Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions


A cell in the US prison at Bagram airbase, AfghanistanOn January 15, 2010, the Pentagon released the first ever list of prisoners held in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, the main US prison in Afghanistan for the last eight years (PDF). An annotated version of the list is available here. In a previous article, “Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List,” I examined the stories of the foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram from other countries, and described the legal challenges mounted on their behalf, explaining how, last March, three of these men won their habeas corpus petitions in a US court, in a ruling that has been challenged by the Obama administration.

I also explained the use of a secret facility within Bagram as part of a network of secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, and asked pointed questions about the whereabouts of a number of men, known to have been held in secret prisons in Afghanistan, who are not on the list and whose apparent disappearance has never been explained — and also covered this topic in another recent article, “UN Secret Detention Report Asks, ‘Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?’

In this second article based on the prisoner list, I look specifically at Bagram as a prison in a war zone, examining the murky relationship between the US and Afghan authorities regarding the detention of prisoners in wartime, asking whether the prison under President Obama conforms to the Geneva Conventions, and exposing new information about a network of secret prisons in forward operating bases and other locations around the country.

For those who fear that there are hundreds of prisoners in Bagram who have been have been held for many years, it should be noted that the limited information provided by the list is somewhat reassuring. Of the 645 prisoners listed, all but a hundred or so were seized in the last two years. There is a caveat, however. Based on the numbering system used, it appears that a total of 3,000 prisoners have been held at Bagram since the last of the regular prisoners was transferred to Guantánamo in November 2003, but although some have been freed — as part of an essentially inscrutable review process — it is not known how many others have been transferred either to Afghan custody (under a similarly inscrutable arrangement) or to Block “D” of Kabul’s main prison, Pol-i-Charki.

Refurbished by US forces in early 2007, Block “D” is where 45 of the 46 Afghan prisoners repatriated from Guantánamo since August 2007 have ended up. The one exception is Mohamed Jawad, released last August, who won his habeas corpus petition in a US court, but the other 45 have been subjected to equally opaque policies regarding their continued detention, and decisions about whether they should be tried or released, and, if the former, whether trials should be based on anything other than dubious “evidence” recycled from Guantánamo. The overriding question about Block “D” — which lawyers are hoping to test in US courts following the recent transfer of four Afghans from Guantánamo — is whether Block “D” is under Afghan or American control.

Despite these small reassurances about Bagram, I would not like to give the impression that all is well with the prison. The length of time that the majority of the 645 men have been held may appear to be quite reasonable — between one and two years — but this is supposed to be a prison in a war zone, and those detained should be screened on capture to make sure that they have not been seized by mistake, and then held for the duration of hostilities. Instead, there is every indication that prisoners are, in general, seized according to the defining characteristics of the “War on Terror,” as played out in both Iraq and Afghanistan — indiscriminate dragnets and raids based on often dubious intelligence — which not only fail to win “hearts and minds,” but also demonstrate a unilateral (and illegal) reworking of the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions and the prevention of torture

If there is any doubt about a wartime prisoner’s status — because he is not wearing a uniform, for example — he is entitled to an Article 5 competent tribunal, held close to the time and place of capture, at which he can call witnesses. The US military pioneered these tribunals from Vietnam onwards, and was preparing to undertake them in December 2001, when the prisons at Kandahar and Bagram opened, until the orders came from on high that, in the “War on Terror,” they were unnecessary. In its extraordinary arrogance and contempt for the law, the Bush administration decided that no screening was required, and that it was sufficient for the President to declare that, on capture, all the men were “enemy combatants,” who could be held indefinitely without any rights whatsoever.

The purpose — as became apparent at Guantánamo, when President Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions did not extend to those held in the “War on Terror” — was not to keep men off the battlefield for the duration of hostilities, but to provide the lawless conditions in which they could be interrogated for “actionable intelligence.” The result, as has been chronicled as Guantánamo, at Bagram, at Abu Ghraib and in the secret prison network, was a torture regime, purportedly sanctioned by memos written by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which claimed to redefine torture for the use by the CIA, or, in the case of the military, through “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo, which later migrated to Iraq.

In many ways, these techniques were first conceived at Bagram, where the use of sleep deprivation and brutal stress positions (the “strappado” technique, or “Palestinian hanging”) was widespread, and the regime was so brutal that, in 2002, at least two prisoners (and possibly as many as five) were murdered in US custody.

