DoD to Focus on Bagram and Afghan Prison Problems

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Monday, July 20, 2009 at 11:15 am

Reports today that the U.S. military is calling for an overhaul of the Bagram prison in Afghanistan follow weeks of little-reported protests by prisoners there, who since July 1 have refused to leave their cells or participate in video-phone calls with family members, all to protest their indefinite detention, says the International Committee of the Red Cross, which informed families of the protests. Prisoners are reportedly refusing even to meet with the ICRC.

All of this comes on the heels of a district court judge’s ruling at the end of June dismissing a habeas corpus petition by a Bagram prisoner on the grounds that the U.S. government has deemed the prisoners “enemy combatants” and Congress in the Military Commissions Act stripped federal courts of jurisdiction over their cases. In other words, they have no right to federal court review. (The Supreme Court has held that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have the right to habeas corpus review, but has never addressed the situation of prisoners at Bagram.)

A district court had previously ruled that Bagram prisoners captured outside of Afghanistan do have habeas rights, but the Obama administration has appealed that ruling.

The new Defense Department review of the matter, reported in The New York Times today, appears to be focused not particularly on the rights of Bagram prisoners, though, but on growing worries that abuses in the Afghan prison system — to which the U.S. military transfers many Bagram prisoners — is helping the Taliban recruit new militants.

According to the Times, while the conditions at Bagram have improved since 2002, when at least two inmates died from severe beatings and abusive interrogations in U.S. custody, “conditions worsened in the larger Afghan-run prison network, which houses more than 15,000 detainees at three dozen overcrowded and often violent sites.”

The country’s justice system provides little in the way of due process for those prisoners, either. “Trials” for prisoners, often held at the prisons, involve the presentation of little or no evidence and little opportunity for the prisoners to defend themselves. The U.S. government is reportedly planning to build new courthouses in Afghanistan, but those plans aren’t very far along.

Human Rights First, which has done some of the most extensive work on the Bagram prison and the justice system in Afghanistan, is expected to release a new report on the problems there this week.

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