As the world last week marked the sixth anniversary of the arrival of the first orange-jumpsuit-clad prisoners at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, human rights organizations are attempting to focus public and congressional scrutiny on what some are calling “the other GITMO.”
The “Other GITMO” is a prison located on the U.S. military base at base in the ancient city of Bagram near Charikar in Parvan, Afghanistan. The detention center was set up by the U.S. military as a temporary screening site after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban. It currently houses some 630 prisoners –close to three times as many as are still held at Guantanamo.
In 2005, following well-documented accounts of detainee deaths, torture, and “disappeared” prisoners, the U.S. undertook efforts to turn the facility over to the Afghan Government. But, thanks to a series of legal, bureaucratic and administrative missteps, the prison is still under American military control. And a recent confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reportedly complained about the continued mistreatment of prisoners.
The ICRC report is said to cite massive overcrowding, "harsh" conditions, lack of clarity about the legal basis for detention, prisoners held "incommunicado," in "a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells," and "sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions." Some prisoners have been held without charges or lawyers for more than five years. The Red Cross said that dozens of prisoners have been held incommunicado for weeks or even months, hidden from prison inspectors.
According to Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Bagram appears to be just as bad, if not worse, than Guantanamo. When a prisoner is in American custody and under American control, our values are at stake and our commitment to the rule of law is tested.” She told us, “The abuses cited by the Red Cross give us cause for concern that we may be failing the test. The Bush administration is not content to limit its regime of illegal detention to Guantanamo, and has tried to foist it on Afghanistan.”
She added, “Both Congress and the Executive Branch need to investigate what's happening at Bagram if we are to avoid a tragic repetition of history.”
The problems at Bagram burst into the headlines in 2005, after the New York Times obtained a 2,000-page U.S. Army report concerning the deaths of two unarmed civilian Afghani prisoners guarded by U.S. armed forces in 2002.
American military officials in Afghanistan initially said the deaths were from natural causes. Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, the American commander of allied forces in Afghanistan at the time, denied then that prisoners had been chained to the ceiling or that conditions at Bagram endangered the lives of prisoners.
But after an investigation by The New York Times, the Army acknowledged that the deaths were homicides. The prisoners were chained to the ceiling and beaten, causing their deaths. Military coroners ruled that both the prisoners' deaths were homicide. Autopsies revealed severe trauma to both prisoners' legs, describing the trauma as comparable to being run over by a bus. Last fall, Army investigators implicated 28 soldiers and reservists and recommended that they face criminal charges, including negligent homicide.
The U.S. military has spent more than $30 million to build an Afghan prison outside Kabul that meets international humane treatment standards and has trained Afghan guards.
But the number of detainees keeps growing, due to the intensifying combat in Afghanistan. One result is that there is room for only about half the prisoners the U.S. originally planned to put in the new detention center.
Efforts to transfer Bagram’s 630-plus prisoners to Afghan control have run into myriad other problems. First, there were turf battles between the different ministries of the Afghan government. Then Afghan officials rejected pressure from Washington to adopt a detention system modeled on the Bush administration's "enemy combatant" legal framework, with military commissions such as those at Guantánamo.
The ACLU’s Shamsi says that, “While conditions at Bagram have improved, at least since the universal revulsion at the revelations of Abu Ghraib and Congress' passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the tragic mistakes of the past may be in danger of repetition.”
She also raises the possibility that there may be prisoners in Afghanistan who are not "Department of Defense detainees," as one Pentagon official has referred to them, but are instead held by the CIA or another civilian agency.