As the world marks the sixth anniversary of the
arrival of the first orange-jumpsuit-clad prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human rights groups are attempting to focus public and
congressional scrutiny on what some are calling "the other Gitmo."
It is a prison located on the U.S. military base in the ancient city of Bagram
near Charikar in Parvan, Afghanistan. The detention center was set up by the
U.S. military as a temporary screening site after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan
overthrew the Taliban. It currently houses some 630 prisoners close to
three times as many as are still held at Guantanamo.
In 2005, following well-documented accounts of detainee deaths, torture, and
"disappeared" prisoners, the U.S. undertook efforts to turn the facility
over to the Afghan government. But thanks to a series of legal, bureaucratic,
and administrative missteps, the prison is still under U.S. military control.
And a recent confidential report from the International Committee of the Red
Cross (ICRC) has reportedly complained about the continued mistreatment of prisoners.
The ICRC report is said to cite massive overcrowding, "harsh" conditions,
lack of clarity about the legal basis for detention, prisoners held "incommunicado,"
in "a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells," and "sometimes
subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions." Some
prisoners have been held without charges or lawyers for more than five years.
According to Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), "Bagram
appears to be just as bad, if not worse, than Guantanamo. When a prisoner is
in American custody and under American control, our values are at stake and
our commitment to the rule of law is tested."
She told IPS, "The abuses cited by the Red Cross give us cause for concern
that we may be failing the test. The George W. Bush administration is not content
to limit its regime of illegal detention to Guantanamo, and has tried to foist
it on Afghanistan."
The problems at Bagram burst into the headlines in 2005, after the New York
Times obtained a 2,000-page U.S. Army report concerning the deaths of two
unarmed civilian Afghani prisoners guarded by U.S. armed forces in 2002.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan initially said the deaths were from
natural causes. Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, the commander of allied forces in
Afghanistan at the time, denied then that prisoners had been chained to the
ceiling or that conditions at Bagram endangered the lives of prisoners.
But after an investigation by the New York Times, the Army acknowledged
that the deaths were homicides. The prisoners were chained to the ceiling and
beaten, causing their deaths. Military coroners ruled that both the prisoners'
deaths were homicide.
Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both prisoners' legs, describing the trauma
as comparable to being run over by a bus. Last fall, Army investigators implicated
28 soldiers and reservists and recommended that they face criminal charges,
including negligent homicide.
The U.S. military has spent more than $30 million to build an Afghan prison
outside Kabul that meets international humane treatment standards and has trained
But the number of detainees keeps growing, due to the intensifying combat in
Afghanistan. One result is that there is room for only about half the prisoners
the U.S. originally planned to put in the new detention center.
Efforts to transfer Bagram's 630-plus prisoners to Afghan control have run
into myriad other problems. First, there were turf battles between the different
ministries of the Afghan government. Then Afghan officials rejected pressure
from Washington to adopt a detention system modeled on the Bush administration's
"enemy combatant" legal framework, with military commissions such
as those at Guantánamo.
The ACLU's Shamsi says that, "While conditions at Bagram have improved,
at least since the universal revulsion at the revelations of Abu Ghraib and
Congress' passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the tragic mistakes
of the past may be in danger of repetition."
She also raises the possibility that there may be prisoners in Afghanistan
who are not "Department of Defense detainees," as one Pentagon official
has referred to them, but are instead held by the CIA or another civilian agency.
"We know that the CIA was holding 'ghost prisoners' prisoners held
in secret, hidden from the Red Cross at a secret facility called the
'Salt Pit' in Afghanistan," Shamsi says. She notes that the administration
has never renounced the CIA's illegal secret detention and interrogation program
that President Bush revealed in September 2006. She adds concern that Special
Operations forces may not be following Department of Defense directives on the
registration of prisoners.
According to Shamsi, "It is clear that another lesson from the torture
scandal seems to have been ignored: different rules for different agencies and
different prisoners are an invitation to abuse."
The situation at Bagram has been largely overshadowed by the continuing controversy
surrounding Guantanamo. Just last week, a U.S. appeals court ruled that four
former Guantanamo prisoners, all British citizens, have no right to sue top
Pentagon officials and military officers for torture, abuse, and violations
of their religious rights. The four who brought the lawsuit were released from
Guantanamo in 2004 after being held for more than two years. The suit sought
$10 million in damages and named then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and
10 military commanders.
The men claimed they were subjected to various forms of torture, harassed as
they practiced their religion, and forced to shave their religious beards. In
one instance, a guard threw a Koran in a toilet bucket, according to the lawsuit.
The appeals court cited a lack of jurisdiction over the lawsuit, ruled the
defendants enjoyed qualified immunity for acts taken within the scope of their
government jobs, and held the religious right law did not apply to the detainees.
Eric Lewis, the attorney who argued the case for the detainees, vowed to appeal
to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It is an awful day for the rule of law and common decency when a court
finds that torture is all in a days' work for the secretary of defense and senior
generals," Lewis said.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional
Rights, expressed disappointment that the appeals court failed to hold "Rumsfeld
and the chain of command accountable for torture at Guantanamo."
Guantanamo and Bagram have been virtually ignored by candidates for the 2008
presidential nomination. One exception is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee,
who acknowledged that Guantanamo has become a damaging symbol for the United
States and is "not in our best interests."
President Bush has said he would like to close Guantanamo, but he has taken
no action to do so. In June 2007, Bush's former Secretary of State Colin Powell
said, "If it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo not tomorrow,
this afternoon," explaining that "we have shaken the belief that the
world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open."
And Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reportedly pushed to close the facility
because he felt it had "become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings
at Guantanamo would be viewed as illegitimate."
(Inter Press Service)