By William Fisher
After years of stonewalling, the U.S. Defense Department has released the names of people imprisoned at the notorious Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Made available in response to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, the list contains the names of 645 prisoners who were detained at Bagram as of September 2009.
But the government blacked-out other vital information requested by the civil rights group -- including prisoners’ citizenship, length of detention, country where captured, and circumstances of capture.
The government’s previous position was that the public had no right to have this information.
Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said, “Releasing the names of those held at Bagram is an important step toward transparency and accountability at the secretive Bagram prison, but it is just a first step. Hundreds of people have languished at Bagram for years in horrid and abusive conditions, without even being told why they’re detained or given a fair chance to argue for release.”
But she added, “The information the government continues to withhold is just as vital as the names of prisoners. Full transparency and accountability” about Bagram requires full disclosure. “The public has long been kept in the dark about what goes on at Bagram. It is time to shine a bright light on the secretive prison.”
It was not clear whether the names of those released also included those held in field detention sites around the country where some detainees are taken initially before being placed in the general detainee population.
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records relating to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in April 2009.
When documents were not forthcoming, the ACLU filed the FOIA lawsuit in September 2009, seeking the disclosure of documents related to the detention and treatment of prisoners at Bagram, records relating to the rules and agreements that govern the facility, and documents pertaining to the conditions of confinement and status review process afforded prisoners.
The U.S. government's Bagram detention facility has been the focus of widespread media attention and public concern for many years, but very little information has been publicly available about the secrecy-shrouded facility or the prisoners held there. The U.S. government has been detaining a previously-unknown number of prisoners at the facility since 2002. Some have been held for as long as six years without access to counsel or a meaningful opportunity to challenge their imprisonment.
The conditions of confinement at Bagram are reportedly primitive, with allegations of mistreatment and abuse continuing to surface; in fact, in 2002, two Afghan prisoners at Bagram were fatally beaten by US troops.
The US military has recently built a modern new prison to take the place of the dilapidated and inefficient original unit. The Americans are in the process of handing management of this new facility over to the Afghan authorities.
Nonetheless, there is growing public concern in the U.S. and around the world that Bagram has become, in effect, the new Guantánamo.
Former detainees have described abusive treatment at the base, especially in the first two or three years it was in existence. But in the last several years, detainees who have been released described improved conditions.
While the majority of the detainees at Bagram are Afghan, a small number are foreigners who are accused of fighting with the Taliban. Also held there are a handful of detainees captured in other countries, according to human rights lawyers and military detention officials. The current detainee population is about 750, according to military detention officials, but in September, when the information request was made, there were about 100 fewer detainees. The numbers have grown over the past few months because of the increased military operations by American forces.
An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has revealed that former detainees at Bagram were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with dogs.
Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told IPS, "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.”
The Obama Administration has sought to deflect some of the heat it is getting from civil rights organizations and legal experts over its management of Bagram. For example, it recently announced a set of new procedures for conducting periodic assessments of the status of each prisoner.
But, according to Tina Monshipour Foster, Executive Director of the International Justice Network – the only US organization actively litigating on behalf of Bagram detainees – “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. 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.“
She told IPS, “Only a lawyer who is independent from the government can effectively assist a detainee with his defense against allegations being made by the government.“
The Pentagon denied the BBC’s charges of harsh treatment and insisted that all inmates in the facility are treated humanely.
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.
“These men were never in Afghanistan until the UK and the US took them there,” Stafford Smith told IPS. “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.”
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.
In April 2009, in a lawsuit brought in federal court by the International Justice Network, Judge John D. Bates ruled that three Bagram prisoners -- two Yemenis and one Tunisian citizen – had the right to petition U.S. courts for their release because they were not Afghans captured on the Afghan battlefield.
But he also ruled that for a fourth appellant, a citizen of Afghanistan, rather than a Yemeni or Tunisian citizen held at Bagram, granting him legal rights might upset the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Judge Bates dismissed the petition of Haji Wazir, an Afghan civilian held at Bagram without charge for more than six years. The judge ruled that because the petitioner was a citizen of Afghanistan, he had no right to petition the US courts for his release.
Afghan government sources have said prisoners will have a right to appeal their detentions once the US transfers its authority.