Radio: On the BBC World Service, Andy Worthington Discusses the US’s Latest Efforts to Hold Prisoners in Bagram Forever

14.2.14

This morning, I was interviewed on the BBC World Service’s “World Update” programme about Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and the latest news from the facility, in the long, drawn-out process of the US handing over control of the prison to the Afghan government. The show is here, it’s available for the next six days, and the section in which I’m interviewed begins at 27 minutes in, and lasts for four minutes.

The prison at Bagram airbase — America’s main prison in Afghanistan — was established in an old Soviet factory following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and was a place of great brutality, where a handful of prisoners were murdered in US custody.

Used to process prisoners for Guantánamo until the end of 2003, it then grew in size throughout the rest of Bush’s presidency, and into President Obama’s. During this time, a new prison was built, which was named the Parwan Detention facility, but those interested in the prison, its violent history in US hands and its unenviable role as the graveyard of the Geneva Conventions refused to accept the rebranding.

In September 2012, the US and Afghan governments reached an agreement for the US to hand over control of Bagram to the Afghans, although it took months of legal wrangling until the Afghan authorities finally took control of the prison in March 2013.

As David Loyn noted in an article for the BBC, “Around 3,000 prisoners were handed over, and since then hundreds have been released after the evidence against them was assessed by an Afghan review process.” Others were prosecuted in a court that was set up at the prison.

The US authorities, however, told the Afghan government that some of the prisoners could not  be released. 70 of the men handed over were given the status “EST,” meaning “Enduring Security Threat,” and, as the BBC put it, “There would be strong American protests if they were released.”

However, 65 others, seized since the agreement was reached in September 2012, have just been released by the Afghan government, prompting serious criticism by the US, which claimed that they were “dangerous insurgents” who should never have been released.

The US presented a dossier of detailed information about the men, including, as the BBC put it, “incriminating information from mobile phones, details of interviews with suspects including confessions, and pictures of bomb-making equipment.” As I explained to the BBC, however, the US has, from the beginning, had an extremely poor record when it comes to establishing accurate intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan — as can be readily seen from Guantánamo, and the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011 — and the claims about these men are not necessarily trustworthy.

In addition, the US has no basis for criticizing Afghanistan when it comes to any aspect of the detention of prisoners, because, since the start of the “war on terror,” the US has persistently refused to hold prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, and has no right to be hectoring others.

From the beginning, for instance, as well as being subjected to savage brutality (in contravention of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions), prisoners have been held without being screened to ascertain if they should have been seized or not. This screening is supposed to involve competent tribunals under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, held close to the time and place of capture, to tell the difference between civilians and combatants in situations in which both parties are not wearing uniforms. However, these tribunals were completely abandoned by the US after 9/11.

Moreover, once in detention, the men have had to wait, on average, for over a year for review boards to assess whether or not they should be released or whether they should continue to be held. Under President Bush, these reviews involved the prisoners having to make a statement before hearing the allegations against them, and under President Obama, although the review process was revised, it only copied the process at Guantánamo that the Supreme Court had found to be inadequate in 2008.

In addition, the US continues to hold around 60 foreign prisoners “in a corner of the facility that is still controlled by US troops,” as the BBC put it. Mostly Pakistanis, they also include men from other countries, who were seized in other countries and rendered to Bagram up to 12 years ago. Three of these men — Redha al-Najar, a Tunisian seized in Karachi, Pakistan in May 2002; Amin al-Bakri, a Yemeni gemstone dealer seized in Bangkok, Thailand in late 2002; and Fadi al-Maqaleh, a Yemeni seized in 2004 and sent to Abu Ghraib before Bagram — filed a habeas corpus petition in a US court years ago, which was granted by District Judge John D. Bates in May 2009, but was then successfully appealed by the Obama administration, when the inadequate review process mentioned above was implemented.

How this will all end is unknown at present. As the BBC noted, President Karzai “has taken a stridently anti-US line in several recent TV interviews, and refused to sign a deal to allow US troops to remain beyond the end of 2014, despite it being approved by Afghanistan’s highest representative authority — a loya jirga.”

