US troops in Afghanistan are operating outside the rule of law, using excessive force to make arrests, mistreating detainees and holding them indefinitely in a "legal black hole" without any legal safeguards, a report published today says.
Having gone to war to combat terrorism and remove the oppressive Taliban regime, the United States is now undermining efforts to restore the rule of law and endangering the lives of civilians, Human Rights Watch says.
cites complaints collected by a UN official of "cowboy-like" tactics against people "who generally turn out to be law-abiding citizens". They include blowing doors open with grenades rather than knocking.
Its military forces have repeatedly used deadly force from helicopter gunships and small and heavy arms fire during "what are essentially law-enforcement operations" to arrest suspected criminals in residential areas where there is no military conflict, the report says.
"The use of these tactics has resulted in avoidable civilian deaths and injuries, and in individual cases may amount to violations of international humanitarian law."
HRW acknowledges that the Americans are opposed by armed groups which pay little heed to humanitarian law or human rights.
"But the activities of these groups are no excuse for US violations. Abuses by one party to a conflict, no matter how egregious, do not justify violations by the other side."
The report cites complaints collected by a UN official of "cowboy-like" tactics against people "who generally turn out to be law-abiding citizens". They include blowing doors open with grenades rather than knocking.
In one instance helicopters attacked the home of Ahmed Khan and his family in the Zurmat district in Paktia province, an area firmly under the control of Afghan forces at the time.
"We were lying in bed," Mr Khan told HRW. "Suddenly, there was a lot of noise. Some helicopters came, we could hear them circling and firing machine guns ... they rocketed a hole through the wall."
The Americans forced their way in and rounded up the family.
"Then they searched the house. They broke all the windows, and tore the doors off cupboards, and shot open the boxes, and turned them over," Mr Khan said.
The extent of damage to neighbouring homes showed that they "used considerable firepower even though there was no evidence of any armed opposition," the report says.
A farmer in the fields nearby was shot dead and a woman in one of the houses was injured.
Afghans blame many raids on malicious tip-offs by other Afghans using the US as an unwitting proxy in local quarrels or as a means of extorting money, the report says.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the treatment of those arrested.
"The United States is setting a terrible example in Afghanistan on detention practices," said Brad Adams, executive director of the organisation's Asia division.
"Civilians are being held in a legal black hole with no tribunals, no legal counsel, no family visits and no basic legal protections."
The US holds detainees at its Bagram, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Asadabad bases, where there have been complaints of their being severely beaten, doused with cold water, forced to stay awake or made to stand or kneel in painful positions for long periods.
"There is compelling evidence suggesting that US personnel have committed acts against detainees amounting to torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment," Mr Adams said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004