Uncertain future for prisoners held at secret US prisons in Afghanistan

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Monday, September 29, 2014

The fate of a group of prisoners held in near-total secrecy by US forces at a prison in Afghanistan is hanging in limbo, the facility's commander said, as Washington gropes for options after its legal right to hold them there expires in December.

The inmates - all foreign nationals captured on battlefields around the world - could be transferred to the US court system or, as a last resort, to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, Brigadier General Patrick J. Reinert told Reuters.

The possibility of the Bagram detainees' remaining in US custody has alarmed rights groups.

"It would be an absolute nightmare if that happened ... We don't even know who they are ... Our effort is to ensure all Pakistanis are back before the end of December," said Maryam Haq, a lawyer with the Justice Project Pakistan.

The quandary over what to do with the detainees held in a prison near Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, has rekindled the outrage over the US policy of rendition in the early phases of the Afghan war.

In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, "suspected" militants were abducted and held in secret prisons worldwide without charge or evidence.

The United State allegedly abandoned that policy under President Barack Obama, but the detention of those being held near Bagram is a reminder that the issue has not been concluded.

In 2010, BBC documented stories of nine witnesses who said that Afghan prisoners are being abused in a "secret jail" at Bagram airbase.

"They call it the Black Hole," Sher Agha, who spent six days in the facility last autumn, told BBC at the time.

"When they released us they told us we should not tell our stories to outsiders because that will harm us."

According to BBC, in the Bagram prison prisoners were moved around in wheelchairs with goggles and headphones on.

The goggles were blacked out, and the purpose of the headphones was to block out all sound. Each prisoner was handcuffed and had their legs shackled.

In September, The Guardian said the US had quietly released 14 Pakistani citizens from the detention center on the outskirts of Bagram Airfield which is known formally as the Detention Facility in Parwan.

None of the 14 Pakistanis, who were held by the US in wartime detention, was ever charged with a crime.

According to The Guardian, the Bagram non-Afghans – mostly Pakistanis, but also Yemenis, Tunisians, a Jordanian and a Russian – "have no access to lawyers and judges, and have minimal ability to contest their detention. The US has never publicly named the non-Afghans it holds, let alone explained the circumstances of each man’s detention."

Abdul Sattar, a Pakistani man recently released from Bagram detention, confirmed to the Guardian in July that non-Afghan detainees often go on hunger strike to protest their confinement and its terms. He estimated taking part in five or six hunger strikes in less than three years of detention.

While hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay captured global attention in 2013, the overwhelming secrecy the US places around its non-Afghan Bagram detainees kept the hunger strikes there almost entirely invisible to the outside world, reducing pressure on the US government to address the detentions.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent non-profit Research Organization, revealed that inmates are still until now being secretly taken, interrogated, and tortured by US military forces on a secret site on Bagram Airbase known as Tor Jail meaning black prison.

The ANN has described the Tor Jail as another Guantanamo.

"We've got to resolve their fate by either returning them to their home country or turning them over to the Afghans for prosecution or any other number of ways that the Department of Defense has to resolve," Reinert told Reuters.

Almost nothing is known of the detainees' identities. The United States has declined to disclose their nationalities, where they were captured and how many are still in its custody.

Their status is increasingly urgent because the United States will lose the right to hold prisoners in Afghanistan after the 2014 end of mission for the US-led force there.

Most of the prisoners are Pakistani, according to the human rights group Justice Project Pakistan. Some are from Yemen, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The inmates remained in US custody after the prison on the outskirts of the US military's Bagram base handed its Afghan detainees over to Afghan control last year.

The United States wants to repatriate the detainees to their home countries, Reinert said, but that might not be possible because Washington has not received assurances they will not
prosecuted at home or kept in humane conditions.

"Until the country provides assurances, the individual cannot be transferred," he said. He declined to say how many were held at the prison.

There were about 50 foreign nationals there last year when it was transferred to Afghan control, US officials said at the time, but some have since been repatriated.

One possible solution could be to transfer them to the United States, where they could be prosecuted.

"If someone has committed a crime overseas that could be a crime also in the United States, a detainee could be transferred back to the United States," Reinert said.

They could also end up in Guantanamo Bay, although this was less likely because of pressure to close the facility, he said.

Obama's 2008 vow to close the prison in Cuba has gone unfulfilled, and there are 155 detainees still held there because they are either considered too dangerous to release or the United States cannot find another country to take them.

The United States had long resisted handing over the prison over concerns "dangerous" prisoners would be set free by the Afghan authorities and had earlier strongly objected to Afghanistan's release of about 65 prisoners.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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