It may be that President Karzai’s decision to release the men is part of this tussling with the US, or, perhaps, is part of the juggling required to survive politically in Afghanistan. However, as I told the BBC, it may also be that those examining the files for President Karzai genuinely concluded that the US could not back up its claims.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Thanks Andy, shared. Will listen to it tomorrow morning.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dejanka. It’s not a big thing – just four minutes, but it was good to get a few points across, and it provided me with an opportunity to write something about Bagram, which I haven’t done for a while. Once you stop to think about it, it’s extraordinarily shocking that some foreign prisoners are still held in Bagram who were first rendered there in 2002 – but they don’t even have the nominal rights of the Guantanamo prisoners. The way Obama has dealt with Bagram is another black mark against him.

  3. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    Here is something really weird — two things really.

    First, Afghanistan is supposed to be a sovereign nation, and the US forces are supposed to be there with the consent of, and at the invitation of the sovereign Afghan nation. So, on what possible ground can they object to the Afghani equivalents of habeas corpus panels recommending freeing men for whom there is no evidence they committed any crimes?

    This is a huge advance over the situation in 2007 and 2008. Up until 2007, to the best of what we know from the information in the public sphere, former Guantanamo captives repatriated to Afghanistan all spent a mere couple of days being debriefed, and then were free to go home. We know from the McClatchy interviews some of those former captives faced a depressing and dangerous expectation that they would check in with local security officials on a regular basis. But up until mid 2007 they didn’t end up right back in custody. In 2007, after spending tens of millions of dollars the USA opened a new wing of the infamous Poli Charkhi prison the Soviets had built.

    Abdul Matin, one of the obviously innocent captives whose story I found most heartbreaking, ended up there. This US prison within a prison had Afghan guards, who weren’t part of the guard force of the rest of the prison. They had all been picked, trained, paid, and directed by the USA.

    The US wing of Poli Charkhi included a “courtroom”, and I read an account of the “trials” of the former Guantanamo prisoners in that courtroom. What was the evidence against these men? No new evidence was put forward. Instead the Afghan officials were relying on the completely unreliable allegations drafted at Guantanamo.

    So, if the release of these men illustrates a maturing of the Afghan justice system, to the point where they can conduct something like a fair habeas review, that would be a very positive thing. If the release of these men means that Afghanistan’s actual exercise of sovereignty has grown to the point they can stand up to the craziest US officials this would be a very positive thing. And even if some of these men were genuine Taliban or HiG fighters, captured with bomb-making smells on their fingers, as John McCain claims, and the release of these men is part of an attempt on Karzai’s part to negotiate a cease-fire, couldn’t that too be a positive thing?

    Didn’t the UK reach an accommodation with the IRA? Didn’t UK politicians tacitly acknowledge that hunting down and killing or prosecuting every single individual suspected of being in the IRA was not compatible with negotiated a peace agreement?

    I am filled with dread for Afghanistan, once the USA leaves. If Karzai, or his successor, does not negotiate a peace with the Taliban, and instead fights it out with the Taliban, every girl or woman who went to school, or opened their own business, is going to have to live in fear.

  4. arcticredriver says...

    In my previous comment I said I had a second weird thing to comment on. The USA seems to be furious with Karzai for conducting bilateral negotiations with the Taliban. Wasn’t it just a year or two ago that Karzai was furious with the USA because the USA was secretly trying to conduct bilateral negotiations with the Taliban.

    Way back in 2002 commentators warned that the Bush plan to ally with and further empower already powerful local warlords like Dostum, Fahim, PKZ [Pacha Khan Zadran] would guarantee that the Afghan President would never be able to exercise strong central authority over the Provinces.

    There was an excellent suggestion about half a dozen or so years ago — The USA should stop trying to insist that Afghanistan fight both a war on the Taliban and a war on drugs. Rather Afghanistan should first legalize the opium trade, and then regulate and tax the opium trade. Andy, you and I are old enough to remember that scary movie “Midnight Express”, about the imprisonment of an American Heroin smuggler in a primitive and dangerous Turkish prison. 40 years ago Turkey was one of the two main sources of illegal opiates. It is not now, and according to those floating this proposal, this is because Turkey defied US pressure to totally suppress the growing of Opium, and instead Turkey had legalized and regulated the trade.

