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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot