Worse than GuantanamoPosted: February 9, 2009
Obama may be closing Guantanamo Bay, but Bagram, the granddaddy of US terror camps, is expanding
Two and a half years ago, a grudge festered in a sleepy hamlet in eastern Afghanistan. Under a midday sun, American soldiers came to seize Musakhil Gahfor. According to his younger brother, an angry neighbour had tipped them off that Musakhil was stockpiling weapons. They found nothing but took their man anyway. It was the last his family would hear of him for five months.
Musakhil disappeared into Bagram Theatre Internment Facility – a US prison notorious for the interrogation techniques pioneered there and the subsequent torture and death of men in custody. American soldiers who served there would export what they learned to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Twice the size of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram is the granddaddy of US terror camps.
Musakhil is still languishing in Bagram. Word first came to his family of his whereabouts via the Red Cross, which traces the families of detainees and puts them back in touch. His younger brother Abdul has visited the organisation’s compound in Kabul every two months to register for a 20-minute video-call – which, until last September, was as much contact as the US allowed. Access is increasing, with some relatives now able to visit the prison in person.
Human rights campaigners concede that conditions inside the prison have improved since Bagram’s nadir around 2002. But a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross leaked last year maintained that conditions were still “harsh”, that prisoners were held in “a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells” and “sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions”.
Most important, while President Obama has eagerly announced his intention to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, Bagram, where conditions are generally reported by former detainees to be worse than at Guantanamo, is actually being expanded.
Mullah Abdul Zaeef, who was Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2000 until 2001, when the Taliban were in power in Kabul, spent a month in Bagram before being transported to detention facilities in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Bagram was the worst, he said. “On the first day they beat me with sticks and guns and their feet and they broke my head and my shoulder,” he told The First Post. Zaeef also claims that the guards stripped him naked and threw him into the snow until he lost consciousness. At no point was he offered medical attention.
Former detainees may have much to gain by exaggeration, but the treatment Zaeef says he received is nothing compared with cases documented by the US military itself. Two detainees died in custody in 2002 after being hung by their arms from the ceiling and beaten so severely that their legs would have needed amputating had they survived, according to a leaked army report. The death certificate for one of the men put cause of death as homicide. At least seven other prisoners have been murdered in US detention facilities in Afghanistan.
Zaeef, who says he has renounced his links with the Taliban and now leads a quiet life in Kabul, is unmoved by President Obama’s order to close Guantanamo. “If Obama really wants justice, closing Guantanamo is not enough. Obama must investigate and ask why did the Americans break the law for seven years? Why did they torture people? Why did they deprive them of their human rights?” he said. “In Bagram it is the same problem.”
The US military argues it must hold men who might return to the battlefield to fight American soldiers. Under President Bush, the US Justice Department said: “Bagram is so much a part of ongoing military operations that there simply is no role for US courts to play.” Even as Guantanamo winds down, Bagram’s capacity is being almost doubled to hold 1,100 illegal enemy combatants. And the US has also built and funded the new Afghan National Detention Facility – known by its detainees as ‘Guantanamo’.
According to human rights lawyer Cori Crider, who works for the London-based law firm Reprieve, “This is part of the jurisdictional dance the military engaged in after habeas jurisdiction – and by extension access to lawyers – was found to run to Guantanamo.” Crider told The First Post: “The military are, in essence, attempting to put smokescreens between them and their prisoners so as to be able to say: ‘US Court, don’t look here, this is an Afghan prison’.”
Musakhil Gahfor’s brother said he did not hate the Americans for taking his brother, whom he insists is innocent. But there is a growing argument – from former detainees, human rights campaigners and even western diplomats – that the abuses taking place at detention facilities across Afghanistan have inspired extremists and fuelled the insurgency they were intended to contain.