Bagram: do you want to be a sponge or a punch-bag?

The BBC’s report about how 27 former detainees of the US military detention centre at Bagram in Afghanistan say they were abused doesn’t do a lot more than put more flesh on the bones of what we already knew.

Journalists and investigators have for years been calling Bagram the “Afghan Guantánamo”. From what we can gather, this place is effectively Camp Delta without the iguanas. GITMO without the TV cameras.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Numerous former Guantánamo prisoners have talked with undisguised horror about what it was like to be kidnapped and then held in total secrecy at Bagram or (apparently even worse) at the US-run “Dark Prison” near Kabul or yet another facility in Kandahar.

At Guantánamo we had the glare of publicity right from the beginning. With hindsight this proved important as George Bush’s administration was, over time, forced to allow a (grudging) media interest that almost certainly contributed to Obama’s decision to close it.

Without those Abu Ghraib photos would we have had investigations and courts martial over degradation and abuse there? Doubtful. If even the tightly controlled visits of journalists to Cuba had been forbidden would international confidence (such as it was) in the camp have lingered on for as long as it did? I don’t think so.

Information is often key, which is why the Obama administration – I repeat, the Obama administration – is trying so hard to choke off any and all info about Bagram. If you’re Amnesty International guess what your chances are of getting into Bagram. Yes: zero. Other human rights organisations? The same. Lawyers? Prisoner can’t see one. Families? Ditto. Only the Red Cross ever gets to go into Bagram and even it has warned of “ghost prisoners” being hidden from its inspectors in a “warren of isolation cells”.

What Amnesty has (with characteristic understatement!) called a “culture of secrecy” at Bagram has even thwarted a US federal judge who recently requested that the US Justice Department provide information about prisoners held there (numbers, nationalities, how taken there etc). The documents it got back were heavily blacked out and next to useless (yes: governments all around the world are oh so fond or redactions).

As things stand lawyers in the US are still trying to win the minimum right for Bagram detainees to challenge their detention. This is like Guantánamo circa 2003. There’s no doubt that hundreds (maybe thousands) of “security” detainees held by the US in Afghanistan in the last eight years have been denied their basic rights. It also looks like a lot of them were used as a punch-bag and squeezed like a sponge for “intelligence”. In my time at Amnesty one of my most vivid memories is hearing the German-Turkish man Murat Kurnaz talking about seeing people being tortured and killed in US custody in Afghanistan.

In a nutshell it’s utterly disturbing and disgraceful that even now the US authorities refuse to properly investigate Bagram abuse allegations, refuse to allow prisoners to see lawyers or gain access to the courts, and refuse to even tell the world who is being held there and why.

As Amnesty’s Kate Allen was saying a few days ago in the New Statesman, Afghanistan already has enough human rights problems on its plate. Does it really need Bagram as well?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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