Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Afghanistan: The expansion of 'Afghan Guantánamo'

By Prakash Joshi
Republished courtesy of
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – While preparing to close the notorious U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, President Barack Obama appears to be supporting the expansion of another secretive prison in Afghanistan, according to reports.

In an article posted on My 12, 2010 at Natan Hodge says, the U.S. military was getting set to expand its controversial detention camp at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan – just as new reports of a “black jail” inside the facility were surfacing.

In a solicitation issued the same day, Hodge said, the U.S. military had put out a request for a contractor to build three new detention housing units next to the existing facility, known formally as the Afghan National Detention Facility at Parwan (Bagram is in the southwest corner of Parwan Province). As of last September, 645 prisoners were held there.

"The cost of the project – which will include construction of one special housing unit and two detention housing units – is projected to run between $10 million and $25 million. The contractor will have approximately nine months to complete the entire project," the report said.

Presumably, these new buildings are in addition to Bagram’s separate and previously clandestine detention facility, revealed by the International Committee of the Red Cross on May 11, 2010.

The Raw Story ( editor John Byrne points out in an article posted on May 13 that Hodge had noted another startling fact: the U.S. is planning to shortly hand over the base, despite the fact that they are going to spend more than $10 million on expanding it.

"Timing here is key: The jail is supposed to be handed over to Afghan control of the place, sometimes called 'Obama’s Guantánamo', sometime next year," writes Byrne. Though, Afghan president Hamid Karzai would like to make the hand-off even earlier.

Afghan and U.S. officials have signed an agreement to hand control of the Parwan facility to the Afghan ministry of defence, and eventually to its ministry of justice. The transfer may help resolve an issue that has caused a fair amount of controversy for the U.S. military.


Back in 2002, notes Byrne, two Bagram detainees died in a prisoner-abuse scandal. And last year, The New York Times reported the existence of a "black jail" at Bagram that was kept off limits to the Red Cross.

The military has maintained that there is no separate facility at Bagram. In a bloggers’ roundtable earlier this year, Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward emphasized that there were "no black jails" at Bagram, but he did clarify that there was a short period of detention at undisclosed "field-detention sites", where Afghan and U.S. authorities hold individuals to determine who they are and whether they have any actionable intelligence.

"We don’t disclose where those field-detention sites are, because of operation security," Harward said. "They would be targeted. They'd be at great risk. At those field-detention sites, they're held for a very short period, to determine who they are, their classification, and immediately actionable intelligence. And then, from that point, they're moved to our detention facility in Parwan.”

Byrne writes: "It's worth emphasizing here that humane treatment of prisoners is considered a cornerstone of effective counterinsurgency. The idea is to prevent further radicalization of detainees, and turning detention facilities into recruiting centers for the insurgency."

In the roundtable, Harward borrowed a phrase from counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen. The goal is to prevent the "accidental guerrillas" from filling up the facility.

"If that village says, yeah, he's a bad guy, we've just gotten additional intelligence on him and better understanding of the individual," said Harward. "The village may say, hey, he's a bad kid but he could be good. Well, then maybe he does need a program where we teach him to read or write, and a short incarceration would benefit him and convince him not to be the jihadist, that he was the accidental guerrilla; that there’s options and purpose for him in Afghan society outside of that, and maybe we can give him some skills that will help him."

Monitoring a BBC report on April 15, 2010 from Bagram by Hilary Andersson, Daniel Tencer says in an article for The Raw Story that Bagram prisoners were "moved around in wheelchairs with goggles and headphones on". The U.S. military operates a "secret jail" at an Afghan airbase where prisoners are deprived of sleep and "made to dance" by US troops whenever they want to use the toilet.

The BBC interviewed nine people who say they were held at the facility, known as the "black hole", at the site of the Bagram air base. The prison appears to be separate from the main Bagram prison, which the U.S. established after the 2001 invasion and which continues to be the target of human rights complaints.

A man identified only as 'Mirwais', who says he spent 24 days at the facility, told the BBC that prisoners are routinely subjected to sleep deprivation.

"I could not sleep, nobody could sleep because there was a machine that was making noise," said Mirwais. "There was a small camera in my cell, and if you were sleeping they'd come in and disturb you."

"Mirwais said he was made to dance to music by American soldiers every time he wanted to use the toilet," the BBC reported.

Witnesses said the lights were kept on in their cells at all times; that the Red Cross had no access to the facility; and most had been beaten by U.S. troops before they were brought there. The BBC report did not address under what circumstances the witnesses found themselves there, or whether any of them were insurgents.

This is not the first time that allegations have been made of a secret facility at Bagram, says Tencer. In November 2009, the Raw Story reported on claims of a secret site at Bagram that was still in operation as of late that year, apparently in contravention of President Obama's order, upon taking office, to shut down the CIA's "black sites" around the world.

Three people claiming to be former inmates of the facility told the New York Times "of being held for months after the intensive interrogations were over without being told why. One detainee said he remained at the Bagram prison complex for two years and four months; another was held for 10 months total."

"The secret site appears to be separate from the main prison facility at Bagram, which itself has been the target of complaints from human rights activists. Unlike the Guantánamo Bay facility, prisoners at Bagram are not given access to lawyers," writes Tencer.


"To this date, no prisoner has ever seen a lawyer in Bagram," lawyer Tina Foster told the BBC.

The news organization was given a rare peek inside the main Bagram prison complex, a new facility that replaced an aging one earlier this year:

In the new jail, prisoners were being moved around in wheelchairs with goggles and headphones on. The goggles were blacked out, and the purpose of the headphones was to block out all sound. Each prisoner was handcuffed and had their legs shackled.

Prisoners are kept in 56 cells, which they refer to as "cages". The front of the cells is made of mesh, the ceiling is clear, and the other three walls are solid. Guards can see down into the cells above.

The BBC was told by the military to wear protective eye glasses whilst walking past the mesh cells as prisoners sometimes throw excrement or semen at the guards.

Faced with a lawsuit from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the U.S. military earlier in 2010 released a long-secret list of prisoners at Bagram. The list showed some 645 prisoners being held at the facility, but the BBC now reports that number to be closer to 800, thanks to an increase in prisoner intake likely linked to the increased military effort in Afghanistan in recent months.

"The U.S. military itself has admitted that about 80% of those at Bagram are probably not hardened terrorists," the BBC reports.

In March, the Times of London reported that the Bagram facility could be expanded and used as a replacement for the Guantánamo Bay detention centre. The idea is "being considered as U.S. officials try to find an alternative to Guantánamo Bay," the Times said.

Last year, former CBS anchorman Dan Rather said "there is a school of thought" that Bagram is already replacing Guantánamo as the site where terrorist suspects from around the world are to be held.

"Some of the contentions that were made about Guantánamo are starting to be made about Bagram," Rather told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "The critical thing is, there is no transparency."

See also Sydney Irresistible and Mike Hitchen Unleashed
Putting principles before profits