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?

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?

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

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution