Disappeared into Bagram

June 29, 2011

According to the conventional media wisdom, Barack Obama is defying the Pentagon and ordering a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But in reality, tens of thousands of combat troops will remain in Afghanistan for years to come. And no part of the media are reporting on a dirty secret of the Afghan occupation--that hundreds and hundreds of Afghan men have disappeared into the U.S.'s notorious Bagram prison for years at a time.

Daphne Eviatar is a senior associate with Human Rights First and author of a new report titled "Detained and Denied in Afghanistan," on U.S. prisons in Afghanistan. She talked to Helen Redmond about the Kafkaesque situation detainees face.

IN YOUR report, you say that since President Obama took office, the number of prisoners held by the U.S. in Afghanistan has almost tripled--from 600 in 1,700 to 2011. What accounts for this dramatic increase?

I THINK two things. First is the surge--the additional 30,000 troops. There now 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That certainly led to a much more aggressive effort on the part of the U.S. to capture insurgents.

Second is an increase in night raids. U.S. forces go into compounds and villages around the country. Whether it's based on a tip from an informant or some other reason, they believe there are Taliban sympathizers there. So they raid these areas, and usually take all the men in question and arrest a number, and then do searches.

They've stepped up this policy. It's very controversial in Afghanistan. People obviously don't like having their houses raided at night. Besides the obvious reasons, it's also considered a great affront in Afghanistan to force your way into someone's home--even more so than it would be in the U.S., because the whole idea of guests and inviting people into your home is very important in Afghan culture.

A U.S. soldier detains an Afghan man in Farah Province
A U.S. soldier detains an Afghan man in Farah Province

A lot of people are picked up, and they end up not having done anything. They might eventually get released, but they may spend weeks or months or years in prison. So I think it's a combination of the troop surge and the increasingly aggressive use of night raids.

YOU WRITE that detainees in the U.S. prison at Bagram air base have far fewer rights than those at Guantánamo Bay. How is that possible?

IT'S BECAUSE of a Supreme Court decision. In 2008, a majority of the justices said that detainees at Guantánamo had the right to habeas corpus, which is the right to challenge their detention in federal court. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether prisoners at Bagram have that right. So far, the lower courts say they don't, and the federal government has insisted that they don't have that right.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have said there is no right for prisoners to take their case to court. Prisoners don't have the right to challenge their detention in court. They don't really have any rights at this point that have been acknowledged. The U.S. government insists that even international human rights laws don't apply to the treatment of prisoners at Bagram.

SOME DETAINEES at Bagram have been imprisoned for eight years or more without charge or trial. When they are finally charged with a crime, what is it?

MANY OF them are never charged. In fact, I would say that most are never charged.

Some are eventually released for reasons that we don't know. Maybe the U.S. negotiated something with the village. In Afghanistan, they have meetings called shuras, where the local elders of a village might say, "We'll take responsibility for this person. We'll make sure they don't join the Taliban." Then the U.S. will release the person to the village.

So these people are never charged with a crime. No one ever proves they've done anything wrong.

The other way people are sometimes released is through the hearings I saw at Bagram. They're rudimentary hearings where there's usually no evidence presented, and usually no witnesses. The prisoners aren't formally charged and are told that they're being held because they're believed to be Taliban insurgents, or someone informed on them and said they were making improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

CAN YOU describe what the facilities are like at Bagram and at the more recently built Parwan Detention Facility, also on the air base?

WE WEREN'T in Bagram or the Parwan facility. We were only allowed to see the Justice Center, which is what they call it--that's where they hold these hearings.

They've shown the prison to journalists, and on principle, we didn't ask for that tour, because they wouldn't allow us to speak to the detainees who are held there. If you're given a tour of the prison, you're just being shown what the government wants you to see. If you're not allowed to see detainees, you don't learn anything about their treatment. So we actually haven't seen the insides of the prisons.

CAN YOU talk how the detainee detention process has changed? Are Afghans able to challenge their detentions? Do they have access to lawyers?

WHAT'S CHANGED is that under the Bush administration, people were picked up and brought to Bagram, and they never heard anything more. They would undergo interrogations. There was a hearing about them, but the detainee was never informed, so they didn't attend it. In that sense, there was nothing--they didn't know why they were being held there at all.

Now there's a hearing process that was developed under the Obama administration. Detainees are brought into a hearing every six months. The hearing consists of three U.S. military officers who act as a board of decision-makers. One person is a "recorder," like a prosecutor. He or she reads the charges against the person and summarizes what the government says the evidence is.

The detainees aren't given a lawyer. They don't have a right to one, even if their family could provide one, and they're not allowed to meet with one. They're given what's called a "personal representative," which in reality is a U.S. military soldier with no legal training, but who has been through a short course. That person is supposed to represent them.

