Rights groups have expressed concern over the confessions of 15 suspects arrested last month for an alleged wave of poisonings of Afghan schoolgirls.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Wednesday, Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said there had been frequent and consistent reports of the use of torture by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service.
In statements to the AFP news agency this week, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), also expressed concern that the 15 people – including two 17-year-old schoolgirls – who confessed to the attacks on schools in northern Takhar province, were tortured by NDS.
“UNAMA has made public its concerns about the use of torture in selected NDS facilities throughout the country, including Takhar, as a means to force persons suspected of insurgency activities to confess,” James Rodehaver, head of UNAMA’s human rights unit, told AFP.
Rodehaver said UNAMA was also concerned that NDS “publicised the confessions of the suspects in the Takhar case, including of the two schoolgirls. This violates fair trial rights, including the presumption of innocence, of the accused”.
Those who confessed are accused of taking part in a string of attacks on girls’ schools in the north of the country between April and June of this year that left over 1,000 students reporting symptoms of sudden fainting, nausea and dizziness.
If the NDS torture allegations are proven, UNAMA said the suspects’ confessions must be stricken from the record.
But Sediq Sediqqi, an interior ministry spokesman, denied the UNAMA claims.
“These people were arrested with evidence and we have their confessions,” Seddiqi said. “In the Sar-e-Pol case [of poisoning last month] it was spray involved, and in Takhar it was mostly pills. We have that evidence.”
HRW’s Barr points to an October 2011 report by UNAMA, which found “compelling evidence” of torture in NDS and Ministry of Interior jails.
“We’ve seen no willingness by the government to take actions to end torture” since that report, Barr said, adding that none of the officials responsible for the tactics alleged in the report have been prosecuted or fired.
This is a key point because the Afghan criminal justice system “relies overwhelmingly on confessions as evidence in criminal trials”, she said.
Lack of evidence
In addition to allegations of torture, some analysts, including UNAMA, said they have yet to see any physical evidence of actual toxic substances used to poison water supplies or spray harmful fumes in the air of the schools.
The purported lack of evidence creates a suspicious situation where “you’ve gotten a bunch of people to confess to a poisoning where no actual poison seems to have been involved”, said Barr.
Evidence of torture by the intelligence service would only lead to further questions, Akbar Ahmadzai, executive director of the Foundation for Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
“People will start to think that you are not paying attention to the problem itself and instead, merely arresting people and forcing them to confess”, said Ahmadzai.
Experts have said these forced confessions, which Barr said amount to a “show trial”, are part of a Kabul government strategy to convince the public that the Taliban still pose a major threat to Afghan society.
“We’ve seen the government becoming more aggressive in terms of their own psychological operations. Every incident is instantly attributed to Pakistan and the Haqqani network by ISAF and government at a speed that makes me wonder just how much investigation there was beforehand,” Barr told Al Jazeera.
At the June 6 press conference announcing the arrests, NDS spokesman Lotfullah Mashal said 12 of those arrested were Taliban, including the Taliban’s “shadow deputy governor” of salt-rich Takhar province, and senior Taliban military commanders.
Claims of Taliban infilitation, said Barr, fit a larger government narrative that “everything bad comes from the Taliban.”
The group has denied any part in the attacks.
Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security, said that though the initial cases of poisoning may have been actual attacks by the Taliban, subsequent attacks made the group’s involvement increasingly difficult to prove.
Frogh said the attacks became a weapon of war, which put increasing government pressure on the NDS to show that their investigation was providing answers.
The mounting pressure could have led to a situation where “they might have been forced to fabricate evidence by torturing those arrested,” Frogh said.
Regardless of who is involved, or if there is physical evidence of actual poisoning – which itself has been called into question – activists also say the government has not responded appropriately to the scare.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kabul, Frogh said, “We can’t deny the fact that thousands of girls have been impacted, no matter who is responsible”, pointing out to the reprecussions of the global media reports detailing the symptoms of sudden fainting and dizziness.
Orzala Nemat Ashraf, an Afghan human rights campaigner, said regardless of whether the symptoms are the result of mass poisoning, psychosomatic hysteria or something else entirely, the government is obligated to put an end to it.
“People are in dire need of knowing the truth. A fabricated truth is not what anyone who takes the risk of sending his or her children to school want to hear,” Nemat told Al Jazera.
Ahmadzai said the fear created by these symptoms further highlights the need for security in schools.
At the June press conference, NDS said a schoolgirl had confessed to being paid 50,000 Afghanis, about $14,000, to poison her school’s drinking water.
“The solution is wildly different if it is poison rather than something psychological,” said Barr, adding that officials need the clearest information possible to address the issue properly.
Calling the official reaction “ineffective”, Barr said the government needs to respond with a public awareness campaign reassuring the country’s three million girls that it is safe to head back to the classroom.