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The other Guantanamo

As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, what will happen to Bagram prison, where many prisoners are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer?

A US captain on a tour of Bagram prison in 2009. Photo: Getty

When President Barack Obama came to power in 2008, he pledged to close Guantanamo, the notorious island prison where terrorism suspects are held indefinitely without charge. Five years after he said that “this war, like all wars, must end”, the prison remains open, the prisoners now in their eighth month of a hunger strike.

Guantanamo is not the only legacy of the Bush era that is proving problematic, as Obama prepares to draw a line under his predecessor’s wars. Bagram prison in Afghanistan is perhaps most famous for a string of prisoner abuse and torture scandals during the long US war. Though less headline-worthy in recent years, it remains there, and, as the US pull-out in 2014 draws ever closer, it is posing such a problem that it has been nicknamed the “second Guantanamo”.

At its peak, Bagram held around 3,000 prisoners, a number which is now reduced. The key problem is the fact that among the prisoners still held there by the US are 67 non-Afghan inmates, none of whom have been formally tried. The US claims that some of these are al-Qaeda operatives arrested after 9/11; accordingly, some have been imprisoned since 2002. They are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer. With echoes of Guantanamo, some prisoners were cleared for release in 2010, but remain trapped in detention. This is because of lengthy, bureaucratic negotiations between the US and the country the detainee is being released to.

Around two-thirds of the foreign detainees (known as third country nationals) are of Pakistani origin. One of them was just 14 when he was arrested in 2008. Repatriation negotiations between the US and Pakistan have stretched on for years. The two concerns are humane treatment for the prisoners in the receiving country (in this case Pakistan), as well as an assurance that the threat the US feels the prisoners pose will be sufficiently mitigated. Under international law, the US cannot send an individual to a country where they face a real risk of torture. And on security, it is no secret that the US does not particularly trust Pakistan, demonstrated by the latest Edward Snowden leaks (showing drastically increased surveillance of the country, which is technically an ally). The spectre of recidivism has also hung over the prisoners trapped at Guantanamo, delaying their release.

So what will happen to the Bagram prison when the US pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014? Theoretically, it should close, but it does not seem likely that it will. The Afghan authorities are reluctant to take on the responsibility for lengthy repatriation negotiations, while concerns have been voiced that prisoners could be tortured if control is transferred away from the US. American officials have said it could be too dangerous to close the prison altogether.

A new report by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a legal NGO based in Lahore, representing the prisoners, is damning of all the authorities involved:

The Pakistani government has failed to meet its domestic and international duty to uphold the rights of its citizens in U.S. detention. It has failed to invest the necessary political and bureaucratic capital and failed to adopt clear policies on repatriation The United States has placed little priority on resolving these detainees’ cases, failed to adopt standard policies on repatriation — particularly on humane treatment and security assurances—and has tended to overstate the potential security risks that detainees pose.

While Bagram is not discussed much in America, it certainly damages the country’s image in the Middle East and South Asia, at least as much as Guantanamo does. The JPP report states that “for many Afghans, Bagram continues to symbolize much of what has gone wrong with the US mission in Afghanistan.” Detainees are trapped in a legal and bureaucratic black hole, nationless and unrepresented. As the date for US withdrawal approaches, is indefinite detention really the legacy that the west wishes to leave?