Despite official claims that the conditions at Bagram have improved in the years since, a BBC report in June 2008, based on interviews with men held in the prison between 2002 and 2008, found that only two “said they had been treated well,” while the rest complained that “they were beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened with dogs.” In “Undue Process” (PDF), a Human Rights First report published in November 2009, a distinction was made between those held in Bagram’s early years, and those held since 2006, when, as the report noted, ex-detainees “described significantly better treatment than those captured earlier, but some still told of being assaulted at the point of capture and being held in cold isolation cells for several weeks after their capture.”

Moreover, in October 2009, during a panel discussion following the launch of the new Guantánamo documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” former prisoner Omar Deghayes explained how his Pakistani brother-in-law was recently captured on a visit to Afghanistan and ended up in Bagram. As Omar described it, his brother-in-law’s wife, who was allowed to talk to her husband through a videophone system established by the International Committee of the Red Cross in early 2008, reported “how horribly and badly tortured he was, how he had marks on his eyes and was really badly battered.”

Importing Guantánamo-style reviews to Bagram

In an attempt to stifle dissent — and, it seems, as part of a cynical maneuver to encourage the Court of Appeals to reverse the habeas victories last March of the three foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram from other countries — the Obama administration announced last September that it was introducing a new review process for the Bagram prisoners. Submitted in court documents relating to the government’s appeal (PDF), the proposals allowed, for the first time, prisoners to call witnesses in their defense.

This was an improvement, because, until 2007, there was no formal review process at all, and as District Court Judge John D. Bates noted last March, when he granted the habeas corpus petitions of the three foreign prisoners rendered to Bagram, the system that was then put in place — consisting of Unlawful Enemy Combatant Review Boards — “falls well short of what the Supreme Court found inadequate at Guantánamo” (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, the one-sided review process convened in 2004-05, which the Supreme Court found inadequate in Boumediene v. Bush, the June 2008 ruling granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights).

With incredulity, Judge Bates noted that the Bagram prisoners are not even allocated a personal representative from the military, as happened during the CSRTs at Guantánamo, and also noted that, although they are allowed to represent themselves:

Detainees cannot even speak for themselves; they are only permitted to submit a written statement. But in submitting that statement, detainees do not know what evidence the United States relies upon to justify an “enemy combatant” designation — so they lack a meaningful opportunity to rebut that evidence. [The government’s] far-reaching and ever-changing definition of enemy combatant, coupled with the uncertain evidentiary standards, further undercut the reliability of the UECRB review. And, unlike the CSRT process [which was followed by annual review boards], Bagram detainees receive no review beyond the UECRB itself.

In what appeared to be a direct response to Judge Bates’ damning criticisms, the Obama administration announced that, under the new rules, each prisoner would be assigned a US military official to represent him (as happened at Guantánamo), and that prisoners would also have the right to call witnesses and present evidence when it is “reasonably available” (as also happened at Guantánamo, even though no foreign witness was ever summoned to Cuba to testify).

It was also announced that the boards would determine whether prisoners should be held by the United States, turned over to Afghan authorities or released, but although the proposals included a promise that, “For those ordered held longer, the process will be repeated at six-month intervals,” the unilateral flight from the Geneva Conventions was confirmed not only in the decision to export Guantánamo’s discredited tribunal system to Bagram, but also in a section detailing how prisoners would be treated on capture.

As the submission explained, new prisoners would be subjected, on capture, not to Article 5 tribunals, but to cursory reviews by “the capturing unit commander” and by the commander of Bagram to ascertain that they “meet the criteria for detention.” Moreover, the DoD insisted that it was not merely holding prisoners “consistent with the laws and customs of war,” but was also holding those who fulfill the criteria laid down in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (the founding document of the “War on Terror,” approved by Congress within days of the 9/11 attacks), which authorized the President to detain those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001,” or those who supported them.

This is depressingly close to the “new paradigm” of warfare introduced by Bush and Cheney, and it is, perhaps, no surprise that, as criticisms began to mount, the administration strategically announced that it was in the process of transferring control of Bagram to the Afghan government. It remains to be seen how swiftly the proposed transfer will occur, but it is unsurprising that the announcement has been made, for two reasons: firstly, because it diverts attention from current US policy, and secondly, because, as with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq, it allows the US government to abdicate all responsibility for the mistakes it has made. Signed in November 2008, the SOFA in Iraq has led to the transfer of thousands of prisoners in US control to the custody of the Iraqi government, even though what awaits them is not a review of whether their detention by US forces was a mistake, but the chaos of the Iraqi judicial system.

