Thursday, January 21, 2010

BAGRAM: US Releases Prisoners’ Names

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.


By William Fisher

Is the administration of President Barack Obama concealing evidence suggesting that three suicides at Guantanamo Bay were not suicides at all?

That is a question human rights groups, legal experts and national security specialists are pondering on the heels of an article in Harper’s Magazine by Scott Horton presenting whistleblower testimony suggesting that the three dead prisoners likely suffered particularly abusive interrogations in a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died, and their deaths were then passed off as suicides by the Bush Administration.

Horton presents new evidence from then-Sergeant Joe Hickman, a whistleblower formerly stationed in Guantánamo, that the three dead prisoners were taken to a remote corner of the base in the hours before they died. There they were tortured, GITMO officials came up with the suicide cover, and the Bush Administration capitalized on the panic by ordering further abuse of prisoners, and by spreading self-serving and poisonous lies about the dead men, adding to their families’ distress.

Horton says that President Obama’s Justice Department has refused to fully investigate the incident.

Clara Gutteridge, who is a secret prisons investigator for the London-based legal advocacy group Reprieve, said, "Scott Horton’s investigation indicates that, as usual, Guantánamo’s traumatised prisoners are telling the truth about their treatment. According to our clients, in addition to the secret CIA facility -- and another house on the base where some prisoners were taken to be held in solitary confinement -- there was also a black site run by US marines on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. It was located outside the main prison, and was known amongst the prisoners as a place where people were taken to be 'broken.' When will these prisoner’s testimonies finally be taken seriously? And when will the perpetrators of these terrible crimes finally face justice?"

George Brent Mickum IV, an attorney who is currently handling a number of Guantanamo cases, told IPS, “There have been 100 deaths of detainees since 2006. Thirty-six of these have been declared homicides. Only one case has ever been prosecuted. The probable reason: The CIA is responsible for these deaths."

According to the US Navy, Gitmo detainees Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani were found hanged in their cells on June 9. 2006. The US military initially described their deaths as "asymmetrical warfare" against the United States, before finally declaring that the deaths were suicides that the inmates coordinated among themselves.

But a report from Seton Hall University Law School, released last fall, cast
doubt on almost every element of the US military's story. It questioned, for
example, how it would have been possible for the three detainees to have stuffed rags down their throats and then, while choking, managed to raise themselves up to a noose and hang themselves.

The report stated: “There is no explanation of how each of the detainees, much less all three, could have done the following: braided a noose by tearing up his sheets and/or clothing, made a mannequin of himself so it would appear to the guards he was asleep in his cell, hung sheets to block vision into the cell—a violation of Standard Operating Procedures, tied his feet together, tied his hands together, hung the noose from the metal mesh of the cell wall and/or ceiling, climbed up on to the sink, put the noose around his neck and released his weight to result in death by strangulation, hanged until dead and hung for at least two hours completely unnoticed by guards.”

Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman told Harper's magazine that he was made aware of the existence of a secret detention center at Guantanamo, nicknamed by some of the guards "Camp No," because "No, it doesn't exist."

According to Hickman, it was generally believed among camp guards that the facility was used by the CIA.

Hickman also said there was a van on site, referred to as the "paddy wagon,"
which was allowed to come in and out of the main detention area without going through the usual inspection. On the night of the three detainees' deaths, Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon leave the area where the three were being detained and head off in the direction of Camp No. The paddy wagon, which can carry only one prisoner at a time in a cage in the back, reportedly made the trip three times.

Hickman says he saw the paddy wagon return and go directly to the medical
center. Shortly after, a senior non-commissioned officer, whose name Hickman didn't know, ordered him to convey a code word to a petty officer. When he did, the petty officer ran off in a panic.

Both Hickman and Specialist Tony Davila told Harper's that they had been told, initially, that three men died as a result of having rags stuffed down their throats. And in a truly strange turn of events, the whistleblowers say that -- even though by the next morning it had become "common knowledge" that the men had died of suicide by stuffing rags down their own throats -- the camp commander, Col. Michael Bumgarner, told the guards that the media would "report something different."

According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. This was a surprise to no one—even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags.

But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes. (Bumgarner has not responded to requests for comment.)

Scott Horton of Harper's reports: "The presence of a black site at Guantánamo has long been a subject of speculation among lawyers and human-rights activists, and the experience of Sergeant Hickman and other Guantánamo guards compels us to ask whether the three prisoners who
died on June 9 were being interrogated by the CIA, and whether their deaths
resulted from the grueling techniques the Justice Department had approved for the agency’s use—or from other tortures lacking that sanction."

Two of the dead prisoners were plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the deceased and their families, Al-Zahrani v. Rumsfeld.

CCR Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, lead counsel in the civil case surrounding the deaths, which charges the government and 24 federal officials with responsibility for the abuse and wrongful death of the deceased, said, "President Obama’s Department of Justice has tried to keep our case out of the courts, beyond the reach of the legal system and any oversight or accountability. It is critical that the full story of how our clients died and who was responsible be brought to light in open court before an impartial judge. Serious gaps and questions remain, more than three years after the deaths."