This weekend’s news that inmates at the part of the prison at the U.S. Air Base in Bagram, Afghanistan, run by Special Operations forces had suffered abuse sounded eerily reminiscent of the charges we’ve heard from previous prisoners victimized by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. Joshua Partlow and Julie Tate at The Washington Post reported that two Afghan teenagers detained at Bagram this year “said they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement in concrete cells for at least two weeks while undergoing daily interrogation about their alleged links to the Taliban.” Alissa Rubin at The New York Times reports that detainees in the “black jail” live in “windowless concrete cells, each illuminated by a single light bulb glowing 24 hours a day,” and are not allowed visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Both of the newspapers cautioned that none of the reports could be independently corroborated. But the stories emphasize the point I’ve been making for a while now that even if President Obama manages to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the next several months (he’s already conceded he’s not going to meet his original January deadline), that’s not going to completely solve the United States’ image problem when it comes to prisoner mistreatment and abuse — because we still have Bagram.
Bagram has already been called “Obama’s Gitmo,” and “The Next Guantanamo” given that the administration is holding about 700 terror suspects there indefinitely without charge, with little meaningful opportunity to challenge their detention, no right to habeas corpus, and in conditions far more secretive than at Guantanamo Bay. We know that several detainees died from abuse at Bagram during the Bush administration, and conveniently, the Defense Department just stopped reporting detainee deaths in Afghanistan sometime in 2006.
So the latest reports of abuse shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Just last summer inmates were protesting their indefinite detention at Bagram, refusing to leave their cells or even speak to family members. That supposedly led to a military review and overhaul of the U.S. detention center in Afghanistan, and recently the United States opened a new and improved prison facility on the air base, designed to improve inmates’ living conditions and quiet some of the complaints. The former detainees interviewed by the Times and Post reporters may not have had the benefit of those reported improvements. But given the secrecy that still surrounds the Bagram facility and its inmates, and the fact that the wing of the prison operated by Special Operations forces is even more secretive and closed to the ICRC, the Obama administration is going to have a hard time answering these latest claims.