Secret prisons

This is disturbingly cynical, of course, but what makes it even worse is a reasonable assumption that the transfer of Bagram to Afghan control will not include the transfer of any prisoners regarded as significant. For these men, the likelihood is that the US government will retain control of a secretive “black jail” within Bagram airbase, exposed by the Washington Post and the New York Times in November 2009, and will continue to seize men in nighttime raids, sending them either to this facility, or to one of nine “Field Detention Sites” on military bases, “often on the slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families,” as Anand Gopal reported in a ground-breaking exposé last week, which revealed the extensive torture and abuse of those held.

Gopal’s account is not the only insight into the dark realities of current US detention policies in Afghanistan, beyond Bagram, beyond the Geneva Conventions, and, it seems, beyond the law. Late last year, a reliable Afghan source informed a lawyer friend of mine that there were, at the time, about two dozen secret facilities in Afghanistan, including three or four in Herat, four or five in northern Afghanistan, and three or four in Kabul. According to this source, the majority were US facilities, although a few were run by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan government’s domestic intelligence agency, and a few others were run by the Afghan Army. The source added, “They are all worse than Bagram. All contain a mix of combatants, criminals, and totally innocent persons. The main difference is that those at the US prisons are fed better. No one has any rights.”

In addition, just last week, in response to my recent articles, a military insider let me know that, “Not only were there facilities in Bagram, but in Kandahar and Salerno as well. Saw them first-hand between 2006 and 2009, but was told not to speak of the jails.” These, it was noted, were “unsanctioned facilities,” which were off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

As eight years of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld should have taught us, once you abandon the Geneva Conventions, all that lies beyond is secrecy and torture. The Obama administration has certainly tinkered with the Bush administration’s legacy, but as the stories of Bagram, the “dark jail” and the network of secret facilities demonstrates, tinkering threatens only to drive the dark truths further underground, and what is needed is the courage to thoroughly repudiate the brutal practices at the heart of the “War on Terror.”

Andy Worthington is 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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

A slightly edited version of this article was published exclusively on Truthout. Cross-posted on Uruknet.

15 Responses

  1. Will Shirley says...

    I begin to think that we misrepresent these events when we refer to people as detainees. I think perhaps “toys” might be more accurate. When I traded marbles as a ten year old I gave no thought to the possible emotions running through the rest of the marbles, I assumed if they had any they would let me know, and they don’t, so trade ’em away. We trade off all kinds of toys throughout our lives. If one hundred and fifty of my neighbors were to end up bloody, burning, dismembered, and overseas an identical neighborhood were to be rendered up bloody, burning and dismembered, we would hear some on-line head, “it was a trade off…” You don’t trade detainees, you try them or release them. We are going to trade them off. But please understand that although i must use the term “we” to satisfy fair trade laws, none of my neighbors to the best of my knowledge have, nor nothing about this region of land called America seems to include a sense of empathy which the term “we” conveys. I know it may sound acidic, but being in a fascist state feels differently than being in a free nation. I suppose Natives feel that way most of the time. That will stunt your growth. I just worry that it is so easy to pull the innocent into a system which has no empathy and whose main output is death. Ya can’t take it back later. Oh the people of central Europe have made a great start on figuring out what went wrong, but over here we don’t have a lot of time for that kind of self introspection, we’re more of a representational culture: we represent a culture, but we aren’t one. Ever notice how TV shows’ dialog sounds “wrong” and it’s because somebody else besides the actor wrote those words. Well, our culture was written for us by people on Wall street, people on Broadway and the L.A. Strip. But not us. We just got sucked into the story. We should force our children to watch “Cabaret” when we teach about WW2. It drags you in, darling. I think the best thing for us to do if and when we get civil control over the resources of the late great US of A, is to have a mass auction of all our “detainees” who don’t have a home to go home to. We sell their services at a pro-rated basis to people for household chores, around the yard maintenance and so forth, to the highest bidders on nationwide TV. great eh? and very, very patriotically we include a small, made in Amerika, American flag with each completed bid. Good for the economy, too.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Will. “Toys” is good. Certainly, “detainees” is unacceptable, and I’ve made a point of referring to them as “prisoners” ever since Clive Stafford Smith, a few years ago, told me that he never referred to them as “detainees,” as the definition gave the illusion that they weren’t really imprisoned, that they were somehow different from prisoners, and that there was sonething temporary about their imprisonment.
    Clive never used the word “arrested” to describe how they were captured, either, and I try always to use “seized” or “kidnapped.”

