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Bagram, Obama’s Secret Penal Colony

They look at one another, happy and deeply moved. A little self-conscious also. How to meet again after so long? How to pick up the thread of an existence interrupted three, four years ago? They hardly know how any more. At Bagram, people lose the notion of time. This December morning, they are three who have been released from "the Americans' prison." In this Kabul alley, it's a strange spectacle to see these men squeezed into their new sky blue tunics that they've exchanged for their red prisoners' uniforms. They laugh at meeting their dear ones whom they don't dare embrace. "Is it really you, Ahmad, my brother? - I thought you were dead!" Politely, the two first ex-prisoners brush aside our questions: they're in a rush to be alone with their families after such a long absence. Soon, their silhouettes disappear, erased in Kabul's dusty wind.

Only the third lingers, happy for the opportunity to speak. No one has come to pick him up. Hadji Gul Raman relates the worst with a smile. His teeth broken by punches the day of his arrest. The air conditioning that froze his bones in midwinter. The fire extinguishers that sprayed ice water on the twenty prisoners piled up in chain-linked cells. The lack of privacy, the daily fights to use the sole toilet ... These humiliations and tortures, formerly used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, are still standard operating procedure at Bagram, in spite of Barack Obama's declaration. In spite of the horror he seemed to profess for these aberrations of the "war against terrorists" begun by his predecessor. And yet, Raman did not experience the "techniques" in use during the first years of Bagram prison, built eight years ago. He did not live through what Omar Kadr - 15 years old at the time of his arrest - suffered; Kadr, whom the screws transformed into a living mop, wiping him across the floor after having coated it with floor wax. Or those that Dilawar - dead in 2002 after having been hung by the hands for four days, although there was no evidence against him - endured. According to the autopsy report, Dilawar's legs had doubled in volume.

So Hadji Gul Raman spent three years in this dungeon of America-at-war because, like almost all Afghans, he possessed a Kalashnikov ... One day in December 2006, Raman left with his uncles to find his cousin, Hadji Ahmed Sharkan, a district governor in Helmand province, kidnapped by traffickers - a national sport in Afghanistan. At a checkpoint, American soldiers searched them. They arrested the one holding the weapon; they ended up releasing the others. Raman never saw either lawyer or judge; it is consequently impossible to verify his version of events ... "They crossed me off the list of the living," he says. "I knew neither how long I would remain imprisoned nor where I was." How to locate a place that does not exist?

On No Map

For the Bagram detention center, located on an American military base in northwestern Kabul, does not figure on any map. The site of the biggest American military prison outside the United States is classified a defense secret. Unlike Guantanamo, no journalist has been able to visit the two sand-colored hangars surrounded by concrete. No outside observer, no Red Cross inspector, has had access to the detention center's "special" quarter where "very high-value" prisoners are interrogated. In this "black jail," as the detainees call it, the individual concrete cells have no window; the lights remain on 24/7. Last August, the American government limited time spent in these interrogation sites to ... two weeks.

Bagram, the prison which, in the words of an American military prosecutor, would make Guantanamo look like "a five-star hotel." Bagram, the dread of Afghans who all know a family member or a neighbor who disappeared one day without a trace, swallowed up by that black hole. Bagram, which American human rights activists have dubbed "Obama's Guantanamo." For after the new president's election, the American attorney general decreed that those imprisoned there - unlike those in Guantanamo - could not contest their detention before a civilian judge, nor even see a lawyer ... A decision so contrary to the principles asserted by Obama that he is today suspected of wanting to replace the Cuban penal colony with the Afghan prison. While the number of detainees at Guantanamo has continued to decline (there are now less than 200), it has rapidly increased at Bagram, particularly over the last few months. According to American Army spokesman Stephen Clutter, there are 750 today, including 30 non-Afghans and five minors. It is as though the United States, enmeshed in its struggle against terrorism and al-Qaeda, had finally determined that it couldn't, in time of war, make do without a lawless prison where every means is legitimate for "harvesting" intelligence. Initially a triage center for prisoners arrested in the Afghan theater of operations, Bagram became the final destination for suspects arrested in the framework of the war against terror.

