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Afghanistan releases 65 prisoners despite strong U.S. objections

By Tom Watkins and Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 3:11 PM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "It is of no concern to the U.S.," says Afghan president about the prisoner release
  • The U.S. Embassy in Kabul says the prisoner release is "deeply regrettable"
  • The U.S. military says some of those freed are linked to attacks on U.S. troops
  • Afghanistan says it doesn't have enough evidence to keep them behind bars

(CNN) -- Citing a lack of evidence, Afghan authorities released from prison 65 men Thursday over strong objections from U.S. officials, who said they pose a threat to security forces and civilians.

"We took this decision according to our law," said Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, the Afghan attorney general.

In a statement posted on its website, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the move "deeply regrettable," saying the Afghan government "bears responsibility for the results of its decision."

Abdul Shukor Dadras, head of the Afghan Review Board, said the attorney general ordered the releases from the Parwan Detention Center -- formerly known as Bagram prison -- after a careful review of 88 cases.

Veteran 'appalled' at prisoner release

The U.S. military in Afghanistan said some of the men are linked to attacks that killed or wounded 32 American or coalition service members and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.

But a 23-page document obtained by CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr from a U.S. military official who asked not to be identified said about 19 of the released men were associated with direct attacks that killed or wounded 60 U.S. or coalition force members. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

According to the document, 25 of the men were linked to the production or placement of IEDs; 33 tested positive for explosive residue when processed after capture; and 26 were associated with attacks that killed or wounded 57 Afghan citizens and Afghan National Security Forces.

Prior to the prisoners' release, U.S. authorities had repeatedly aired their displeasure over the plans.

"We have made clear our judgment that these individuals should be prosecuted under Afghan law. We requested that the cases be carefully reviewed," the U.S. military said ahead of the release. "But the evidence against them was never seriously considered, including by the attorney general, given the short time since the decision was made to transfer these cases to the Afghan legal system."

Releasing them, the embassy said, "is contrary to Afghanistan's commitment in our 2012 Memorandum of Understanding to take all necessary steps to ensure that detainees do not pose a continuing threat to Afghanistan, the international community or the United States."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was "gravely concerned" by the decision, "which appears to have been made based on political calculations and without regard for due process before the Afghan courts." In a statement, he called it "a major step backwards for the rule of law in Afghanistan."

The U.S. military noted that the group included an alleged Taliban explosives expert, a suspected Haqqani network commander and a specialist accused of building and placing improvised explosive devices.

"These individuals are dangerous," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday. "They pose threats to the safety and security of the Afghan people and the Afghan state."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai defended the releases and slammed the United States for criticizing them.

The decisions were made only after "rigorous and repeated investigations and fact-finding," he told reporters in Ankara, where he met with representatives of Turkey and Pakistan.

"Afghanistan is a sovereign country," he said. "If the Afghan authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. and should be of no concern to the U.S. And I hope that the United States would stop harassing Afghanistan's procedures and judicial authority and I hope that the United States will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty."

Karzai also addressed the question of whether he will sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with Washington that would allow for U.S. and other coalition forces to remain in Afghanistan after this year.

"There must be first the launch of the peace process before the BSA is signed," he said. "Now this condition is not an opposition to BSA; it is a facilitator of the BSA. I put this condition not to oppose the signing of BSA but to promote, facilitate the signing of the BSA with the United States, and I hope that it should be understood in the same terms."

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet, Qadir Sediqi, Elizabeth Joseph and Sara Mazloumsaki contributed to this report.

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