The other Guantanamo

January 31, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo military prison closed within the year, but what about the detention centre in Bagram, the U.S. military base in Afghanistan, which has an equally murky legal status ?

An estimated 600 detainees are held there, without any charge and many for over six years, rights activists say. That makes it more than twice the number held in Guantanamo, and according to military personnel who know both facilities, it is much more spartan and with lesser privileges as this report in the New York Times says.

Few detainees have had access to lawyers, and there was no question ever of allowing journalists or human rights advocates into the facility. I lived on the military base for four weeks as part of a group of journalists covering the war in 2002 and we had no clue where the prison was located, and we would keep guessing which one of the cavernous Soviet-built aircraft hangars the detainees were kept in.

Since then, the New York Times says, the population at the Bagram prison has expanded substantially, especially after the Bush administration largely halted the movement of prisoners to the Cuban facility in September 2004, making the Afghan centre the preferred alternative.

Indeed there is a U.S. plan to expand the prison complex to hold 1,100 “enemy combatants” – prisoners who cannot see lawyers, have no trials and never see any evidence there may be against them, Britain’s Telegraph said. The one concession that has happened over the past year is that every Monday families gather in a Red Cross compound in Kabul for a glimpse by live video of brothers, sons and husbands who have disappeared into the feared detention centre in Bagram.

The U.S. military says the detainees are Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who must be kept off the battlefield. But human rights lawyers say the prison also holds scores of innocent people, many seized after tip-offs from feuding rivals in a viciously warring tribal society, as the Telegraph story says.

The question of Bagram becomes more vexed given that the new administration plans to step up combat operations in Afghanistan, which means there will be new waves of detainees.

Obama’s team is silent on its plans for Bagram, and there seems to be little likelihood of change at the prison, the Telegraph quotes Joanne Mariner, a lawyer and terrorism expert at Human Rights Watch, as saying.  “Right now they are expanding it, they are building a new facility. Clearly closing it isn’t on the agenda.”

One more challenge for Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he heads into the region next week?  Holbrooke faces a  “dim and dismal” situation in both countries as Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert, said in an interview with the Council for Foreign Relations. Any opening to the Afghan people or even the Pakistanis for that matter, would have to answer the question : how do you justify holding scores of people without any recourse to justice ?

[Reuters pictures of a protest against Guantanamo prison in Washington and U.S. soldiers at the Bagram air base]

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