Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered 72 of 88 suspected insurgents to be released from jail over the heated objections of the U.S. in a move that dimmed prospects for a quick agreement on a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan past 2014.
"We cannot allow innocent Afghan citizens to be kept in detention for months and years without a trial for no reason at all," Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, told Reuters Thursday.
The U.S. has charged that "ample evidence" exists to conclude that there are prisoners among the 88 believed to be responsible for incidents that killed or wounded more than 60 U.S. and coalition troops. Officials have said that at least seven detainees are suspected of so-called "insider attacks" in which they wore the uniforms of Afghan police and army troops.
There was no immediate word on when the prisoners would be released, or whether the 16 who will continue to be detained included the seven insider attack suspects.
A U.S. spokesman in Kabul for the International Security Assistance Force of U.S. and coalition troops declined immediate comment while U.S. officials "sort out" the implications of the reported release order.
The 88 were among more than 3,000 detainees transferred last year from U.S. to Afghan jurisdiction at the Parwan Detention Facility, now called the Afghan Detention Facility at Parwan, next to the Bagram Air Base in Parwan province north of Kabul.
Karzai refused to accept the transfer of 40-50 third country national detainees -- Yemenis, Saudis and other nationals captured on the battlefield. They continue to be detained in a section of the Parwan facility run by Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-435, led since last July by Air Force Brig. Gen. Balan R. Ayyar.
A Review Committee for Bagram Prisoner Cases appointed by Karzai found that of the 88 prisoners in question, there was no criminal evidence against 45 and insufficient evidence against another 27. The remaining 16 were found not to be a threat to national security, according to the Afghan Tolo News outlet.
Afghanistan cannot continue to hold prisoners without evidence, said Faizi, Karzai's spokesman.
"We know that unfortunately this has been happening at Bagram, but it is illegal and a violation of Afghan sovereignty and we cannot allow this anymore," Faizi said.
The status of prisoners has been a main stumbling block in the negotiations with Karzai over a new Bilateral Security Agreement for the continued presence in Afghanistan of as many as 12,000 U.S. training, advisory and counter-terror troops after 2014, when all U.S. and coalition combat forces are scheduled to withdraw.
The White House and ISAF have warned Karzai that failure to reach a new BSA quickly could trigger the "zero option" -- an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and a cutoff of funding.
Karzai has dismissed the zero option warning as an "empty threat," and said a new BSA agreement could wait until after presidential elections scheduled for April.