By William Fisher
An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has revealed that former detainees at the U.S. Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with dogs.
The BBC’s conclusions are based on interviews with 27 former detainees who were held at Bagram between 2002 and 2006. None of these men were ever charged with a crime. Hundreds of detainees are still being held in U.S. custody at the Afghan prison without charge or trial.
Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told us, "The BBC investigation provides further confirmation of the United States' mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram. These abuses are the direct consequence of decisions made at the highest levels of the U.S. government to avoid the Geneva Convention and forsake the rule of law. For too long, the unlawful detention and mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram has gone on outside the public eye. Hopefully, this investigation will help change that."
"When prisoners are in American custody and under American control, no matter the location, our values and commitment to the rule of law are at stake," he said, adding:
"Torture and abuse at Bagram is further evidence that prisoner abuse in U.S. custody was systemic, not aberrational, and originated at the highest levels of government. We must learn the truth about what went wrong, hold the proper people accountable and make sure these failed policies are not continued or repeated."
In April, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram, including the number of people currently detained, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention. The ACLU is also seeking records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as "enemy combatants."
"The U.S. government's detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy," said Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney. "The American people have a right to know what's happening at Bagram and whether prisoners have been tortured there."
Amnesty International said it was 'shocked' by the Bagram claims. It noted that a new detention center is currently under construction at the camp.
Another prominent human rights organization, the U.K.-based Reprieve, called on the British Government to take action concerning two Pakistanis who it says the U.K. helped render there from Iraq.
“The legal black hole in Bagram underlines the British government’s moral black hole when it comes to rendering two Pakistani prisoners there in 2004,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve. “These men were in British custody in Iraq, were turned over to the U.S., and have now been held for five years without any respect for their legal rights.”
In February 2009, British Defense Secretary John Hutton announced to the House of Commons that Britain had handed two anonymous Pakistani men over to the U.S., and they had subsequently been rendered to Afghanistan, where they were still being held. “We have been assured that are held in a humane, safe and secure environment, meeting international standards consistent with cultural and religious norms,” Hutton said at the time.
“As we have said all along, beating people and holding them incommunicado is not humane, safe and secure,” Stafford Smith told us. “Britain has a moral duty to identify these men, so that we can reunite them with their legal rights, yet Mr. Hutton refuses to do this.”
No prisoner in Bagram has been allowed to see a lawyer, or challenge his detention. According to the BBC, the U.S. justice department argues that because Afghanistan is an active combat zone it is not possible to conduct rigorous inquiries into individual cases and that it would divert precious military resources at a crucial time.
“These men were never in Afghanistan until the UK and the US took them there,” said Stafford Smith. “It is the height of hypocrisy to take someone to Bagram and then claim that it is too dangerous to let them see a lawyer. Even Guantánamo Bay is better than this.”
The Pentagon has denied the BBC’s charges of harsh treatment and insisted that all inmates in the facility are treated humanely.
The Bagram Airbase built by the Soviet military in the 1980s. The approximately 600 people held there are classified as "unlawful enemy combatants.' None was charged with any offence or put on trial -- some even received apologies when they were released.
Many allegations of ill-treatment appear repeatedly in the BBC interviews: physical abuse, the use of stress positions, excessive heat or cold, unbearably loud noise, being forced to remove clothes in front of female soldiers.
In four cases detainees were threatened with death at gunpoint.
"They did things that you would not do against animals let alone to humans," said one inmate.
"They poured cold water on you in winter and hot water in summer. They used dogs against us. They put a pistol or a gun to your head and threatened you with death," he said.
"They put some kind of medicine in the juice or water to make you sleepless and then they would interrogate you."
The BBC said its findings were shown to the Pentagon. Lt Col Mark Wright, a spokesman for the US Secretary of Defense, insisted that conditions at Bagram "meet international standards for care and custody". He said the US Defense Department has a policy of treating detainees humanely.
But he acknowledged that "There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions in those cases."
Since coming to office, US President Barack Obama has banned the use of torture and ordered a review of policy on detainees, which is expected to report next month. But unlike its detainees at the US naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the prisoners at Bagram have no access to lawyers and they cannot challenge their detention.