Reporting on torture in Afghanistan

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'The story is starting to make my life difficult as I am discovering that I have made many powerful enemies here in Afghanistan.' — Graeme Smith

(An interview with The Globe and Mail journalist Graeme Smith — a exclusive.)

On Monday, April, 23, 2007, The Globe and Mail published a front-page feature article from correspondent Graeme Smith, which detailed experiences of torture by multiple Afghan prisoners captured by the Canadian military and transferred to Afghan authorities.

The article, headlined “From Canadian custody into cruel hands,” made major political waves in Canada, sparking grassroots discussion across the country and debates in Parliament leading to calls from opposition political parties for Gordon O'Connor, the Minister of Defense, to resign from his.

Graeme Smith was interviewed by telephone from Kandahar, Afghanistan concerning the report on torture under Canadian watch in Afghanistan and the political implications resulting from the article, on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

Stefan Christoff: Can you explain the process of collecting the information and conducting the interviews for your break-through report on the torture of Afghan prisoners?

Graeme Smith: In Kandahar it's very well known that the National Directorate of Security (NDS) tends to mistreat prisoners in custody and it is also very well known that the Canadian military hands over detainees to the NDS. So putting two and two together would seem very obvious, so it was a matter of just doing the leg work, going around working travel networks and having tea with NDS representatives in Kandahar City and generally trying to track these people down while also persuading the people who run the prison to open their doors in a way that they have never been open before for journalists, as best I know.

The prison officials took some persuading but eventually granted me access to interview the prisoners and many of the details emerged from these interviews.

Everyone in Kandahar has accepted this as the status quo. If you told someone in Kandahar City that the police or secret police are torturing people, no one would bat an eyelash but would shrug and say that's the way it is. What's interesting is that in the last few days, the fact that the Canadians appear to be upset about this has certainly caused waves in Kandahar City. Very high level politicians in Afghanistan are trying to do damage control as the issue is definitely getting some attention now.

Stefan Christoff: As a reporter who has addressed multiple issues in Afghanistan, how does the issue of Afghan prisoner abuse illustrate the legitimacy of the current government of Afghanistan, which the Canadian government is so closely aligned with?

Graeme Smith: The problem with the case of Afghanistan's police force is that no one calls the police or security services by their official name in Kandahar, no one refers to the National Directorate of Security or NDS, people often refer to the police as the KHAD, which is an acronym for the old Communist-era secret police in Afghanistan. About half the staff for the current National Directorate of Security according to a 2004 study, are old KHAD officers, so it's not particularly surprising that they behave like the old KHAD.

Obviously the responsibility of the Canadian and other NATO forces in this situation is to try to pressure local authorities to improve the conduct of the National Directorate of Security — not only because a country like Canada has obligations under the Geneva Conventions, but also for their own tactical purposes on the ground because if you don't torture people then fewer people will be angry with you.

Stefan Christoff: Clearly practices of torture on prisoners in local prisons are upsetting people in Kandahar. Can you describe or recount what former and current prisoners told you in terms of their experiences in Afghanistan's prisons? Thousands of people across Canada read and reacted to your article in The Globe and Mail but I am asking for you to convey in this interview the details regarding torture in Afghanistan's prisons.

Graeme Smith: The prisoners told me that they were beaten, often beaten with electrical cables, which was the most common complaint. Some prisoners said that they were left outside for long periods of time during the short winter months when the temperatures here in Afghanistan dips below freezing. Others said that they were electrocuted and one man did make a particularly graphic description of being electrocuted with a hand-crank generator and flopping around on the floor like a fish.

I have to tell you that these stories are very personally upsetting because just like the Canadian military here, I as a reporter have been dealing on a regular basis with the Afghan authorities. So although I had heard the rumours and innuendo concerning torture, I sat down with these men who pulled up their shirts to show me their scars, which clearly was very personally upsetting.

Stefan Christoff: This is a reality that is understood and talked about in Afghanistan and you explained that within Kandahar people generally assumed that torture is taking place within Afghan prisons. For readers in Canada and throughout North America, your report on torture in Afghanistan is making major waves on a popular level and at the highest levels of the Canadian government, with calls for Gordon O'Connor, the Minister of Defense, to resign. How do you feel as the journalist who broke this important story?

Graeme Smith: Well frankly, it makes my life difficult as a reporter who is trying to document what is happening here in southern Afghanistan and plans on documenting for a while what is happening here in southern Afghanistan — particularly when my report was picked up by BBC Pashto Radio and broadcast to all the local homes here in Kandahar. The story is starting to make my life difficult as I am discovering that I have made many powerful enemies here in Afghanistan. But I think it was extremely important to report on this issue because if I can help prevent the practice of torture in Afghanistan or anywhere, writing this story was worth the cost.

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