KABUL - A US military spokeswoman has dismissed suggestions that a new prison planned for Afghanistan is intended to receive prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the detention centre in Cuba that is facing increasing criticism in America.
"This is not going to be Guantanamo Two," said Lieutenant-Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green, spokeswoman for Combined Joint Task Force 101 based at Bagram Airfield, north of the Afghan capital Kabul. "That is absolutely false."
Nielsen-Green also rejected reports by Afghan and US human rights groups that children as young as nine were being held at the existing detention facility. "That is absolutely false. We have no children at Bagram," she said.
According to Nielson-Green, the new prison will receive only "unlawful enemy combatants, approximately 16 or older, apprehended by OEF Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan".
Last month, the Pentagon announced plans for a 40-acre, $60 million detention centre to replace the ageing facility at Bagram airfield, a base originally built and used by the Soviet Union during its war in Afghanistan in 1979-89.
The new centre will be a big improvement on the present one, according to Nielson-Green, with more room for communal activities, educational and recreational facilities and areas where detainees can meet their families.
The present facility, which houses around 625 prisoners in wire mesh cages, was always intended to be temporary, she explained.
The capacity of the new prison will be roughly equivalent to that of the old one. According to a New York Times report, however, it will be able to accommodate up to 1100 prisoners "in a surge".
News of the proposed new facility has made Afghans uneasy. For many, Bagram conjures up images of arrest, torture and humiliation.
In 2002, two men died in US custody at Bagram. One of them, called Dilawar, became the subject of an acclaimed documentary titled Taxi To The Dark Side. Arrested on a tip-off from a man later proved to be a Taliban supporter, he was repeatedly beaten and died after two days in detention. Since then, dozens, if not hundreds, of prisoners have passed through Bagram on their way to Guantanamo Bay. Many say Bagram is worse than the prison in Cuba.
A researcher who has interviewed prisoners released from Bagram told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) they claimed to have been humiliated, beaten, stripped naked and thrown down stairs during initial interrogations. "The guards told the prisoners, Now you are no longer in Afghanistan. We can do anything we want,'" said the researcher.
Nielson-Green denied detainees were being ill-treated, and claimed the US military go "above and beyond" what is required of them at Bagram.
"The ICRC has access," she said, referring to the International Committee of the Red Cross. When asked why Afghan humanitarian organisations were not allowed to visit detainees, she said she was "unaware of any requirement" on the military to open its doors to anyone other than the ICRC.
On June 2, the Afghan Human Rights Organisation, AHRO, alleged that 10 children aged between nine and 13 were being held at Bagram. Last month, a report by the US government to the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child also claimed juveniles were being held. But the US military has repeatedly denied that this is the case.
"It is sometimes difficult to determine the exact age," said Nielson-Green, but she insisted no under-16s were being held.
News of the prison plan created a minor storm of protest in Kabul, where the justice ministry said it had no knowledge of the US plans.
"We know nothing about a new prison being built at Bagram," an official at the prisons department told IWPR anonymously. "There has been no agreement with the ministry of justice. We cannot speak about this."
Parliament is also in the dark, according to Shukria Barakzai, a member of the lower house, who told IWPR: "According to the laws of Afghanistan, the land cannot be given away. No country has a right to make a prison here. And not a single criminal should be handed over to foreigners. This prison at Bagram not only violates the constitution, it calls into question the legitimacy of the present government."
President Hamed Karzai's press office refused to comment.
According to Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst and editor of the Erada daily, the prison has become a stumbling block in US-Afghan relations.
"The government will not say this formally, but this issue has been raised between high-ranking authorities of Afghanistan and the United States," he told IWPR. "It shows the climate of distrust between the two countries."
The prison, said Oria, will deepen the resentment Afghans already feel towards the foreign presence in their country, and towards the Americans in particular.
"There will be a negative social and psychological impact," he said. "Hatred of the Americans, which is on the rise, will get more and more powerful."
AHRO head Lal Gul said the new prison was an affront to human rights. The refusal of US forces to allow Afghan human rights groups to visit prisoners has fostered distrust, he said, and the condition of those released from Bagram has given cause for worry.
"We are sure that in this new Guantanamo we will not be able to monitor the prisoners any more than we can now," he told IWPR. "Ninety-five per cent of those who are released from Bagram have psychological problems. Some are missing body parts. We condemn not only this prison, but all the prisons all over Afghanistan and other places made by the Americans."
The issue has taken the lid off the long-simmering resentment of US activities in Afghanistan.
"America has been condemned all over the world for Guantanamo," said political analyst Mohammad Qasim Akhgar. "But now it wants to open Guantanamo Two on Afghan soil, while pretending Afghanistan is an independent country with an independent government."
Sadeq Spinghar, a student at Kabul University, warned that anti-US sentiment is running high.
"The Americans should not rely too much on their military power," he cautioned. "A lot of invincible powers have been brought to their knees in Afghanistan."
But Sher Ahmad, a former mujahideen fighter against the Soviets and now a taxi driver, offered a more fatalistic view on the new prison.
"We have all accepted that one day we, or one of our relatives, will be killed or imprisoned," he said.
"If our detainees are sent to Guantanamo, we cannot see them for years. At least if they are here, we have some contact."
This article appears courtesy of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
©2008 newsquest (Sunday Herald)