by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1430)
Guantanamo Bay is not the only legal black hole created by the US in the wake of 9/11. The prison at Bagram is perhaps even worse than Guantanamo in many respects because no rule of law applies there. Serving as a former Soviet military airbase during the eighties, Bagram have now been turned into a torture chamber where prisoners are not only beaten, tortured and raped but the conditions are so horrible that many prisoners wish they were dead.
Moazzam Begg, the British citizen arrested in Pakistan soon after 9/11 spent many months there before being flown to Guantanamo, popularly called Gitmo. So did Canadian-born Omar Khadr who was only 15 years old at the time and is still languishing in Gitmo. Bagram served as transit route for many inmates that ultimately ended up in Gitmo. Now the process has been reversed. Because of US court rulings demanding habeas corpus rights for Gitmo detainees, the Americans have shipped hundreds of prisoners from Gitmo to Bagram.
Yet others captured not in battle in Afghanistan but arrested — kidnapped would be a more accurate word — from the streets of various capital cities in the world have been sent there. Neither the International Committee of the Red Cross nor any media personnel have been given access to such detainees. Dr Aafia Siddiqui was held at Bagram from 2003 until her transfer to the US last year. She was not only tortured but also repeatedly raped. She is currently on trial in the US related to her alleged terrorism. Bagram is literally the black hole into which people have simply disappeared. Even a US court has ruled that detainees at Bagram have not legal right to appear in a US court because of the fiction that Afghanistan is a ‘sovereign’ country.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) demanded that President Barack Obama’s administration release information on 600 detainees held at Bagram. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU had requested in April records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram, including the number of people currently detained, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention. The ACLU is also seeking records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as “enemy combatants.”
“The US government’s detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy,” said Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney. “The American people have a right to know what’s happening at Bagram and whether prisoners have been tortured there.” During his inauguration as president last January, Obama had announced that Gitmo would be closed within a year. While this is beginning to look doubtful, even if it were closed, other black holes worldwide, especially places like Bagram, those in the Horn of Africa and some European states are likely to assume greater importance for US illegal detentions. Last April, the CIA announced it had ceased operating its network of secret prisons. Bagram gives a lie to this claim. Besides, in the aftermath of 9/11, the US has adopted the doctrine of “exceptionalism” in which normal laws are suspended. When Geroge Bush designated people as “enemy combatants”, he declared that they were entitled neither to the Geneva Conventions nor to due process in a court of law. This is no different from the policy adopted by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. It is this mindset that allows for the indefinite detention, torture, rape and murder of detainees.
It was Obama administration’s foot dragging on Bagram detainees that forced the New York Times to castigate it editorially on April 13, under the title “The Next Guantanamo”. Stating that the administration “is basking in praise for its welcome commitment to shut down the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay… it is acting far less nobly when it comes to prisoners held at a larger, more secretive military detention facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In February, the new administration disappointingly followed the example of the Bush White House in opposing judicial review for prisoners who have been indefinitely detained at Bagram without any charges or access to lawyers. The administration has now added to that disappointment by appealing a new federal court ruling extending the right of habeas corpus to some Bagram detainees.”
An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in June revealed that former detainees at Bagram were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with dogs. Others were held in stressful positions, or forced to strip naked in front of female American guards. These conclusions were based on interviews with 27 former detainees who were held at Bagram between 2002 and 2006. None of them was ever charged with a crime. Hundreds of detainees are still being held in US custody at Bagram without charge or trial.
Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said, “The BBC investigation provides further confirmation of the United States’ mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram. These abuses are the direct consequence of decisions made at the highest levels of the US government to avoid the Geneva Convention and forsake the rule of law. For too long, the unlawful detention and mistreatment of prisoners at Bagram has gone on outside the public eye. Hopefully, this investigation will help change that.”
Hafetz went on: “Torture and abuse at Bagram is further evidence that prisoner abuse in US custody was systemic, not aberrational, and originated at the highest levels of government. We must learn the truth about what went wrong, hold the proper people accountable and make sure these failed policies are not continued or repeated.” There is little chance of holding anyone accountable. Obama has repeatedly stressed that he will not prosecute CIA officials involved in torture because they were simply “following orders.” Besides, his spokesman insists, he wants to look ahead, not back. This is a convenient way to skip responsibility. Illegal orders must not be obeyed and the Nuremberg trials established that those who followed illegal orders were also punished. Presumably, American exceptionalism extends to every foot soldier as well.
Not just the US but its ally Britain is equally guilty of such practices. The UK-based human rights group,Reprieve, has charged the British government with rendering two Pakistani prisoners from Iraq to Bagram. “The legal black hole in Bagram underlines the British government’s moral black hole when it comes to rendering two Pakistani prisoners there in 2004,” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve. “These men were in British custody in Iraq, were turned over to the US, and have now been held for five years without any respect for their legal rights.”
No prisoner in Bagram has been allowed to see a lawyer, or challenge his detention. The US justice department argues that because Afghanistan is an active combat zone it is not possible to conduct rigorous inquiries into individual cases and that it would divert precious military resources at a crucial time. But Stafford Smith finds this unconvincing. “These men were never in Afghanistan until the UK and the US took them there,” he said. “It is the height of hypocrisy to take someone to Bagram and then claim that it is too dangerous to let them see a lawyer. Even Guantanamo Bay is better than this.”
When the BBC showed its findings to the Pentagon, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wright, a spokesman for theUS Secretary of Defense, insisted that conditions at Bagram “meet international standards for care and custody”. He said the US Defense Department has a policy of treating detainees humanely. But he acknowledged: “There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions in those cases.” The colonel was obviously stretching the truth. There is the well-known case of Dilawar Khan, a completely innocent Afghan taxi driver, who was picked up from the street. He was taken to Bagram, suspended from the ceiling by tying his wrists and over a period of several days, he was mercilessly beaten by US soldier Joshua Claus. He died from such beatings. When an autopsy was performed on Dilawar’s body, the army medical coroner said his legs were shattered as if run over by a bus. Claus was given a five-month sentence after a court martial.
Claus’s behavior and Dilawar’s plight symbolize what has been going on at Bagram since it was opened.