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from our 2011 archives

Abdul Qadar Noorzai, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar, says torture continues in Afghan custody despite years of controversy over conditions in local jails. Still, he says, the attention has shamed the Afghan security forces into being secretive about their brutality.Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail

From the first day that Canada's battle group rolled into southern Afghanistan until the final farewells this summer, Abdul Qadar Noorzai has served as a gentle, grandfatherly witness to the worst abuses on all sides of the conflict.

The long-serving director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar stood at the epicentre of Canada's controversy over detainees, initially as a whistleblower and then as a quiet partner for a Canadian government scrambling to find a solution to the problem.

After the scandal erupted in 2007, Canada became the AIHRC's biggest donor and promised to work closely with the agency to prevent detainees from being abused in custody.

It hasn't been an easy task for Mr. Noorzai and his team. His researchers were killed and intimidated, and security concerns still prevent them visiting all but six of the province's 17 districts. Despite public assurances to the contrary, Mr. Noorzai's investigators have not enjoyed unfettered access to local detention centres to check on prisoners. He is not permitted to talk about specific results of his monitoring, but agreed to speak in general terms about human rights in Kandahar.

Q: Is the human rights situation in Kandahar getting better or worse?

A: Our information is incomplete. We cannot visit all of Kandahar, so I cannot tell you. In the places where there is fighting, there are no human rights.

Do you now have the ability to inspect the National Directorate for Security (NDS) detention centre?

They think they are separate from the government, they are powerful, and they don't allow other organizations to interfere. That thinking is wrong. Human rights officers can go there, according to the rules. Unfortunately they do not always follow the rules. Sometimes it's good, sometimes bad.

So now it's good, or bad?

(He laughs, but does not answer.)

The Kabul government sent new officers to run the NDS. Did this improve anything?

They change the people from one job to another, but nothing changes.

So the situation did not improve?

Not improved, no.

Are the security forces still beating people and electrocuting people?

Generally, in the various forces, it's still a bad situation with the prisoners. One change is that before they were abusing people in front of us, and now they are doing it in hidden places.

I've heard that the detainee system is split. You have detainees captured by Canadians or the British, and those ones were monitored to see if they were tortured. But the ones captured by Afghans, there aren't enough checks.

This is true. (He declined to elaborate.) ... It needs some time. You cannot compare Afghanistan with Europe or Canada. Our society is different from your society. You must compare by Afghan standards.

So before they were beating people and not hiding it. Now, they are hiding it. This is an improvement?

They understand that if the human rights people know about the beating it's a problem for them. But they don't stop it.

When I did research in 2007 we saw people very badly injured by the beatings. For example, we met a man in Sarpoza prison who was so badly beaten that he could not wash himself. And we heard about another man who was killed and left floating in a canal. It is serious like that now?

We have heard that those things have now decreased. But generally, in those places where there is fighting there is no control of the government, there is no constitution. We don't have many reports from those places.

This interview has been edited and condensed