Wednesday, May 02, 2007

BTIF: Bagram, Black Hole

I've been a fan of Eliza Griswold ever since I read some of her poetry in the New Yorker and then read more of her work on the Pastun/tribal Pakistani-Afghan border. Her latest piece for the New Republic, "The Other Guantantamo: Black Hole" is a wake-up call.

Sometimes the spotlight on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo leads the public to forget that the US still operates a prison at Bagram Airbase, and probably other secret prisons in Afghanistan. The military has a virtual free-hand to treat the 650 prisoners there as it wishes because of the lack of media scrutiny and the overall lack of interest in Afghanistan. What I find really interesting is the father of a detainee's insistence on the existence of photos proving abuse at Bagram. He desperately knows that after Abu Ghraib, without photos, the world simply does not care. I decided to post the whole article here for future reference:
Early last spring, outside a guesthouse in Kabul where I was staying, an injured Afghan man limped up to the locked gate. He wore a blazer with suede elbow patches and leaned on crutches. Because a suicide bomber had attacked the building not long before, a guard blocked the entrance of the unannounced supplicant. The fact that the man refused to give his name didn't help his case. But, finally, once inside, he blurted his reason for traveling across a war zone to the building: He had heard that American lawyers with whom I was traveling were staying there and that these lawyers wanted to represent prisoners held by the Americans at Bagram Airbase, some 40 miles north. "My son is in prison at Bagram," the man said, clutching a cell phone: A sympathetic Afghan guard inside Bagram Theater Internment Facility (btif) had sent him a photograph of his son after he had been badly beaten, his eye swollen shut.

Btif is currently home to about 650 detainees. Unlike the prison in Guantánamo, there aren't congressional junkets regularly touring the facility, let alone any reporters. Inside one of the low-slung, pale concrete buildings, on the vast floor of what was once a machine shop, is a scene one former interrogator describes as a dungeon, full of "medieval sounds"--the dragging of leg shackles, shouts from military police. Most of its windows, initially installed by the Soviet army, are broken and boarded up. There are six large 60-foot-long cages ringed in coiled barbed wire where detainees are kept, 15 to 20 prisoners to a cage. Before the prisoners enter or leave these cages, they are transferred temporarily to cages large enough for only one prisoner called "sally ports," which are encased in coils of concertina wire and reinforced with steel beams. On a level above the machine shop floor, there are isolation rooms walled in plywood with chicken-wire ceilings.

The man had come to the guest house on bad information. The lawyers with whom I traveled represented prisoners in Guantánamo, and they weren't seeking new clients from Bagram. As the man took in this depressing fact, he grew irate and began pressing his case with even greater fervor. "There are more photographs," he exclaimed, turning to leave. "Someday, you will see them."

That day may be fast approaching. The photos accompanying this piece are the first to be published from inside the prison. Last month, lawyers pleaded two separate cases before the D.C. District Court, demanding that the justices review petitions of habeas corpus for Bagram detainees. These cases represent the rare moment when Bagram will actually receive scrutiny. Unlike Guantánamo, a puddle-jumper away from Miami, Bagram is tucked into the Afghan countryside, not far from where combat with the Taliban still flares. And this remoteness has made the plight of its prisoners all the more dire: Only the International Committee of the Red Cross knows the names of Bagram's occupants. Eric Lewis, a co-counsel in one of the habeas cases, says, "The nightmare of Guantánamo is something of a picnic compared to Bagram," a fact that prisoners can relate with firsthand knowledge: A good portion of the detainees in Guantánamo were first held in Bagram. "Our clients were beaten more badly in Afghanistan than in Guantánamo, basically because, in Cuba, the whole world is watching," says Lewis.

Bagram is a 6.5-square-mile plot located on the vast, once-verdant Shomali plain and encircled by the snowy Panjshir mountains. After the Soviet invasion in the late '70s, the Russians built a two-mile runway and airbase at Bagram. During the decades of civil war, the defunct base repeatedly switched between Taliban and Northern Alliance control. In late 2001, as it trounced the Taliban, the United States took possession of the base and outfitted its cavernous machine shop to detain captured combatants. Former prisoners and interrogators say that there were old Soviet signs written in Cyrillic still on the walls.

The detention facility was designed as a short-term collection point, where American interrogators sorted erroneous and low-level captures from those of higher intelligence value. And, at first, the prison actually served this purpose: Detainees from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and North Africa were transported to Guantánamo--although there are still some Arabs held at Bagram. (We know this, in part, because a Yemeni prisoner, held virtually incommunicado for more than five years, sent his father a letter through the Red Cross. "BT," meaning Bagram Theater, was marked on the upper-left-hand corner.)

From the start, the processing of prisoners entailed some grisly practices. When Captain Carolyn Wood assumed control of the prison in the summer of 2002--she ran it until taking over Abu Ghraib a year later--interrogation tactics came to include beatings, anal violation with sharp objects, blows to the genitals, and "peroneal" strikes (an incapacitating blow to the leg with a baton, a knee, or a shin). We know about these tactics because an internal Army investigation into two prisoner deaths was obtained by The New York Times. These detainees--a 22-year-old taxi driver and the brother of a Taliban commander--were found dead and hanging from the wrists by shackles. A coroner's report said the two men died after being subjected to dozens of peroneal strikes. According to the coroner's report, the "pulpified" legs of one of the corpses looked as if they had "been run over by a bus."

