Yesterday, I was delighted to take part in “Is Bagram The Other Guantánamo?,” a discussion about the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan on The Riz Khan Show on al-Jazeera, following a recent announcement by the Obama administration that it is planning to introduce Guantánamo-style tribunals for the 600 or so prisoners held at Bagram. The show is available below in two parts, via YouTube:
September 29, 2009
Former detainees at the Bagram detention centre north of Kabul claim that they have been abused. They say many of the interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo are also being used in Bagram, which holds about 600 prisoners.
We look at the conditions and treatment of detainees inside Bagram.
As I explained in two articles following the Obama administration’s announcement — “Obama Brings Guantánamo And Rendition To Bagram (And Not The Geneva Conventions)” and “Is Bagram Obama’s New Secret Prison?” — these proposals are an improvement on the existing review system for the Bagram prisoners, which, disturbingly, consists only of Unlawful Enemy Combatant Review Boards, in which the prisoners have no representation whatsoever, and are only allowed to make a statement before they hear the evidence against them. However, as I also explained in my articles, it’s clear that the decision to introduce a new review system is disturbing for two particular reasons.
The first is that the announcement of the plans for a new review process was cynically planned to persuade an appeals court to overturn a ruling in March by District Court Judge John D. Bates, who granted habeas corpus rights to the rather smaller number of foreign prisoners, held in Bagram for up to six years, who were “rendered “ to the prison from elsewhere, on the correct basis that there is no difference between these prisoners and those transferred to Guantánamo — or, as Judge Bates described it, because “the detainees themselves as well as the rationale for detention are essentially the same.”
The second is that the new proposals fail to acknowledge that prisoners seized in wartime should be held as prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions, screened on capture to separate soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and not held for an undefined amount of time before being subjected to military tribunals, for the simple reason that implementing these policies does not return American to the rule of law, as Obama promised, but instead contributes to the unilateral rewriting of the Geneva Conventions that took place under the Bush administration.
In my discussion with Riz Khan, I was joined by David Rivkin, a Conservative lawyer, for a lively debate about some of the issues involved, in which I was, in particular, delighted to insist, in the face of Mr. Rivkin’s claim that it is acceptable to hold prisoners in “irregular warfare” as “enemy combatants,” that the very concept of an “enemy combatant” is a baleful legacy of the Bush administration’s disdain for the law, and that there are only two acceptable ways of holding prisoners: either as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, who can be held until the end of hostilities, or, if they are involved in terrorism, as criminal suspects, who can and should be moved into the federal court system to face trials. Mr. Rivkin was a polite and informed guest, who was stout in his defense of the improvement in the conditions of detention for prisoners since the worst days of the Bush administration, but I found it alarming that he could consider it appropriate to believe that the threat posed by “irregular” soldiers was such that it justified a continuation of the Bush administration’s policies.
I was also pleased to have the opportunity to debunk Mr. Rivkin’s claim that federal courts are unable to deal with cases arising out of “irregular warfare” and that, because of the complexities of intelligence-gathering, they are bound to end up with judges approving the release of prisoners in the cases that come before them, because, as has been demonstrated in a compelling manner in the habeas corpus petitions of the Guantánamo prisoners who have had their cases objectively reviewed by District Court judges, the reason that these cases fail is not because of any difficulties in presenting the evidence, but because, in most cases, no evidence exists (for further details, see here, here, here and here).
Instead, what is presented as evidence by the government is mostly nothing more than groundless allegations made by other prisoners whose unreliability has been acknowledged by the military and the intelligence agencies (and who were either coerced or bribed, or who suffer from mental health problems), “mosaics” of intelligence that do not stand up to independent scrutiny, and, in the most recent case — of Fouad al-Rabiah, a Kuwaiti prisoner — the shocking truth that, following false allegations made by other prisoners, interrogators subjected him to an array of abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” — or, in other words, to techniques that may well meet the legal definition of torture — until he falsely confessed that he had met Osama bin Laden and was involved with al-Qaeda.
Note: A detailed article on Fouad al-Rabiah’s habeas corpus ruling will be available soon, but for now please see my first response, which was based only on the publicly available information at the time of the ruling, and which did not indicate the extent of his false confessions.
POSTSCRIPT: Here’s the update on Fouad al-Rabiah’s story.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.