Yet another disagreement between Washington and Kabul over the handover of prisoners held at U.S.-run facilities comes at a crucial moment in negotiations over legal immunity for U.S. troops.

The U.S. military has suspended transfer of prisoners to some Afghan prisons over concern about torture and other human rights abuses, The New York Times reported Thursday. The decision comes six weeks after the British government made a similar decision, also citing the risk of torture in Afghan prisons.

The issue has been a particularly prickly one for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has demanded all detainees be transferred to Afghan authority out of respect for the country’s sovereignty. Transfer of prisoners was a major topic of discussion between Karzai and President Barack Obama at their meeting in Washington last week.

Obama is pressing for an agreement that would grant legal immunity to U.S. troops after combat units leave at the end of 2014, and Afghan control of prisoners is seen by many as a major bargaining chip for Karzai.

In 2011 the U.S. made a similar decision to halt prisoner transfers in Afghanistan in response to a United Nations report that found torture to be rampant in Afghan prisons. The latest halt in transfers was made ahead of a new U.N. report expected to make similar allegations, the Times reported.

Afghan officials cited by The New York Times denied all allegations of torture in the country’s prisons, a claim human rights expert Kate Clark said “isn’t credible.”

“It looks like something has gone wrong with the ISAF program to stop these abuses,” said Clark, who has tracked prisoner issues in the country for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “They haven’t done enough in the past and, from what’s being reported, they still aren’t.”

Clark said the issue goes beyond questions of human rights and that ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, should be concerned also with the effects abuses can have on the battlefield.

“One of the factors that’s contributing to the insurgency is maltreatment of prisoners,” she said.

Despite this latest disagreement over prison handovers, the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. is slowly thawing, said Michael O’Hanlon, a security expert and author of the Brookings Institution’s “Afghanistan Index,” which tracks security trends.

“My impression is that the basic situation is in fact gradually improving despite various temporary setbacks,” he said. “Clearly, we need for the transfer to occur eventually since it’s their country and since we can’t be responsible for jails if we only have a few thousand troops (after 2014).”

druzinh@estripes.osd.milTwitter: Druzin_Stripes

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