In the early morning hours of a glacial December day, squatting men wait in the Kabul prosecutor's rose garden. They have come to enquire about their disappeared. Families from every region of Afghanistan have sent their old people: those who can no longer work in the fields sometimes camp for whole months in the capital in hope of having news about their prisoners. The prosecutor receives notables only, those who can produce a letter of recommendation signed by their tribal chieftain. The others are tossed from offices to little cubicles, directed to subalterns who chase them away with the back of a hand or rush to lose their files in the stacks of paperwork.

In the batch, there are guilty persons to be sure, authors of attacks animated by hatred of the occupier. But the majority of stories these men tell describe the extraordinary misunderstanding that has settled in between Afghans and the occupying troops. Fear and incomprehension. Culture shock, skillfully exploited by warlords or simple peasants: to get rid of a troublesome rival, all one has to do is denounce him as a dangerous Taliban to Western soldiers who understand nothing about all these quarrels. This war conducted by strikes of blind raids sends people to prison for years who are often guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Abdul Razak, a Kandahar bazaar merchant, was detained for five years at Guantanamo, then Bagram, because he had ... the same name as the Taliban minister of the interior. Abdul Rahman, also jailed in the Afghan prison, was accused of having killed a policeman who was not yet dead the day of his arrest ... The affair that brought Alam Khan, a young peasant, to Bagram is just as absurd. His father, an old man whose face is crisscrossed by deep wrinkles, railing against the Americans' lack of discernment, relates: "One day, in Zabul province, our neighbor Nasrallah shot my son, whose land he coveted, twice. During his convalescence, my son swore to take revenge. But before he could do so, Nasrallah had denounced him to the Americans to protect himself. He claimed that my son was a Taliban commandant, a certain Salim. Yet everybody knows that this Salim is not even from our district!"

"Zoo Smell"

Outraged by these arbitrary arrests, the committee for peace and reconciliation (charged with rallying the "moderate" Taliban to the Afghan government) and President Karzai have asked the Americans to allow the Afghan legal system to reexamine the cases of prisoners for whom their tribal chieftains vouch. The Americans - as in Iraq - finally agreed to communicate certain files to the local authorities. At this time, the committee has received over 2,300 letters from tribal chieftains which have led to hundreds of liberations. Committee member and law professor Hachimi, former adviser to the Afghan justice minister, acknowledges that these discharges have frequently been as arbitrary as the arrests: "It's too dangerous to go to the provinces to hear the protagonists. So we settle for having the detainees repeat their version of the facts. If there's no discrepancy, we propose their release. And the Americans decide ..."

Sayed Sharif Sharif, the Afghan judge charged with preparing the cases that the Americans agree to communicate to him, receives visitors in a tiny office, the cupboards of which overflow with paper. He will never forget the first time he visited the prison at Bagram: "The dogs, the zoo smell that emanated from the cages ..." Of the 600 cases he has been able to examine, 200 prisoners were immediately cleared - "judicial errors." The others were tried on minor charges and released after two years of prison. "As for the hundred or so Bagram prisoners arrested before 2007, we've never been able to obtain access to their files," says Judge Sharif.

"We Even Have to Pay the Judges"

Barack Obama, who has not given up on closing the prison at Guantanamo, has never mentioned Bagram in his speeches. Yet, after his election, he signed a decree ordering the closure of all secret sites under CIA control. That decree, however, was not applied to Bagram, because it comes under the responsibility of the Army's special forces section ... Such mystery surrounds this detention center situated in the combat zone that a good many Americans do not even know of its existence. Human rights activists' actions have lifted a corner of the veil. The American Civil Liberties Union, a New York-based NGO whose mission is "defending and preserving the individual rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States," brought a legal action and obtained a ruling obliging the American military penitentiary administration to reveal the names of most Bagram detainees. But those who figure on that list remain "enemy combatants" and still do not have the right to representation by a lawyer.

