NEW YORK - As last week marked the sixth
anniversary of the arrival of the first
orange-jumpsuit-clad prisoners at the US naval
base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human-rights
organizations are attempting to focus public and
congressional scrutiny on what some are calling
"the other Gitmo".
This is a prison
located on the US military base in the ancient
city of Bagram near Charikar in Parvan,
Afghanistan. The detention center was set up by
the US military as a temporary screening site
after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan overthrew
the Taliban. It
currently houses about 630
prisoners - close to three times as many as are
still held at Guantanamo.
following well-documented accounts of detainee
deaths, torture and "disappeared" prisoners, the
US 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 American 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. The Red Cross
said dozens of prisoners have been held
incommunicado for weeks or even months, hidden
from prison inspectors.
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 us, "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."
"Both Congress and the executive branch need to
investigate what's happening at Bagram if we are
to avoid a tragic repetition of history."
The problems at Bagram burst into the
headlines in 2005, after the New York Times
obtained a 2,000-page US Army report concerning
the deaths of two unarmed civilian Afghani
prisoners guarded by US armed forces in 2002.
American military officials in Afghanistan
initially said the deaths were from natural
causes. Lieutenant General Daniel K McNeill, the
American 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
autumn, army investigators implicated 28 soldiers
and reservists and recommended that they face
criminal charges, including negligent homicide.
The US 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 US originally planned to put in
the new detention center.
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
The ACLU's Shamsi says,
"While conditions at Bagram have improved, at
least since the universal revulsion at the
revelations of Abu Ghraib [in Iraq] and Congress'
passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the
tragic mistakes of the past may be in danger of
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 Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA)or another civilian
agency. Abu Ghraib "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. She
notes that the administration has never renounced
the CIA's illegal secret detention and
interrogation program that 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. Abu Ghraib 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." Abu Ghraib The situation at
Bagram has been largely overshadowed by the
continuing controversy surrounding Guantanamo.
Just last week, a US appeals court ruled that four
former Guantanamo prisoners, all British citizens,
had 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
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.
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 US
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 day's 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".
Bush has said he would like to close
Guantanamo, but 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."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reportedly
pushed to close the facility because he feels the
facility had "become so tainted abroad that legal
proceedings at Guantanamo would be viewed as
has managed economic development programs for the
US State Department and the US Agency for
International Development in the Middle East,
Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years.
He served in the administration of president John