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Afghanistan to free 72 detainees

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 9:03 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government said on Thursday it will release 72 high-profile detainees, a decision that defies pleas by U.S. officials and deals a blow to U.S.-Afghan relations just as the two countries attempt to complete a long-term security agreement.

U.S. officials say the prisoners pose a threat to both Afghan security and American service members based here, claiming their exoneration proves not only the dysfunction of the Afghan judiciary, but also the government's inability to cooperate on even the gravest matters.

President Hamid Karzai declared that the evidence against the 72 men — which had been collected by both the Afghan intelligence service and the U.S. military — was insufficient to warrant formal trials, according to a statement from the presidential palace.

The release, which is expected within days, was ordered after a “thorough and serious review of the prisoners,” the statement said.

In an attempt to keep the detainees behind bars, U.S. officials had handed over reams of evidence against them — enough, they said they assumed, to at least justify formal trials.

But presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said Karzai and a panel of senior officials had decided that was not the case. “The Americans didn't have any proof against them,” Faizi said.

Bilateral relations, tense before the prisoner release, are expected to worsen, casting doubt on a pact that would permit U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond this year.

During a visit to Kabul last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the release “would have an unbelievably negative impact” on U.S.-Afghan relations and would prompt “a backlash in the U.S. Congress.”

U.S. military officials said at the time that the decision would fly in the face of a 12-year effort to bolster the Afghan legal system. The prisoners were transferred to Afghan custody last year, a move intended to show confidence in the Afghan judiciary.

“Release of these individuals by the Afghan Review Board undermines Afghan rule of law, because the Afghan people do not get their day in court,” said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force.

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