On 10 September 2012, the US authorities handed over control of the Bagram prison to Afghan authorities. Despite a plethora of evidence showing grave abuses, Bagram probably remains more famous for the escape of Abu Yahya al Libi – and three others – than for its numerous reported human rights violations. The transfer of several thousands of alleged Taliban fighters and terrorism suspects is evidently part of appearing to return sovereignty to the Afghans and a step forward towards the peace process. However, the Iraqi experience suggests that this move is likely to have devastating effects on the fundamental rights of the detainees.
Bagram, the forgotten Guantanamo
“Before I went to Guantanamo Bay, I had to go through the process of being held in secret detention sites, one of them was the Bagram Facility... By the time they finish with you in these places, as far as I was concerned, I was looking forward to go to Guantanamo Bay” Moazzam Begg
From very early on in the War on Terror, Bagram detention centre has been a key facility in the network of secret prisons deployed by the US in the 9/11 aftermath. Many detainees were first held in Bagram soon after they were kidnapped before being rendered to Guantanamo Bay or other black sites across the world. We know that torture victims such as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, Binyam Mohammed and Aafia Siddiqui were once kept there for several months.
Allegations of brutal torture in Bagram itself are plenty: numerous detainees have mentioned being severely beaten, sleep deprived, threatened with dogs as well as being subjected to grave sexual assaults (including rape).
Most of all, as Moazzam Begg highlighted, Bagram should be seen as a crime scene since homicides were reportedly committed there, several of which have been medically recorded and accepted by US authorities. The autopsies of Mullah Habibullah and Dilawar, among others, expressly confirmed this fact.
Moazzam Begg himself, a former detainee at Bagram, has explained he witnessed two inmates being savagely beaten to death.
In many aspects, Bagram can be said to be worse than its Cuban counterpart. The facility held nearly ten times as many detainees as kept in Guantanamo. Inmates cannot see the evidence used against them, nor have they the right to have a lawyer representing them.
Many think that the hand-over to the Afghan authorities will end this travesty of justice: the local sovereign justice will provide a fair hearing to all the detainees and facilitate the release of those found not guilty. Nevertheless, if the turn-over of the detainees captured in Iraq by US forces to Iraqi authorities is anything to go by, the injustices and crimes suffered by the prisoners are likely to be forgotten, while new ones will continue.
Bagram, the next Baghdad?
Abu Ghraib, unlike Bagram, sadly became infamous after the release of pictures showing American military personnel subjecting detainees to torture and sexual abuses. In December 2011, the US transferred the last detainee to the Iraqi government. Hence, 16 000 men and women who had been detained without charge or trial for up to eight years and denied the right to challenge their US custody were not in the hands of the occupying forces anymore. They were to be either charged within the domestic Iraqi system of justice or released.
But who could say what happened to them since?
Were they given a fair hearing before an independent and impartial court? Did they get the opportunity to discuss the years they spent in custody and the abuses they suffered at the hands of the US army?
The response to these questions was given in August 2012, when the Iraqi government announced (after the fact) the mass execution of 21 unnamed terrorist suspects in a single day, including three women.
Immediately after the release of the news, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, strongly condemned the executions. He notably recalled “concerns he previously expressed to the Government of Iraq about the imposition of the death penalty, including the need for transparency, stringent respect of due process and fair trial guarantees”. Many in the Human rights sphere denounced what the UN expert called “a smokescreen of flawed legal processes”.
To this day, many questions remain: Who were these people? What was their crime beside the vague allegations of terrorism?
Iraq has already put to death about 90 people this year. Nearly two hundred more executions have been approved by the Iraqi authorities and are to be carried out, yet these questions have not been answered.
As for the detainees captured by the Americans who were not sentenced to death by the Iraqis, several alarming reports have reached CagePrisoners.
A number of individuals were given extremely harsh sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years in prison on immigration charges, excluding the time already spent in US custody. Besides the due process violations, the length of the sentences is rather shocking: the punishment for an illegal entry is generally a deportation to one’s country of origin, not a murderer-like jail term.
Furthermore, as bad as it might have been under the US control, Cageprisoners has also received several complaints stating that the conditions of detention have consistently worsened since the turn-over. Some detainees allege their most basic needs are not met. They do not receive adequate medical treatment and do not always have access to running water while the prison facility is unsanitary. All this is aggravated by what inmates perceive as a religious discrimination between Shiite and Sunni Muslims (to the advantage of the former).
Bearing in mind that even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does not visit Iraqi prisons anymore, these prisoners will be effectively forgotten about and left open to unconstrained abuses by the state.
Last week, the US authorities announced that no charges could be brought against anybody in the murder of Gul Rehman in the CIA ‘Salt Pit’ black site in Afghanistan, thereby whitewashing any wrongdoing involved in the case. This transfer of authority over Bagram should be seen as perfecting this whitewashing process. By turning over (i.e. getting rid of) Bagram detainees to the local government, the US authorities transfer the unfair process they are ashamed of providing themselves. Ten years ago, the United States was outsourcing torture; today they delegate judicial parody. By this process, they remove one of the last thorns in their side. What remains is Guantanamo, an ongoing source of embarrassment that can’t be handed over to anyone else.