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Obama's Guantanamo?

April 18, 2009

While US President Barack Obama has said he'll close the Guantanamo prisoner camp in Cuba, he's being criticized for following his predecessor's policy on the Bagram prison in Afghanistan.

Aerial photo of Bagram air base
Sources say there are US plans to expand BagramImage: Google Maps/Digital Globe

The new US government disappointed human rights activists when it chose to adhere to the Bush administration's position that detainees imprisoned at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their confinement in US courts. Critics have now begun referring to Bagram as "Obama's Guantanamo."

An estimated 650 inmates are being held at the prison north of Kabul, but the public rarely receives any details about how they're being treated, says German Green Party politician and Afghanistan expert, Winfried Nachtwei.

"Up until now, I think it's only fair to describe Bagram as a black hole," he said.

Inmates at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Obama was applauded for vowing to close GuantanamoImage: dpa

Aside from Red Cross officials, no outsiders are allowed to visit the prison, of which there are also no public photos. Only prison personnel and former inmates know for sure exactly what goes on at Bagram. Several thousand prisoners have passed through the compound in recent years, according to Ferdinand Muggenthaler of Amnesty International.

"In the initial period especially there were many reports of torture and mistreatment at Bagram," he said. "We know that prisoners were hung by chains from their hands, that they were deprived of sleep, and that they were locked up together in small cells in impossible conditions. And there were at least two deaths in which several soldiers were convicted, although their sentences were laughable."

The US government has defended its policy on Bagram, saying the prison is located in a war zone, and American law therefore doesn't apply. Unlike prisoners in Guantanamo, Bagram inmates have previously been unable to challenge their detention in US courts -- an untenable situation, says Muggenthaler.

"The prisoners in Bagram must get access to proper judicial procedures," the Amnesty International representative said. "They have to be able to challenge their detention in the US and only be detained if they are convicted during a proper court procedure."

Glimpse of hope in court ruling

But in what could become a historic decision, a US federal judge recently ruled that non-Afghan citizens rendered by the US to Bagram have a constitutional right to challenge their detention in US civilian courts. Judge John Bates ruled that the cases of three Bagram detainees are "virtually identical" to prisoners at Guantanamo, and that the three should thus enjoy the same legal rights. Human rights activists have welcomed the decision as a huge step forward, as well as a stunning rejection of the arguments of the Bush and Obama administrations.

US President Barack Obama
With Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bagram is likely to become more importantImage: AP

The fact that the three detainees concerned in the ruling are neither Afghan citizens nor were arrested in Afghanistan improved their legal position. The men were illegally transported or "rendered" to Bagram from abroad - a practice Amnesty International is demanding President Obama end.

"Nothing's changed in this respect," said Muggenthaler. "The CIA still has the right to kidnap people and then transport them somewhere, for example to Bagram, even if they're now being treated better there now than they were in the past."

Plans to expand Bagram

Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, doesn't think the Obama administration will shut down the military prison in Bagram. Indeed, she says the opposite may be true.

"There have been plans that we've read about of the US building more permanent facilities at Bagram and in fact, building a facility that would hold over 1,000 detainees in addition to the nearly 700 who are there right now," she said. "There's new construction happening at the base, there's greater permanence. So given the fact that the US plans to send more troops to Afghanistan and plans on being present in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, I think detentions will also increase, and this will be an important base for the United States."

The subject of Bagram has so far received little coverage in the German media. German politicians - including those who usually take every opportunity to lobby for Guantanamo's closure - have been conspicuously quiet on the subject. German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul has largely been a lone voice in demanding for the Afghan prison to be shut down.

Meanwhile, human rights activists say that Bagram is well on the way to becoming a second Guantanamo. They're hoping that on this issue, as on so many others, President Obama will choose to take a different path from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Author: Nina Werkhaeuser / Deanne Corbett
Editor: Michael Knigge