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Bagram Prison: The new Guantanamo

Hypocritical Obama denies the detainees’ rights he once championed; torture and ‘renditions’ continue.
Julien Mercille

Waiting for some dudes in orange jump suits: A US soldier stands guard next to beds with folded prayer mats and headwear in a common cell during a media tour of Bagram prison in November
Waiting for some dudes in orange jump suits: A US soldier stands guard next to beds with folded prayer mats and headwear in a common cell during a media tour of Bagram prison in November

When Obama came to power last year, he pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo within one year, by January 2010. Not only did he fail to do that, but he has also maintained a second similar prison in Afghanistan, at Bagram Air Base, near Kabul. Bagram prison was set up in 2002 and today it holds, without charge, about 700 detainees, by comparison with about 200 at Guantanamo. A $60 million extension is now underway to upgrade Bagram, which will enable the facility to hold up to 1,000 prisoners. US military prosecutor Stuart Couch was given access to the two US-run facilities and he found Bagram to be even worse than Guantanamo, “In my view, having visited Guantanamo several times, the Bagram facility made Guantanamo look like a nice hotel”, he said. The conditions of confinement at Bagram are reportedly brutal. In 2002 two Afghan prisoners were beaten to death by US troops. An investigation by the BBC revealed that former detainees at Bagram were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with dogs. Some inmates were reportedly raped with sticks or threatened with anal sex.


Since Bagram prison first came into operation, none of the detainees there have been classified as ‘prisoners of war’ (which would have given them rights under the Geneva Conventions), but as ‘enemy combatants’, a legal trick giving them no rights whatsoever. The Obama administration has resisted giving detainees at Bagram the rights they are entitled to. This is best illustrated by Obama’s rejection of their right of habeas corpus to challenge their detention without charge, in courts. This right was given by the US Supreme Court to inmates at Guantanamo in August 2008 in a case called Boumediene v. Bush. Since then a number of Guantanamo inmates have taken advantage of this ruling to successfully challenge their detention. Welcoming the decision, on the campaign trail against John McCain, Obama noted there was “a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus”. In April 2009 a US judge ruled that some of the Bagram prisoners (those who don’t come from Afghanistan) also had habeas corpus rights.

So how did Obama react to this important decision? Just like the Bush administration, he has opposed it: Obama doesn’t want Bagram prisoners to be able to challenge their detention. His Department of Justice appealed the decision last September, noting, “Habeas rights under the US Constitution do not extend to enemy aliens detained in the active war zone at Bagram”. If Obama’s position prevails the US could ship detainees from, say, Thailand to Bagram, where they won’t be able to challenge their detention; but if they are shipped to Guantanamo instead, they will be able to do so. So it’s easy to see how Obama will be able to circumvent the law applying to Guantanamo. One needs to ask what is the point of closing Guantanamo if all of its bad features − like indefinite detentions with no trials − will be preserved and simply moved to Bagram? Those worries are exacerbated by the fact that Obama has announced he would continue the Bush policy of ‘rendition’, meaning abducting people from around the world and shipping them off to third countries with no legal process where they can be tortured without breaking US law. The danger is evident, by shipping them to Bagram they will be denied all of the rights which they would have if sent to Guantanamo.

In addition to all that, it has been reported that the US military maintains a ‘black site’ prison at Bagram, separate from the main prison. Evidence of torture at this site was recently reported by the New York Times and Washington Post, but the US government has apparently not pursued further investigations. The administration of Bagram prison will soon be taken over by the Afghan government from the US. What does this mean for detainees? Given the many reports of arbitrary arrest, torture, and other mistreatment by Afghan security forces, the situation is not reassuring. In fact, neither the Afghan government nor US/NATO forces is notably trustworthy − so it seems that, once again, it will be up to vociferous progressives around the world to seek action if there is to be any hope for change.