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U.S. Military Unveils Huge New Prison in Afghanistan

by Feraidoon Khwazoon

KABUL - The U.S. military has announced the opening of a new prison on Bagram Air Base. The prison, costing 60 million dollars, will hold up to 1,100 prisoners at any one time.

A US captain is silhouetted as he looks on during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul, on November 15, 2009. Eager to dispel its image as a rights abuser after many "war on terror" prison scandals, the US has opened a huge, new Afghan jail that critics say still falls far short of basic legal standards. (AFP/Massoud Hossaini) U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, a U.S. Army lawyer who undertook an examination this year of Afghan and American prisons, said that the prison would be handed over to the Afghan government, though it is unclear when that handover will take place.

Last week, reporters were taken on a tour of the facility, a dramatic move by the military, as no journalists - and few visitors of any kind - were allowed inside the old prison. The tour was part of a U.S. effort to show more transparency. Washington has been accused of a variety of human rights violations against Afghan detainees at Bagram.

Brig. Gen Martins stressed that "vocational training" will be available at the facility, to give job skills to those who have been held there. A review board, which examines prisoner's cases, will sit at the new jail as well as provide resources for prisoners to challenge their detention through legal means.

By the end of this year about 700 prisoners from the old Bagram prison will be transferred to the new facility.

Abdul Qadir Adalat, a deputy at the Ministry of Justice, says that the construction of this facility is a positive step. Though he just learned about the new prison "last Thursday", he said the fact that Afghan and international security forces will be conducting joint operations to apprehend anti-government fighters is a good thing.

But some legal analysts say that a foreign power building a prison on Afghan soil to hold Afghans without charge is in fact illegal. Nasrullah Stanikzai, professor of law at Kabul University, says that according to Afghan and international law, the right to hold citizens against their will belongs solely to a nation's government.

He described the act of building such a prison on Afghan soil without being subject to Afghan laws as a revocation of Afghanistan's independence.

"Article Two of Afghan prison law says that building prisons and incarcerating citizens can only be done with the approval of the attorney general and the high court," said Stanikzai. "Additionally, only the Ministry of Justice is authorised to arrest and detain individuals. This prison," he adds, "is illegal."

Meer Ahmad Juyehdah, a member of parliament, echoes this sentiment. "It is the government's duty to deal with enemies of the state and criminals." He says that the fact such prisons exist lead Afghans to question just who is in charge in this country.

Despite these protests, the new facility should be an improvement over the old.

Fareed Hamidi, commissioner of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (HRC), says that the rooms where the detainees will live as well as other on-site spaces were built in accordance with international standards of detention.

"The Human Rights Commission's concern," says Hamidi, "is the way prisoners are dealt with. Are international principles, rules and standards followed or not?"

Hamidi says that one of the jobs of his group is to monitor conditions in jails. Given that organisations like the HRC are usually not allowed into military prisons, keeping tabs on prisoner treatment will be difficult.

He adds that detainees will have access to non-attorney advocates, but the fact that the length of their detention is indefinite raises serious concerns. Hamidi asserts that those held at Bagram have not been found guilty of any crime and no Afghan court has seen evidence against them.

What is known is that prisoners have been treated severely at the old Bagram facility.

In 2002, two prisoners died there after severe beatings, which included chaining the men to the ceiling and beating their legs. A military coroner's report likened the condition of the bodies to those that had been run over by a bus.

Last summer, a BBC report featured interviews with dozens of men who were detainees at Bagram between 2002 and 2008. The men told the reporters that they faced cruel punishment, including severe beatings.

"They put a pistol to my ear," said one man. "They said I had to speak or be shot."

"They did things you would not do against animals, let alone humans," said another. Such reports led some to label Bagram "The new Guantanamo", referring to the U.S. military detention centre in Cuba.

Upon becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McCrystal made clear that he wanted to reform the treatment of detainees at Bagram.

A detainee review board is part of this reform process, and the new facility has space for the review board to meet. The board would give detainees the opportunity to challenge their detention and even present evidence on their own behalf.

This was originally published in the Killid Weekly. IPS and Killid, an independent Afghan media group, are partners since 2004.

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