IN YOUR report, you write that these personal representatives have a total of 35 hours of training.

YES. FROM what I was able to see at the hearings I observed, the personal representatives didn't do much. They didn't question the detainees, they didn't bring in any witnesses, and they didn't challenge any of the evidence. They might ask a couple questions that seemed really irrelevant, like: "So are you going to work with the Taliban if you're released?" Or, "What are you going to tell people in your village about U.S. forces when you go home?" That was the level of questioning.

I was very disappointed, because on paper, it seemed like at least the detainees are getting these representatives. But it became clear that the representatives aren't anything comparable to what a lawyer would be. They don't know how to introduce evidence or challenge evidence.

The other big problem was if there was any evidence presented, we weren't allowed to see it and the detainee wasn't allowed to see it, because it would have been introduced in a classified session.

What happens is the recorder summarizes the charges--for example, that you're believed to be a member of the Taliban or someone assisting the Taliban, and you were seen on the side of the road in the middle of the night, and we assessed that you were planting IEDs. That's the summary of the case. The only kind of evidence we saw presented was the results of testing for explosive residue. Fertilizer is commonly used in IEDs, and many of these people are farmers, but no one explains whether or how the tests prove anything.

The detainee is allowed to make a statement. In one of the cases I saw, the man said, "I didn't do anything. I'm not Taliban. I'm a farmer. I don't know what the charges are." That's what most of them said. Then the session is closed, and everyone has to leave, and we don't know if there's other evidence presented in the classified session.

Usually, classified evidence comes from informants. Understandably, the U.S. doesn't want the names of its informants released, but the problem is we don't know what the evidence is, and we don't know how reliable that informant is.

Afghanistan is notorious for having a lot of tribal and land conflicts, so people will inform on one another, not because anyone is actually a terrorist, but because they've been in a longstanding conflict with someone. Or one tribe member will tell U.S. forces that someone from another tribe is Taliban. The U.S. is aware that this is a problem, but this is still the kind of information they end up relying on. It's a problem we heard over and over again.

WHAT ARE the "Special Operations Camps"?

WE WEREN'T able to see any of those. They're classified, and the U.S. military won't talk about them.

From interviews with former detainees, we know that many of them were put in these camps for a week or two, sometimes for a few months. They're called "screening facilities"--it's where they're taken initially and interrogated.

The physical condition of the place is much worse than when they're transferred to the main prison. They're held in isolation. Many detainees complained that it's very cold, that they weren't given a mattress, and that they were given dry food packages. Many complained they would be woken up in the middle of the night for interrogations, and that the light was on 24 hours a day so it was very hard to sleep. There were concerns that sleep deprivation or sleep disruption is being used as a tactic for interrogation.

DID YOU find evidence that prisoners are being tortured at Bagram or the Parwan facility?

NOT REALLY. I would say some people's description of the way they were treated in Special Operations Camps suggested that there may be violations of Geneva Convention norms. For example, some didn't know what time of day it was. There were no windows, so they couldn't pray. Or they weren't given water, which is part of the prayer ritual. So they weren't allowed to exercise their religion. Or it was cold and uncomfortable. The sleep disruptions are something that, if used regularly, can rise to the level of being abusive.

IN 2009, a Marine Corps major general reportedly said after an investigation that most detainees at the U.S. prison in Bagram aren't dangerous and should be released. What do you make of this statement?

IT'S A very interesting statement. Unfortunately, the report he wrote for the military was classified and was never released, so we weren't able to see what that statement was based on. It's not surprising, and it's not inconsistent with the impression we got when we went to Bagram, based on both the hearings and on interviews with former detainees.

It seems like a lot of people were being picked up because there was some suspicions against them. But there wasn't evidence that they had done anything wrong or that they were dangerous.

For example, large numbers of men are being swept up in these U.S. raids, and they're brought in for questioning--and held if weapons are found in their homes. But many people have weapons in their homes in Afghanistan. Lots of people will have an AK-47. That may sound very strange to us here, but that's part of life, especially in the border regions near Pakistan, where there is often a lot of violence.

Having a weapon doesn't mean they're a threat to U.S. forces, but that might land them in prison for many months.

Among the recommendations we made was that the U.S. really needs to develop a more robust system for deciding who is actually a member of the Taliban, who is supporting the insurgency, who is dangerous, and who is not. The current system doesn't do that.

Because they don't have lawyers, they can't defend themselves, and because they're not able to gather evidence and the evidence used against them is secret, they can't challenge their detention. It's almost a Kafkaesque situation.

These people go back to their villages, and they're really angry--and their families are angry. They see that U.S. raids are putting people in prison for no reason, and it creates a lot of animosity. Support for U.S. troops has gone down among the Afghan population in part because of these night raids and these imprisonments.

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