Tina Foster, a lawyer for the legal NGO headquartered in New York, the Center for Constitutional Rights, was defending Guantanamo prisoners when she realized that the worst physical maltreatment undergone by her clients had taken place at Bagram. Since she has been looking into the case of the "Afghan gulag," the young woman receives Obama's promises with skepticism. The American government has just announced that it was considering confiding the administration of the prison to the Afghan government as soon as it had trained the necessary personnel. But Tina Foster doesn't believe it. She points out that no date has been fixed for this transfer of power that is all the more hypothetical in that President Karzai, who for months has been trying - in vain - to form a government, has never been weaker. "They're not preparing to close the prison at all," states the lawyer. "On the contrary, they're enlarging it. The United States needs Bagram to be able to replace Guantanamo. With respect to the methods of the war against terror, nothing but the language has changed from the Bush administration to the Obama administration." Meanwhile, for the last few months, the Bagram prisoners against whom there is the least evidence are being progressively transferred to the Afghan Pul-e Charkhi prison - which is also being enlarged. There, they recover an identity and receive a verdict, a prelude to their exit from prison: a manner of providing a legal framework to their liberation, in the absence of any for their incarceration. But this step towards freedom is not without pitfalls, since, in the Afghan legal system, other ambushes lie in wait for "releasables." As the father of Hayatullah, a 20-year-old prisoner who has hoped for months to get out of the Pul-e Charkhi limbo, explains: "If my son is innocent, why not liberate him directly? Since he's been at Pul-e-Charkhi, we have to pay all the time, even the judges. But we don't have the means ... The rich Taliban commandants, they have comfortable cells; they've even got cell phones!"

In a confidential 700-page report on the prison system in Afghanistan ordered by Gen. David Petraeus, marine officer Douglas Stone has demonstrated the system's perversity. Of 600 prisoners incarcerated at Bagram in June 2009, at least 400 were innocent! But the detention conditions and prison overpopulation result from the multiplication of military operations, notably in the south of the country, frequently leading to the transformation of innocents into fanatics. In other words: arbitrary detentions and abuse manufacture terrorists on an assembly line; a vicious circle that the dispatch of 30,000 additional soldiers risks reinforcing. And which seriously undermines the cause for which America fights in Afghanistan. Such is the paradox of Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who is conducting wars on two fronts. A sincere humanist who maintains secret prisons in violation of the principles of that America which elected him.

Since Obama has been the United States president, the number of prisoners at Bagram prison has continued to rise. To answer human rights activists' criticisms, the American administration has just built a new building (cost: $67 million) as yet unoccupied. It will be able to shelter only 300 prisoners of the 750 still held in the dilapidated cages of the old prison.

Tina Foster

Since 2005, Tina Foster, a 35-year-old New York lawyer, has gone to bat for Bagram prisoners. In their name, she submits habeas corpus petitions (in principle, it is illegal in the United States to imprison anyone without a trial) but up until now, in vain. Tina Foster campaigned for Obama, thinking that he would put an end to the illegal methods implemented in the name of the "war against terror." Today, she is cruelly disappointed.

For barely two years, and thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Bagram prisoners have been able to communicate with their family members through videoconferencing. The ICRC also obtained permission, in September 2008, to organize family visits within the confines of the prison. However, recently, detainees have refused to participate to protest against their conditions of imprisonment.

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was Bagram prison's most famous detainee. He stayed there before being sent to a secret jail in Poland, then to Guantanamo. At Bagram, he was tortured: "They stuck a tube in my anus into which water was poured," he confided to Red Cross representatives.

At the London Conference on Afghanistan, the question of national reconciliation with the Taliban was discussed ... According to the UN's Kabul representative, Norwegian Kai Eide, a first subject of discussion with the Taliban faction could bear on the "list of detainees at Bagram prison."

Sara Daniel, for Le Nouvel Observateur (c) 2010

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor, Leslie Thatcher.

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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