Afghanistan: 'Change' at US-run prison camp?

December 9, 2009

US officials in Afghanistan have unveiled a "new" detention facility within the US military-run Bagram Airbase called the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFP).

Despite the new label, and a slight shift in location, the new detention facility will house even more detainees than Guantanamo Bay. It will continue to hold them in conditions contrary to international human rights law.

There are about 700 people held at Bagram, including 30 non-Afghans and five children. This number is approximate because the Obama administration refuses to release a comprehensive list of detainees.

There are three prisons within Bagram. There is the main prison, which will move to the DFP, a second run by a US special operations team, and a third, which is a CIA-run facility.

Not much is known about the last two.

Conditions within the main prison largely remain secret due to restrictions placed on visitors. For the first time, reporters were invited into Bagram to unveil the new facility, but they were unable to interview detainees or guards.

The only group that can gain access to the detainees at Bagram is the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, they do not publicly report their findings.

Former detainees, lawyers and whistleblowers have revealed that Bagram is a place of continual terror, torture and abuse. In 2002, two men were tortured to death.

Former detainees describe being held in stress positions, threatened with dogs, kicked and punched for hours at a time, being urinated on, being kept in small isolation cells, forced to live on dry biscuits and water for several weeks at a time, held in cold isolation cells, not allowed to pray or receive water for ablution, and subjected to sleep deprivation over prolonged periods.

The "new" prison has been built to change the international perception and to give the facility a "new face". Although the face has changed, detainees remain in the same legal limbo, thanks to Obama's continuation of Bush administration policy.

Detainees are still denied basic human rights. Earlier this year, US district judge John Bates ruled foreigners held in Bagram should be entitled to challenge their detention in US courts. In response to this, the Obama administration filed a memo claiming broad authority to indefinitely hold detainees under the Authorisation for Use of Military Force enacted by the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Pentagon issued a revised policy guideline soon after the case that labelled detainees "unlawful enemy belligerents" rather than "unlawful enemy combatants".

Detainees at Bagram have not been told the reasons for their detention, which is contrary to international law. Nor have they been given access to any meaningful review procedure.

The US government recently revealed new procedures for the determination of status, called a Detainee Review Board (DRB). These review boards are reminiscent of the Guantanamo Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), which have been shown to be farcical at best.

The new procedures are a slight improvement on the procedures under the old Unlawful Enemy Combatant Review Board.

Detainees will now be able to attend hearings within 60 days of being detained. There are improved notification procedures to explain the reason for detention and the evidence against detainees. Detainees will also be able to question government witnesses and provide their own.

A "personal representative" will also be available to help them during the proceedings.

However, many concerns still remain. Evidence used at the DRBs can be obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This is antithetical to the rule of law and concepts of justice.

The DRB is hardly independent and transparent. Those overseeing decisions are military officers.

While there is a provision for the detainee to call witnesses, in Guantanamo cases three quarters of all requests were denied and any witness can only be called at the "board president's discretion".

Detainees will still be unable to see all evidence against them. There remain provisions that exclude detainees from seeing "classified evidence". A whole case can be decided without the person even knowing the evidence against them.

There is also a lack of appeal process from an independent and impartial body.

One of the main concerns is that Bagram detainees still have no entitlement to legal representation.

Although they are now allowed a personal representative, these are not lawyers, but military personnel. This provision was enacted in the Guantanamo CSRTs, and found to be useless to the detainee seeking to clear their name.

In 78% of cases, the personal representative and detainee met only once, and for less than two hours.

There is also the problem of confidentiality, as the representative can relay any information said in confidence to the CSRT.

Under international law, any person detained must be held on the basis of a solid legal argument, backed up with credible and legally obtained evidence. However, due to the inbuilt procedural unfairness of the DRBs, the US will continue to hold people who should be freed.

Although some token changes have been made, the illegal and cruel treatment endured by those detained at Bagram continues. The Obama administration is not doing enough, and certainly is not complying with international protocols.

If Obama can accept a Nobel peace prize, he should ensure his country stops killing, torture, abuse and illegal detention.

[For more information about Bagram, see new reports released by Human Rights First entitled "Undue Process" and "Fixing Bagram" ( The reports highlight some of the treatment of concern and the continued legal issues facing the detainees.]

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