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January 15, 2008

Afghan Prison Looks Like Another Guantanamo


by William Fisher

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 Afghan guards.

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)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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