    Legalizing and regulating the Opium trade would have both stripped the Taliban of allies and its main source of revenue; and it would have provided the Afghan central government with a source of funds.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared this. If you missed it earlier, do check it out if Bagram, once described as Guantanamo’s “dark mirror,” interests you. I provide a round-up of its history in the article, which links to a short interview I took part in yesterday with the BBC World Service.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Mo D’Oh shared this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Mo D’oh. Cycling down to the river now, in the drizzle, for a protest outside MI6 HQ to mark the 12th anniversary of Shaker Aamer’s arrival at Guantanamo.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote:

    to think that he and his son have never been able to meet and hug…. why, it just breaks my heart, Andy

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s such a disgrace, Mo D’oh. It was a good turnout today, but we would have been washed out if we hadn’t been able to shelter in the big foot tunnel under the railway opposite MI6 HQ, where speakers – myself included – addressed the crowd, and all the promotional material and banners etc. were laid out. For a moment it looked like the police were going to turf us out, but they were talked out of it.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    I listened to your interview now, Andy. You have been given a very short time to present your views on Bagram, especially these days. It isn’t any more about the USA intelligence report. The whole country is totally destroyed. Decades of war by Soviets, later by NATO forces, brought in powerful resistance branch of Taliban in question. What we do not know in Western countries is that there are two factions of Taliban. One of them is moderate, but we are not allowed to know about them. Karzai is frightened that the other faction will take over. This is precisely what is happening in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s popularity among moderate Pakistanis is going to be compromised on behalf of hard line right wingers if he wants to survive in his battle. Karzai, American stooge, has no choice either. To survive he has to release the prisoners under the pressure.
    I am convinced that some of the prisoners in Bagram are innocent. Look at what happened in Iraq. Shiite representatives of Maliki’s corrupt government didn’t even want to acknowledge that his Shia government is sacking even Sunni MPs from Iraqi government. The government of Maliki that gave green light to arrest and torture innocent people of Sunni community. All under the threat of Al-Qaeda. When he was confronted loudly by British analysist on Radio 4 he freaked out. You have to wonder how many innocent people are in jail on behalf of Maliki and Karzai government just to stay in power. Karzai had to release them.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dejanka. Yes, I didn’t even have time to describe the story of Bagram fully, and you’re right, of course, about the bigger picture. However, when it comes specifically to detention issues, I think the main issues are, firstly, as you say, that Karzai is obliged to make political decisions regarding prisoner releases, but secondly, as I have been reporting since I started covering the “war on terror,” that the US’s claims about prisoners its own forces have rounded up or taken possession of are generally untrustworthy.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for your informed and informative comments.The Pol-i-Charki episode was a particularly depressing one – the imprisonment of Afghans returned from Guantanamo from August 2007 onwards, until, if I recall correctly, Karzai intervened to release prisoners.
    As I also mentioned, the US has a very poor record when it comes to providing fair reviews for the prisoners held at Bagram, and it sounds to me that the Afghans are actually trying to amend that – certainly, it’s hard to see how they could do a worse job than the Americans.
    As for your comments about the drug trade, they sound eminently sensible to me, but then “sensible” has never been a key word when it comes to America’s misguided foreign escapades over the last 12 years.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s a very detailed account of the release from the Afghanistan Analysts Network: http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/65-innocent-or-dangerous-detainees-released-from-bagram-secret-documents-and-afghan-and-us-claims

  13. arcticredriver says...

    Here is an informative article on Bagram.

    The writer mentions discussing with captives their torture in the black prison only to have US spin doctors deny its existence. These denials remind me of Commander Gordon. Isn’t the existence of the black prison on the public record? What possible national security benefit is there to denying its existence.

    When we asked about the so called ‘black prison,’ the US military told me there was no such place and this man ‘may have been coached’. When I pressed them to tell me by whom, they said they “would rather not say”.

    Afghan President Hamid Karzai told me Bagram is a “Taliban-making factory” where innocent people are indiscriminately mixing with extremists and being indoctrinated. “People who have come out of the prison have told me: this is a prison where they take innocent Afghans and turn them against their own country and government,” said Karzai.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting article, arcticredriver. Thanks.
    However, I couldn’t get that link to work. I found the article here: http://www.firstpost.com/world/afghanistans-guantanamo-prison-or-taliban-making-factory-1412257.html

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