KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan named a three star general to take over Bagram prison from the U.S. military and with him, final say over which prisoners are released, an issue with the potential to open another rift in relations between Washington and Kabul.
The issue of the release of any of the 3,200 people held in the prison at the sprawling American base, north of Kabul, is sensitive to both countries as Afghanistan assumes full security responsibilities ahead of departure of most NATO combat forces in 2014.
Washington fears the prisoners, most of whom it says are mid to high level members of the Taliban, might return to the battlefield as has happened in the past, citing the case of a Taliban commander transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Afghan custody in 2007 who ended up fighting coalition forces again.
“They (the United States) can have a consultative role, but not a veto,” said Aimal Faizi, chief spokesman of President Hamid Karzai.
“What’s the point of the transfer if we don’t have full control,” he said, in remarks that have become increasingly assertive following a string of incidents that have strained U.S.-Afghan ties, notably the killing of 17 villagers blamed on a U.S. soldier and the burning of Korans at the Bagram base.
Afghan General Ghulam Farooq Barekzai - formerly in charge of policy at the defense ministry - has been named to take over the Bagram detention centre, a palace statement on Saturday said.
It was the first step toward handing over control of the prison to Afghan authorities and another move to transferring complete security responsibility to the volatile country before the planned pullout of most Western forces.
Afghanistan, which has long sought control of Bagram prison, says no sovereign country can allow thousands of its people to be held indefinitely under foreign guard and that it alone has the powers to determine what to do with them.
The two sides reached an agreement in March to shift the prison to Afghan control after months of wrangling and a key element of the pact was that Afghanistan would consult with the United States before freeing any of the men incarcerated there.
“And if the United States provides its assessment that continued detention is necessary to prevent the detainee from engaging in or facilitating terrorist activity, Afghanistan is to consider favorably such assessment,” the document said.
U.S. officials have interpreted that to mean that the two sides at the very least would have to agree before any of the detainees, many held for years without any trial, could be freed.
Prisoners there will gradually be transferred to Afghan custody over six months, and U.S. forces will provide “technical and logistical support” for a further six months.
About 50 non-Afghan detainees at the prison will remain in U.S. custody, both sides have said.
Under the agreement, Afghanistan also has to provide the United States access to the transferred detainees to ensure that they are being treated in accordance with humanitarian laws.
They may also be able to interrogate them, which has long been a key U.S. demand, U.S. and Afghan officials said.
“This is something that Afghan commanders at the prison will decide,” said an Afghan government official, who declined to go into any more detail because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Editing by Jack Kimball and Jonathan Thatcher