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US Withholds Information About Bagram Detainees

by Danielle Kurtzleben

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government continues to withhold even the most basic information about prisoners in the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a New York-based legal rights organization.

Bagram prison, Afghanistan. An April 2009 ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents and information about the detainment of prisoners at Bagram has yielded dead ends with both the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The ACLU wants the Obama Administration to make these records public, including information about "the number of people currently detained at Bagram, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention, as well as records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as ‘enemy combatants.'"

The Bagram detention facility, located on an air base north of Kabul, reportedly houses around 600 detainees. These detainees comprise a mixture of suspected terrorists from outside Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Afghanis captured while fighting American soldiers.

In a letter responding to the ACLU's FOIA request, the CIA said it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence" of records containing the information requested by the ACLU.

The DOD's response said that the department has a list containing basic detainee information, including names, capture dates and circumstances, and length of detainment. However, the DOD said that this list is classified, and cannot be released for national security and personal privacy reasons.

Bagram is a major topic of interest for several human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Justice Network, which have criticized the Obama Administration's record on promoting justice in its overseas prisons, comparing conditions at Bagram to those at the much- criticized U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"There are serious concerns that Bagram is another Guantanamo - except with many more prisoners, less due process, no access to lawyers or courts and reportedly worse conditions," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a statement issued on Thursday.

"As long as the Bagram prison is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know the truth or begin to address the problems that exist there," said Goodman.

Several former and current Bagram detainees have accused U.S. soldiers at Bagram of holding them without charge, conducting harsh interrogations, and engaging in abusive practices such as beatings and sleep deprivation. While many agree that abusive practices towards prisoners at Bagram have stopped, denial of legal rights remains a major problem.

"The chief complaint [among Bagram detainees] is lack of meaningful process to challenge their detention," said Sahr Muhammedally, Senior Associate with the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization headquartered in New York. She said that many prisoners at Bagram do not know why they are being detained.

Muhammedally has traveled to Afghanistan to interview 30 Bagram detainees, most recently in April. She told IPS that the capacity does not currently exist to process all of the prisoners and bring them all to fair trials.

The question of fair trials for Bagram detainees was raised in April, when the Obama Administration appealed a federal judge's decision to allow three Bagram detainees to challenge their detention in U.S. courts - a move that drew heavy criticism.

However, despite the current lack of transparency and due process at Bagram, Muhammedally told IPS that she remains hopeful that the Obama Administration will create meaningful changes at Bagram, citing a task force created in January to review and potentially change policies and procedures at the facility.

AFP reported in July that the Pentagon's proposed "overhaul" of practices in Bagram is in response to a report by Marine Major General Douglas Stone, who helped to reform U.S. detention practices in Iraq. Ideas for new programmes at the facility include training "more moderate inmates" in job skills and de-radicalization before their release.

Muhammedally thinks that these potential changes show that the Obama Administration remains committed to justice at Bagram. "I'm not ready to completely write off the administration's policy on this issue, because I think they are concerned about what is going on there," she told IPS.

She added, "They are seriously looking at reforming the detention regime in Afghanistan. I'm just waiting to see what some of those reforms are going to be."

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