Afghan Prisoners at US Airbase in Legal Limbo

Following a loss in federal court, the organization representing detainees held by the U.S. without charge at Bagram prison in Afghanistan called on the Barack Obama administration to "reverse the flawed policies of the previous Bush White House" and end the indefinite detention without trial of Afghan civilians held in U.S. custody.

Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the petition Haji Wazir, an Afghan civilian held at Bagram without charge for more than six years. The judge ruled that because the petitioner was a citizen of Afghanistan, he had no right to petition the U.S. courts for his release.

In an earlier ruling, in April 2009, Judge Bates said that three other Bagram prisoners — two Yemenis and one Tunisian citizen – did have the right to petition U.S. courts for their release.

But he also ruled that because Wazir was a citizen of Afghanistan, rather than a Yemeni or Tunisian citizen held at Bagram, granting him legal rights might upset the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan.

Wazir is a citizen of Afghanistan who was captured in Pakistan in 2002, and held since then in extrajudicial detention at Bagram. He is notable because he is one of the very few captives in Bagram who has had a writ of habeas corpus filed on his behalf.

According to Lal Gul, chairman of the Afghan Human Rights Organization, Wazir "is not a commander, not a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. He is a businessman."

Tina Monshipour Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network (IJNetwork), the organization representing Bagram detainees, told IPS, "The court’s decision to deny Mr. Wazir the right to challenge his detention was based solely on the fact that he is a citizen of Afghanistan. It is time for President Obama to take action and begin to reverse the flawed policies of the previous Bush White House."

She added, "If the Obama administration genuinely wants to restore the moral authority of the United States, commitment to ‘change’ must extend to Bagram and all the detainees held there. Only after we cease to deny Afghan citizens the most basic rights to due process can legitimate talk of justice and cooperation take place."

IJNetwork litigation and advocacy director Barbara J. Olshansky said that "President Obama must do more than issue platitudes about closing Guantánamo, he must establish a fair and effective system of justice that applies to all individuals who we take into our custody and control, no matter where in the world we decide to locate the prison."

In response to the court’s decision, Olshansky added, "innocent civilians should not have to languish in prison solely because they are citizens of Afghanistan — the present administration can, and must, provide fundamental rights to everyone it chooses to detain, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion."

The IJNetwork provides legal assistance and expertise to victims of human rights abuses through a global network of legal professionals, non-governmental organizations and community-based human rights advocates.

While millions know that the Bush administration has left Obama with the job of closing the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, relatively few are aware that the new president will also face a similar but far larger dilemma 7,000 miles away.

That dilemma is what to do with what has become known as "the other Gitmo" – the U.S.-controlled military prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in Afghanistan – and the estimated 600-700 detainees now held there.

The "other Gitmo" was set up by the U.S. military as a temporary screening site after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban. It currently houses more than three times as many prisoners as are still held at Guantánamo.

In 2005, following well-documented accounts of detainee deaths, torture and "disappeared" prisoners, the U.S. undertook efforts to turn the facility over to the Afghan government.

But due to a series of legal, bureaucratic and administrative missteps, the prison is still under U.S. military control. And a recent confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has reportedly complained about the continued mistreatment of prisoners.

The ICRC report is said to cite massive overcrowding, "harsh" conditions, lack of clarity about the legal basis for detention, prisoners held "incommunicado" in "a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells" and "sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions". Some prisoners have been held without charges or lawyers for more than five years.

The Red Cross said that dozens of prisoners have been held incommunicado for weeks or even months, hidden from prison inspectors.

Jonathan Hafetz, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, told IPS, "When prisoners are in American custody and under American control, no matter the location, our values and commitment to the rule of law are at stake."

"Torture and abuse at Bagram is further evidence that prisoner abuse in U.S. custody was systemic, not aberrational, and originated at the highest levels of government. We must learn the truth about what went wrong, hold the proper people accountable and make sure these failed policies are not continued or repeated," he said.

In April, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records pertaining to the detention and treatment of prisoners held at Bagram, including the number of people currently detained, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention.

The ACLU is also seeking records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as "enemy combatants".

"The U.S. government’s detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "The American people have a right to know what’s happening at Bagram and whether prisoners have been tortured there."

Thousands of individuals from all over the world have been taken to the airfield prison, and it is being expanded with a new prison to hold more than 11,000.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.