During these early years, one of the most notorious figures at the prison was Private First Class Damien M. Corsetti, known in turns as the "King of Torture" and "Monster." Corsetti tattooed an Italian translation of the latter moniker across his stomach. In the end, a military tribunal cleared Corsetti of all charges. His lawyer successfully argued before the tribunal that the rules for detainee treatment were unclear: "The president of the United States doesn't know what the rules are. The secretary of defense doesn't know what the rules are. But the government expects this Pfc. to know what the rules are?" But, in the course of proving his innocence, Corsetti revealed several damning details. One of the prisoners he called to testify on his behalf told the military judges that a Saudi detainee recounted how Corsetti had threatened to rape him. He had even taken out his penis and yelled, "This is your God!"

It's not that Bagram has entirely escaped scrutiny. Army investigators have recommended criminal charges for 27 alleged Bagram-based torturers. But, of these 27, only four soldiers have been sentenced to prison time--for no more than several months. The alleged abusers have evaded punishment largely with the help of, among others, Donald Rumsfeld, who approved a December 2002 memorandum that permitted the use of stripping, dogs, and stress positions in interrogations. In fact, many of the top brass who presided over Bagram have done more than escape punishment. Despite the many accounts of Captain Wood's encouragement of torture--Amnesty International has called her a "torture architect"--she has received two Bronze Stars.

While Bagram began as a temporary jail, it has over time morphed into a more permanent facility. As the bulk of its Arab prisoners were shipped to Guantánamo, it increasingly held Afghans for long (and in many cases indefinite) terms. "One of the worst aspects of Bagram is that no one knows how long they'll be held there," says Sam Zia-Zarifi, the research director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. The secrecy shrouding the prison makes it hard to discern the precise composition of its occupants. But we do know that, last year, its population swelled by about 100 detainees, thanks to new U.S.-nato operations aimed at routing the resurgent Taliban. And even the Pentagon has implicitly conceded that the prison no longer serves its initial short-term purpose, changing its name from Bagram Collection Point to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility.

During this transformation, some of the worst abuses at Bagram, such as anal violations and beatings, have been curbed, according to former detainees, the Afghan Human Rights Commission, and Human Rights Watch. The Department of Defense claims that prisoners now gain an average of 15 pounds during their detention. And, several weeks ago, the first Afghan prisoners were transferred from Bagram into Afghan custody in the U.S.-built wing of the infamous Policharki prison. Lieutenant Colonel Todd Vician, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, tells me, "We have no desire to be the world's jailer."

But, for all these changes, the growing detainee population still lives in overcrowded cages. Prisoners don't even have the limited access to lawyers available to prisoners in Guantánamo. Nor do they have the right to Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which Guantánamo detainees won in the 2004 Supreme Court ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Instead, if a combat commander chooses, he can convene an Enemy Combatant Review Board (ecrb), at which the detainee has no right to a personal advocate, no chance to speak in his own defense, and no opportunity to review the evidence against him. The detainee isn't even allowed to attend. And, thanks to such limited access to justice, many former detainees say they have no idea why they were either detained or released.

With a victory in the pending habeas cases, Bagram detainees might eventually win the same legal rights now held by Guantánamo prisoners. But, according to Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network and co-counsel on the habeas petitions, "Even if the cases are successful, we are unlikely to see dramatic changes at Bagram any time soon." It will remain too far from the public eye, too deep in a war zone, to receive the public pressure that forced the reform of Guantánamo. That's a shame, because the prison--and, more precisely, its infamy--has hurt the American cause in Afghanistan. "[It] undermines our legitimacy in building democracy and human rights in Afghanistan," says Barnett Rubin, director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

I began to understand this cost as I sat in the Kabul guesthouse with the American lawyers. Over a cup of tea, one local official named Zalmay Shah told us that he had once worked closely with U.S. Special Forces. At the beginning of the U.S. invasion, he had helped a commander named "Tony" round up a handful of midlevel Taliban. The soldiers had awarded him a letter of commendation for his efforts, and he developed a sincere affection for the Americans. That soon changed.

While delivering one wanted man into U.S. custody, Shah was himself arrested, hooded, shackled, and stripped. Soldiers taped his mouth shut, refusing to let him spit out the snuff he was chewing. For three days, his jailers in Bagram denied him food. All the while, Shah pleaded his innocence and reminded the Americans of his friendship with "Tony." And, eventually, the Americans concluded that they had mistakenly identified the man as a Taliban official and released him. Despite all this, the U.S. military has continued to ask Shah for his help. "I have refused," he told us. "When the Americans came, we thought we would be free. But, on the contrary, we have suffered." Placing his elbows on the table, he hunched forward and cupped his hands around the now cold tea. "If the Americans don't change their policies soon, neither we nor they will have a way out."

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