BAGRAM, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai welcomed Monday’s handover of the main American-run prison to Afghan forces as a victory for Afghan sovereignty, though he and U.S. officials remain locked in a dispute over the fate of hundreds of Taliban and terror suspects behind bars.
The United States is withholding the transfer of scores of inmates, reportedly out of concern that Afghan authorities may simply let some detainees go and no longer hold dangerous prisoners without charge.
American irritation was apparent at the ceremony at the prison, about 25 miles north of Kabul. No higher-ranking American officers attended, although the Afghan government sent its defense minister, army chief of staff and other officials.
Karzai also did not attend, though he released a statement calling the handover a “very big step regarding the sovereignty of Afghanistan.”
“Now, the Bagram prison is converted to one of Afghanistan’s regular prisons where the innocents will be freed and the rest of the prisoners will be sentenced according to the laws of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
Hours after the handover ceremony, a suicide attack killed 15 people and wounded 25 others in the northern city of Kunduz. The bombing was a stark reminder that insurgents continue their fight against Afghan and U.S.-led coalition troops and that many detainees at the prison are suspected of organizing such attacks.
Karzai and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding about the future of the detention facility on March 9, following tense negotiations that frequently stalled.
Since then, the U.S. has transferred 3,082 detainees to Afghan control, according to Afghan Army Gen. Ghulam Farouk, who now heads the prison.
But a few weeks ago, the U.S. stopped all transfers.
“Some 99 percent of the detainees captured before 9 March have already been transferred to Afghan authority, but we have paused the transfer of the remaining detainees until our concerns are met,” said Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.