By William Fisher
Pressure is mounting on the U.S. Government to investigate reports that inmates from the notorious prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan have been moved to a second separate facility – known as the Tor Jail, which translates as "black jail" – where they say they were held in isolation in cold cells with a light on day and night and deprived of sleep by U.S. military personnel.
These reports have been confirmed by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which said that since August 2009 US authorities have been notifying it of names of detained people in a separate structure at Bagram.
Nine former prisoners have reported the abuses to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The men told “consistent” stories of being held in a separate building and suffering multiple abuses, the BBC said.
Vice Admiral Robert Harward, in charge of US detentions in Afghanistan, denied the existence of such a facility or abuses. He told the BBC that the main prison, now called the Detention Facility in Parwan, is the only detention facility on the base. However, he said the military would look into the abuse allegations.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that "The ICRC is being notified by the US authorities of detained people within 14 days of their arrest," a Red Cross spokesman said. "This has been routine practice since August 2009 and is a development welcomed by the ICRC."
Leading advocacy groups are increasing pressure on the Obama Administration to investigate the BBC reports.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said the alleged techniques “regardless of which administration employs them, constitute torture.”
Frank Donaghue, president of PHR, said, “The Obama administration must make good on its earlier statement that it would not use torture by fully investigating these allegations. Until it explicitly repudiates the use of these techniques, its commitment to human rights will remain in question.”
The organization said it is not yet clear under what authority, if any, the abusive techniques allegedly used at Bagram were approved, but it is possible that officials were relying on Appendix M of the 2006 Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations (AFM).
That appendix authorizes the use of two of the tactics -- sleep deprivation and isolation --allegedly being applied to detainees. The use of temperature manipulation is prohibited by the AFM. Since the release of the current AFM in September 2006, PHR has urged the military to rescind Appendix M.
“As long as Appendix M remains in effect, there is an asterisk next to the Obama administration’s claim that it does not authorize torture,” said John Bradshaw, PHR’s Washington Director.
He said, “Appendix M’s approval of sleep manipulation and isolation is a green light for the abuse of the health and human rights of detainees in US custody. The abuses allowed under Appendix M—and any others still practiced—must come to an end.”
Another advocacy group, Human Rights First (HRF), has also called on the U.S. government to answer the BBC’s allegations. In a letter to Vice-Admiral Harward, the organization pressed for answers to the allegations of abuse. It noted that to date “the U.S. government has consistently failed to respond to these serious accusations.”
"In addition to being reprehensible, abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan would also directly undermine U.S. strategic interests there, which depend upon the support and cooperation of the Afghan people and their government," said HRF’s Daphne Eviatar. "But beyond that, these latest reports, if true, suggest that the U.S. may also be in violation of its legal obligations to treat detainees humanely."
"We urge the government to investigate all allegations of abuse and to make the findings of such allegations public. Only by openly investigating and punishing such abuses will the United States be able to win the trust of the Afghan population, as well as American support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan," Eviatar said.
This is not the first time that such abuse allegations have surfaced. In November 2009, the Washington Post reported that teenagers arrested by U.S. authorities and held at the Bagram air base had similarly charged that they'd been beaten, sexually humiliated, deprived of sleep and held in isolation. At least two prisoners have died at Bagram since its opening.
In October 2008, HRF, in its “Blueprint for the Next Administration: How to End Torture and Cruel Treatment,” called on the incoming Obama administration to close secret prisons and end the practice of holding "ghost prisoners."
In a January 22, 2009 Executive Order, President Obama revoked the CIA's detention authority and required that the ICRC be given access to all armed conflict detainees, as required by international law. It remains unclear, however, how long after an arrest the ICRC is being permitted to meet with the detainees, and if they are being given access to all U.S.-run detention sites in Afghanistan.
In April 2009, In response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking the disclosure of documents related to the detention and treatment of prisoners at Bagram, the Defense Department released for the first time a list containing the names of 645 prisoners who were detained at Bagram. other vital information, including their citizenship, how long they had been held, in what country they were captured and the circumstances of their capture, was redacted.
Human rights advocates have a mixed record in their attempts to persuade the courts to grant customary due-process rights to Bagram detainees. In one of the earlier cases, involving four Bagram prisoners, Judge John D. Bates ruled that three of them - two Yemenis and one Tunisian - had the right to petition U.S. courts for their release.
But he also ruled that because the fourth prisoner, Haji Wazir, was a citizen of Afghanistan rather than a Yemeni or a Tunisian, granting him legal rights might upset the relationship between the US and Afghanistan. Judge Bates dismissed Wazir's petition.