The Sunday Herald
July 4, 2009
INVESTIGATION: US detention centre under suspicion as eerily familiar claims OF torture and rendition flights surface from the airbase on the outskirts of Kabul. by Ian Pannell, BBC Afghanistan Correspondent
NOOR HABIB'S hands shake as he draws a picture of how he says he was abused. He claims that he was taken to a small, darkened cell where his arms were tied to the ceiling and he was made to stand in waist-deep water for six hours at a time.
He says he was beaten, threatened with dogs, and deprived of sleep. He also claims there was nothing unusual about his treatment, "everyone else has the same story".
Habib was an inmate at the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility, an American military detention centre outside Kabul. Now, for the first time, detailed allegations of widespread abuse and neglect have been made about this top-secret camp.
"I didn't think a prison like Bagram ever existed on earth. It is a place that has no rules or law," says Sabrullah, another ex-inmate.
Over a period of more than two months, we tracked down 27 former detainees. There were others, but they were afraid to speak or had been warned not to. Just two said they had been treated well. Many allegations of ill-treatment appear repeatedly in the interviews; physical abuse, the use of stress positions, excessive heat or cold, unbearably loud noise, being forced to remove clothes in front of female soldiers and in four cases, being threatened with death at gunpoint.
The account of an inmate known as Dr Khandan is one of the most harrowing. He says he was kept in isolation for months and treated worse than an animal: "They deprived us of sleep, they put us in a cold room and turned the air conditioning on and would take away the blanket. They poured cold water on you in winter and hot water in summer. They used dogs against us. They put a pistol to your head and threatened you with death. They put some kind of medicine in the water to make you sleepless and then they would interrogate you."
All the men who spoke to us were interviewed in isolation and they were all asked the same questions. They were held at times between 2002 and 2008 and they were all accused of belonging to or helping al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
None of the inmates were charged with any offence or put on trial; some even received apologies when they were released. While none of the allegations can be independently verified, the ill-treatment they describe also appears in an inquiry by US Senators into the handling of detainees in US custody, and they match the findings of interviews with ex-inmates conducted by human-rights organisations and legal groups. They are very similar to the methods that were used at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
"The conditions at Bagram were harder than Guantanamo," says Taj Mohammed. The camp has held thousands of people over the last eight years and a new multi-million dollar detention centre is currently under construction.
Most of the inmates are Afghans but some were captured abroad and brought here under a process known as "extraordinary rendition", including at least two Britons. The Obama administration says they are dangerous men and it classifies them as "terrorist suspects" and "enemy combatants" rather than "prisoners of war".
It is a legal classification that critics say deliberately denies inmates access to lawyers or the right to appeal or even complain about their treatment.
The Pentagon has denied the charges and it insists that all inmates are treated humanely. We were not allowed to visit Bagram, nor was anyone made available for an interview. Instead, a spokesman for the US secretary of defence responded to written questions. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wright insisted that conditions at Bagram meet international standards for care and custody. In a statement, he said: "Department of Defence policy is and always has been to treat detainees humanely. There have been well-documented instances where that policy was not followed, and service members have been held accountable for their actions."
The US military said it would investigate any serious claims of abuse, but none of the men interviewed had been made aware of any formal complaints procedure.
But another former inmate, known as Mirwais, said: "They have no respect for human beings. They blame others for violating human rights. You just go and see how they violate human rights."
Since coming to office, president Barack Obama has banned the use of torture and ordered a review of its policy on detainees, which is expected to report next month. But unlike Guantanamo Bay, the prisoners at Bagram have no access to lawyers and they cannot challenge their detention.
Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, a legal support group which is bringing a test case in the States to try to win representation for four detainees, says the inmates at Bagram are being kept in "a legal black hole, without access to lawyers or courts".
She is pursuing legal action that, if successful, would grant detainees the same rights as those still being held at Guantanamo Bay, but the Obama administration is trying to block the move.
Last summer, the US Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo should be given legal rights. Speaking on the campaign trail, Obama applauded the ruling: "The Court's decision is a rejection of the Bush Administration's attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo. This is an important step toward re-establishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus."
Foster accuses Obama of abandoning that position and "using the same arguments as the Bush White House".
In its legal submissions, the US Justice Department argues that because Afghanistan is an active combat zone it is not possible to conduct rigorous inquiries into individual cases and that it would divert precious military resources at a crucial time. Pentagon spokesman Wright says: "Detention during wartime is not criminal punishment and therefore does not require that individuals be charged or tried in a court of law."
Obama has also ruled against an earlier decision to release photos that show abuse of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan.
Ex-inmate Esmatullah says he has trouble breathing when he thinks about Bagram, he gets nervous at the very mention of its name. Like many others, he also claims that he was beaten and threatened during interrogation: "The Afghan translator told me he has orders to take out my eyes, break my legs and hands. I said I am not afraid of dying. Then he hit me with a stick so hard that I had severe pains in my back for a month and a half."
Unlike Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Bagram has received scant attention so far. The men would like an official apology, recognition of the abuse they say they have suffered and compensation.
These revelations come at a time when president Obama is trying to re-set America's relationship with the Muslim world and he is redoubling US efforts to win the war in Afghanistan. It is a controversy that has already attracted much attention in the Afghan and Pakistan media and seriously threatens to tarnish the image of the new Obama administration on both sides of this troubled border.