  3. Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 5 February, […]

  4. Carlyle Moulton says...


    Do you have any information about prisoner 650, thought by many to be Aafia Siddiqui who has just been railroaded into prison in a show trial in New York?

  5. Kabuli says...

    In the film ‘Outside the Law’ Tom Wilner, one of the lawyers defending prisoners in Guantanamo, says about that place : “… Guantanamo was the perfect place for them [US government], because it’s under the complete jurisdiction and control of the US, but technically Cuba has sovereignty over it, or formal sovereignty. So the government can argue ‘well look, somebody else has sovereignty, so the prisoners don’t have legal protections but we can control them’. That’s a first step really, to establishing off-shore prisons, outside the law.”

    Evidently, ‘handing over Bagram prison to the Afghan government’ will have the same effect.
    For obviously, the US would never allow a government which -even outside Bagram- has its hands tied by the US and NATO, to decide about whatsoever within the base. Afghan management would not necessarily be any better, but that is here beside the point. This manoeuvre will grant the US total impunity and in addition another argument to sanctimoneously lecture the Afghan government, this time about not respecting human rights. The same way they already do about corruption, all the while conveniently ‘forgetting’ that in any corruption case there are those corrupted and those corrupting and that among the latter, we ourselves probably are -by far- the biggest culprits.

    The film also reveals the farcical fact that at lawless Guantanamo, US environmental laws do apply and that therefore, if an American soldier tramples on an iguana, he is liable to $ 10.000 fine and 10 years prison and a case could be made that the prisoners at the very least should have equal rights with the iguanas … In Bagram even such a possibility will not exist.

    As for secret prisons, I suppose there can be as many as there are US military camps. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was one at Kabul’s Camp Phoenix, with its charming signboards saying DO NOT ENTER – DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORISED. Authorised by whom, one may wonder ? Presumably by divine powers bestowed upon George W. Bush through a secret celestial memo ?

  6. Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions, Books of The Times: The Free Verse Is in Aisle 3, President of Cant | Tea Break says...

    […] Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions […]

  7. Frances Madeson says...

    Andy Worthington, a truly great man. (See definition below.)

    Interviewer: Some critics have commented on the prison motif in your work.

    Malamud: Perhaps I use it as a metaphor for the dilemma of all men: necessity, whose bars we look through and try not to see. Social injustice, apathy, ignorance. The personal prison of entrapment in past experience, guilt, obsession—the somewhat blind or blinded self, in other words. A man has to construct, invent, his freedom. Imagination helps. A truly great man or woman extends it for others in the process of creating his or her own.

    Stern, Daniel. “Bernard Malamud.” The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction 52, 1975.

  8. Carol Laidlaw says...

    Is there a way of donating other than by credit card or paypal, since I don’t have access to either?

  9. Kabuli says...

    For Carol.
    One way to solve that problem, is to ask someone who does have a card to do it for you and you refund that person whatever way is convenient.
    It works !

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Carlyle,
    There’s no way of knowing from the available information whether Aafia Siddiqui was indeed Prisoner 650. One day, I hope, the ACLU will be able to secure the lists of everyone ever held at Bagram, as happened with Guantanamo in 2006.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kabuli, for your choice excerpts from “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo,” your pertinent analysis of the Obama administration’s imminent abdication of its responsibility for prisoners in Afghanistan, and your mention of Camp Phoenix — obviously another lawless facility that needs examining.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Frances,
    Thanks for the kind words, and welcome back! You have been missed.

  13. An Insignificant Yemeni at Guantánamo Loses His Habeas Petition « says...

    […] Secret Prison? (both September 2009), Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List (January 2010), Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions (February […]

  14. What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part One): Torture and the Black Prison « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] facilities feeding into Bagram that I touched upon in an article earlier this year entitled, “Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions,” and which were also exposed in an article by Anand Gopal for […]

  15. What Obama is Doing at Bagram: Torture and the “Black Prison” « Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle says...

    […] facilities feeding into Bagram that I touched upon in an article earlier this year entitled, “Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions,” and which were also exposed in an article by Anand Gopal […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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