A new report by a Pakistani legal organization that represents detainees at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan details the effects indefinite detention has on the detainees, as well as their families and loved ones, including emotional and financial hardship. The report, Closing Bagram: The Other Guantanamo, was issued by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), which represents 11 of the about 60 individuals the U.S. government is holding without charge or trial at Bagram (officially known as the Detention Facility at Parwan). Testimonials from detainees’ family members can also be viewed online.
Sarah Belal, the director of JPP, says the debate about America’s detention policies is almost always focused on legal questions or national security concerns – both of which shift attention away from the identities of the individuals actually being held. “The detention system and U.S. narrative surrounding it is intentionally dehumanizing and seeks to erase the humanity and histories and individualities of the victims of such policies,” says Belal. “By focusing on the accounts of the families of the detainees, we are challenging the U.S. narrative (which is largely based on classified evidence, hearsay, etc.) of these guys being ‘bad men’ and terrorists by tracing out their histories, gathering their family histories and compiling accounts of their lives.”
The United States transferred control of the Bagram facility to the Afghan government in March 2013, after months of delays cause by tensions between the two countries. Despite handing over control, however, the U.S. has continued to hold around 60 individuals under a stated law of war authority – the same legal rationale that applies to the detainees at Guantanamo. All of the U.S.-held detainees at Bagram are non-Afghans, and about two-thirds of them are Pakistani.
Detainee review boards (known as DRBs) were established in 2009 to determine whether these individuals should continue to be held, though the process is done by an administrative body composed entirely of U.S. officials, not a court. Detainees don’t have independent access to lawyers, a fact that the JPP report is critical of. And even if the review board clears a detainee for transfer, several obstacles remain, such as ensuring that their home country won’t torture them upon return.
In the report, Ayaz, a young man held for six years at Bagram, says: “The DRBs were a joke, another way to humiliate us.” He adds: “The only evidence they had against me is what they first forced me to sign at [a U.S. military base in] Paktika [province].”
Detention causes significant financial hardship to the families of detainees. “For all the families interviewed, their relative’s detention meant they are robbed of someone who provided substantial financial support, and was often the family’s primary breadwinner,” the report states. Other reports on the effects of drone strikes have reported similar findings on the economic hardship caused when heads of households are killed in drone strikes.
Little is known about the day-to-day conditions of the facility in the years before the transfer to the Afghan government, but interviews with several people familiar with the facility help shed some light on it. One former Bagram prison guard, whose deployment ended months prior to the transfer this March, chose to speak to Rolling Stone to correct misperceptions that date back to the Bush years. “It’s not really what you think,” says the former guard, repeatedly stressing that torture does not take place at Bagram – “Abu Ghraib is over.” (This source requested anonymity because guards are not allowed to speak publicly about their time at Bagram.)
The former guard says not all of the detainees were hardened jihadis, though some certainly were. As the former guard understood it, “a lot [of the detainees] were not that important.” Some were detained “maybe [because of] a phone call” to the wrong person, while others “might be there for a false passport.” Prison guards at Bagram do not have direct access to intelligence files, and much of the former guard’s knowledge of the reasons for detention is second-hand.
According to the former guard, detainees were kept in group cells that held about 30 individuals each. Each housing unit contained around 14 to 16 group cells, which the guard says were generally grouped by nationality or ethnicity, which meant captured Pakistanis were not kept in the same group cell as captured Afghans. According to the guard, there are about 13 housing units at Bagram, including a medical unit and a Security Housing Unit (SHU). The guard didn’t describe the SHU, but in federal prisons SHUs are used to isolate prisoners in effective solitary confinement, often for disciplinary purposes. It’s not clear to what extent any of these conditions continue now that the facility is run by the Afghan government, with the exception of the 60-some detainees held by the U.S.
Belal says she can’t confirm the number of housing units at Bagram, but she has “heard similar things from Pakistani embassy officials in Kabul and ex-detainees – that the detainees are kept in huge cages holding up to 30 people divided by ethnicity with the Pakistani detainees in one cage and others (such as Arabs) grouped together in a separate cage.” She adds that the roughly 3,000 Afghan prisoners at Bagram are in a separate section now that they’ve been transferred to Afghan control.
The idea of detainees being held for a reason like having a fake passport rings true to Belal. “I would believe that to be more likely than the charges that the U.S. authorities are purporting to hold them on,” she says. “That is why most of the Pakistani ex-detainees released from Bagram have been released without any request for continued detention, and in fact the Pakistani Ministry of Interior has informed us that the ones that have been returned are not found to be in violation of any law except crossing the border without the proper paperwork.”
A U.S. Department of Defense official, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to comment publicly on the subject, would not say whether Afghans, Pakistanis and Arabs are separated at Bagram, but says he is “confident” that there must have been a SHU when U.S. forces controlled the facility. Regarding the group cells, he says that “in the early days, that could possibly be right” but couldn’t confirm whether or not it happened later on. The official says he “cannot imagine” that detainees would’ve been held in 2012 or early 2013 for an infringement like having a fake passport – though he acknowledges that until mid-2009 or so, it “was likely” someone could have been detained for that reason.