By William Fisher
Human rights activists and legal experts reacted swiftly today to disclosures that the U.S. Government is planning to introduce new measures they claim would give inmates at Afghanistan’s notorious Bagram prison more opportunities to challenge their detention.
Their views range from cautious optimism to total condemnation.
There are some 600-plus prisoners being held at the U.S. military facility near Kabul. Some have been held for years without lawyers or any charge filed against them. There have been many allegations involving the torture of prisoners. Critics also charge that President Barack Obama has been turning Bagram into a new Guantanamo, since terror suspects are no longer being sent to GITMO because of plans to close it in January.
The new guidelines expected to be issued by the Defense Department (DOD) would assign a United States non-lawyer military official to each detainee. They would be tasked to gather exculpatory witnesses and evidence to present before review boards to be appointed by the U.S. military.
Currently, these detainees – some of whom have been imprisoned for more than six years – do not have access to lawyers and have no right to hear the allegations against them. Their status as “enemy combatants” is theoretically reviewed periodically by military panels, but critics say these reviews are incomplete, prejudiced and ineffective.
Tina Monshipour Foster, Executive Director of the International Justice Network (IJN), a legal advocacy group that represents four Bagram detainees in a pending federal court case, called the proposed changes “a step in the wrong direction.”
She told us, “No set of procedures will have legitimacy until there is transparency and accountability for any violations of the military's own rules. Preventing the accused from having contact with his lawyer is antithetical to any legitimate system of justice.”
She said the first step should be to allow the detainees access to actual lawyers. Anything less, she added, “only invites rule-breaking, and casts doubt over the legitimacy of any proceedings that may be going on behind closed doors.”
“The ‘new’ procedures adopted by the Obama administration are not new at all; they appear to be exactly the same as the procedures created by the Bush administration in response to prior court challenges by Guantanamo detainees,” she said.
“The idea of assigning a non-lawyer 'personal representative' who does not legally represent the detainee, but works for the military, is a step in the wrong direction. We already know that this doesn't result in fair proceedings from the failed experiment at Guantanamo -- called the "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" (CSRTs) -- which the Supreme Court found were wholly inadequate and failed to provide a meaningful opportunity for the detainees to challenge the legality of their detention.”
A more hopeful note was struck by Sahr MuhammedAlly, Senior Associate for Law and Security at Human Rights First, who has interviewed several former Bagram detainees. She told us, “These new procedures appear to be an improvement from the current review regime which a U.S. district court found far worse than the discredited review procedures in Guantanamo.”
But she was quick to add that “Given the lessons learned from Guantanamo, it is important that detention review procedures in Bagram must provide detainees a legal representative to ensure a meaningful mechanism for detainees to challenge their detention which the new procedures don't provide.”
She said, “It is equally important to improve the reliability of information leading to capture of an individual in order to mitigate the risks of erroneous detentions, which the new procedures do not address.” She called for independent, public monitoring of the implementation of the new procedures in order to assess their effectiveness.
David Frakt, a law professor at Western State University and former Guantanamo defense counsel, was skeptical that the Administration’s new rules would work.
He told us, “The administration’s proposal to provide greater rights to detainees at Bagram reminds me of the Bush Administration’s woefully inadequate Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) process for detainees at Guantanamo, which has been suspended by the Obama Administration after serious criticism by the Supreme Court….”
He said, “The most obvious flaw with the proposed process is the failure to provide counsel to the detainees. Instead, the administration proposes to assign officers with no special expertise to serve as the detainees’ representative. This model was a complete failure for the CSRTs and should not be repeated.”
He added,” It is simply unrealistic to expect non-lawyers to zealously advocate on behalf of the detainees, or to be effective in gathering witnesses and evidence to challenge the lawfulness of the detention.”
In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking the Obama administration to make public records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram. The government has not yet turned over the records.
Melissa Goodman, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said that while she found the proposed new guidelines “encouraging,” she remains concerned about the level of secrecy that surrounds Bagram.
“The public remains uninformed of basic facts such as who is imprisoned there, how long they have been held, where they were captured and on what grounds they are being subjected to indefinite detention. The government should make public documents that could shed light on this crucial information about the detention and treatment of prisoners at Bagram,” she said.
Chip Pitts, a lecturer at the Stanford University law school and president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, also expressed skepticism. He told us, “whatever the new rules say, it’s crucial that they distinguish between classical and legitimate conflicts where the rules of war apply, and the continuing attempt to encompass all counterterrorism within the illegitimate, overbroad, so-called ‘war on terror’ framework that wrongly disregards fundamental rights of civilians who are not active on actual battlefields.”
While it is unclear how soon the Pentagon’s new guidelines will be implemented – largely because of lack of personnel -- they appear to have been announced with some sense of urgency. The probable reason is that the Obama administration is preparing to appeal a federal judge’s ruling in April that some Bagram prisoners brought in from outside Afghanistan have a right to challenge their imprisonment.
In that decision, a federal district judge, John D. Bates, ruled that three detainees at Bagram had the same legal rights that the Supreme Court last year granted to prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay because they were captured outside Afghanistan and taken to Bagram, where they have been held for more than six years without trials.
The two Yemenis and a Tunisian want a civilian judge to review the evidence against them and order their release, under the constitutional right of habeas corpus.
Chip Pitts supports their position. He told us,“ Judge Bates’ decision laudably made that distinction and, rather than fight it, the Obama administration should take the opportunity to restore sensible and moral rules in keeping with nearly a millennium of legal evolution. These would recognize that civilians have a right to habeas corpus, that combatants on true battlefield situations have a right to article V hearings under the Geneva Conventions, and that places like Bagram shouldn’t be manipulated to simply form new Guantanamos or law-free zones.”