoner-of-war status, despite a call from the Colin Powell, Secretary of State that their status should be looked at individually in line with the Geneva Convention.

President Bush chaired an apparently inconclusive meeting of his National Security Council yesterday to decide whether the prisoners were covered by the convention.