A Bagram betrayal

August 19, 2009

clivestaffordsmith– Clive Stafford Smith is the director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners. The opinions expressed are his own. –

As the British death toll climbed above 200 in Afghanistan this week, it became clearer that the politicians were betraying the soldiers who they were sending to fight and die.

The government talks about winning the battle for “hearts and minds” in Helmand Province – apparently oblivious to the loaded history of that phrase. This was the mantra of those who wasted 50,000 American lives in a futile battle to impose democracy at the end of a gun barrel in Vietnam.

Napalm never won an election, and nobody can expect an Afghan to warm to the rule of law when he witnesses his people being locked up in Bagram Air Force Base every day — abused and held without trial for years in Guantanamo’s evil twin. Bagram already holds three times as many prisoners as the Cuban black hole, and $50 million is being spent on a new prison that will add another 1,100 cells.

Captain Kirk Black, an American soldier I met in Guantanamo Bay, is now stationed in the dusty backroad of Afghanistan. He e-mailed, asking Reprieve to represent Gul Khan, a local sheep farmer who had been locked up in Bagram in error. He said that if we could bring justice to an Afghan peasant, then he and his platoon would be a little bit safer. Gul Khan is now back with his flock, and I hope Capt. Black gets credit for his release.

Conversely, British politicians are endangering the lives of soldiers when they conspire with their American allies to perpetuate injustice in Bagram. This, ultimately, is the headline of the latest litigation we announced yesterday.

The background facts show Britain’s complicity in another illegal act of rendition. In 2004, the British arrested two men in Iraq, and turned them over to the Americans, who took them to Bagram. The men remain there to this day, daily abused and divorced from the most basic due process.

This was kept secret for five years. Only in February 2009 did John Hutton apologize to Parliament, admitting that Britain knew about this illegal rendition at the time. The transfer to Bagram had been necessary, he said, because the two men were Pakistani: the implication was that there were no translators in Iraq since they spoke Urdu.

Assuming him to be sincere, I wrote asking for details about the prisoners, so that we could reunite them with their legal rights. Three months later, I finally received a reply: To tell us the men’s names would violate their rights under the Data Protection Act.

Here is a government that leaves your private details littered over the national rail network, but when they want to cover up a crime suddenly the Data Protection Act swings into action. (Presumably, next time the mafia kidnaps you, Don Corleone will assert a legal duty not to reveal where you are being held.)

It is not easy to identify someone who is in a secret prison like Bagram, but we have located a prisoner, recently released, who was able to fill in a few details. He recalled the two men coming from Iraq. He could not remember their full names, but the man he called Saifullah spoke perfect English. The other, Salah Din, spoke Arabic, but suffered from a serious mental illness thanks to the abuse he had been through.

But we can’t help them until we know their real names, and are able to contact their families for authorization.

Bob Ainsworth has taken over Hutton’s job. Now he faces a simple choice: He can do right, or he can do wrong. What he cannot do is tell young British soldiers to fight and die for the rule of law, while simultaneously stabbing them in the back by promoting injustice in Afghanistan.

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