The Risk Of Coronavirus In Afghanistan's Prisons Is Complicating Peace Efforts

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 12:04 pm

In a video recently sent to journalists from an Afghan prison, an inmate leans against a blue wall, struggling to breathe. "What's wrong with him?" one man asks. "Corona," another says.

Videos showing Afghan prisoners suffering from COVID-19-like symptoms have angered the Taliban, which has thousands of loyalists in government lockups.

Last Friday, they accused the government of spreading the disease in prisons "to pressurize the Mujahideen." Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned of revenge if their prisoners were harmed.

The matter has become even more sensitive since the Taliban signed a deal in February with the U.S., promising cease-fires in exchange for foreign forces withdrawing. That deal also called for swift prisoner swaps between the Taliban and the Afghan government, meant as a goodwill gesture to start peace talks between the two sides.

But the exchanges have dragged on. Now, with prisoners on both sides at risk of illness or death, already shaky peace efforts have become even more complicated.

The government has released just over 800 insurgents. The Taliban expect 5,000 to be released, citing their deal with the U.S. The insurgents have freed more than 100 Afghan security forces of an expected total of 1,000.

Mindful of the spreading virus, the government has released more prisoners in recent days. Afghanistan's National Security Council spokesman Javid Faisal says they're moving as swiftly as possible. Unrelated to the Taliban prisoner swap, the government is also freeing thousands of other prisoners to reduce contagion risk.

Afghanistan has an estimated 29,000 inmates, according to prison administration spokesman Farhad Bayani. Many live in crammed cells.

Sayed Maiwand Agha, a prisoner in the country's largest facility, Pul-e-Charkhi, tells NPR that three men there appear to have died of COVID-19 and many more have fevers and coughs.

Bayani tells NPR that 10 of 600 inmates tested so far in Afghan prisons have the disease.

Afghanistan has over 3,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 100 deaths. Testing has been limited so far, but a random test by the health ministry of 500 people in Kabul showed that one-third were positive.

The United Nations warns that the country has "unique vulnerabilities" in coping with this pandemic, including a battered health system, widespread poverty and an ongoing conflict.

Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the pandemic complicates the fragile Afghan peace process, but the Taliban want the process to succeed. It accomplishes a long-held goal, he says: "Kick out the foreign troops." But if large numbers of Taliban prisoners get sick or die, the prisoner exchanges may get thrown off, and along with them, so might hopes for peace.

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