The Other American Gulag: Bagram Prison's Legal Black Hole Locks Detainees in Nightmarish Limbo
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan tours Bagram Prison.
Photo Credit: US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan/Flickr
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Ayaz was 15 when he traveled to Afghanistan, from his native Pakistan, to take a job in a restaurant.
He had been there a few weeks when American soldiers entered, asked for him by name, and took him away. That was in 2004. It was the start of a six-year nightmare. Ayaz was held first at a military base, and then at the notorious Bagram prison. To this day, he does not understand why he was detained, but believes a co-worker falsely accused him of being a terrorist in exchange for a reward.
During his imprisonment, he had little access to justice. “They said that I was a suicide bomber and that I want to bomb the USA,” he said. “I had a representative who was not a lawyer. He would often make my case worse.” In 2011, Ayaz was repatriated to Pakistan. He claims he had been cleared two years earlier, after US officials determined that he was not a combatant and there were no grounds to hold him.
Ayaz, now in his early 20s, lost six years of his life, but he was one of the lucky ones. Of the 3,000 prisoners currently held at Bagram prison, there remain around 67 foreign nationals, who are caught in a legal black hole and held without charge, trial or even access to a lawyer. As the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, the question of what will happen to this notorious prison is becoming more pressing. Is it about to become the next Guantanamo?
The prison is the largest of the detention centers opened by the US as part of its military operations in Afghanistan. Located around 60 kilometers north of Kabul, it gets its name from the Bagram Air Base, to which the original site was adjacent. The prison came into use soon after the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but in 2004—because of difficulties detaining extra prisoners at Guantanamo Bay—it became the primary detention site for suspected militants and terrorists. This included Afghans and non-Afghans captured as part of the war on terror. By 2008, it held 630 detainees, double the numbers held at Guantanamo. With resources under strain, it was replaced by a permanent facility at Parwan in 2009, where the several thousand prisoners now reside. (Its official name is the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP), but the prison is still colloquially referred to as Bagram.)
The US is preparing to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, and it does not particularly want to retain a detention facility in the country. With great fanfare, control of Afghan detainees was handed over to the Afghan authorities earlier this year, but the foreign nationals being held at the prison still pose a problem.
Each case involving a foreign national requires lengthy, bureaucratic repatriation negotiations between the US and the receiving country. Discussions between Pakistani and American authorities regarding prisoners at Bagram have stretched on for years; some of the detainees still held at the facility were cleared for release as far back as 2010, but remain stranded there. Two sticking points are ensuring their safety: under international law, the US cannot send detainees to countries where they are likely to be tortured, and it must ensure that any threat they pose to security is sufficiently mitigated.
If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the same set of problems that have prevented the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Congress has imposed burdensome restrictions on repatriation, making it very difficult to close these prisons. In May this year, President Obama remarked: “I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States.”