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Rights group warns Australia detainee transfer program may violate international law

Australia's new Afghan detainee transfer policy may violate international human rights laws [press release], Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] warned Tuesday. The new detainee management system, announced [press release] Tuesday by Australian Minister of Defence Stephen Smith [official website], provides for the systematic transfer of "high risk" detainees to US forces and "low risk" detainees to Afghan forces. According to AI Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi, the new policy puts detainees at risk of torture and mistreatment at the hands of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which has been previously linked to human rights abuses. "By handing over detainees to the NDS, where they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, Australia could be in violation of its international obligations to protect individuals from such treatment," Zarifi said. Until August of this year, any detainees apprehended by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) [official website] had been the responsibility of Dutch forces that, according to AI, had "safeguards" in place to assure detainees would not be mistreated. In his announcement, Smith stated that the new policies were in compliance with international law:

The detainee management framework draws on applicable international standards and advice from international organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [official website]. It is consistent with the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Geneva Convention [text, PDF]. Australian officials, both ADF and officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, continue to monitor detainees'; welfare and conditions while they are in US or Afghan custody, until they are released or sentenced. The monitoring team visit detainees shortly after transfer and around every four weeks after the initial visits.
Smith also reported that, since August, only 64 out of 348 detainees have been transferred to US or Afghan custody, with the rest being released. He also stated that both US and Afghan officials have assured that detainees will be treated humanely. According to Zarifi, AI is skeptical of these arrangements, which he says should be "viewed with extreme caution, given the very poor record of the US and Afghan governments when it comes to mistreating detainees."

An internal military probe in 2008 cleared [JURIST report] members of the Australian Defence Force of allegations that they mistreated four Taliban members detained following the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan. The investigation [JURIST report] also cleared soldiers of any wrongdoing in connection with civilian deaths during the November battle, but said that such deaths were "highly regrettable." Concerns over detainee abuse were first brought to light in a 2007 report [JURIST report] in AI which said that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) [official website], led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was exposing terrorism detainees to risks of torture by transferring NATO-held detainees into custody of Afghanistan authorities. AI's report focused on actions by Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK, saying that the forces from those countries have been transferring terror detainees to the NDS, despite numerous reports of torture.

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