Saturday, February 25, 2006

TIM GOLDEN AND ERIC SCHMITT report that the prison at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan has become the dumping ground for "enemy combatants," now that Guantanamo has attracted the world's attention for its cruel treatment of detainees and human rights organizations are calling for the facility to be shut down. At Bagram, secrecy still rules; and prisoners have none of the legal protections Guantanamo prisoners have won through court battles, such as the right to an attorney and the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. federal courts. Bagram, by contrast, is like Guantanamo before Rasul v. Bush.

While Guantanamo offers carefully scripted tours for members of Congress and journalists, Bagram has operated in rigorous secrecy since it opened in 2002. It bars outside visitors except for the International Red Cross and refuses to make public the names of those held there. The prison may not be photographed, even from a distance.

From the accounts of former detainees, military officials and soldiers who served there, a picture emerges of a place that is in many ways rougher and more bleak than its counterpart in Cuba. Men are held by the dozen in large wire cages, the detainees and military sources said, sleeping on the floor on foam mats and, until about a year ago, often using plastic buckets for latrines. Before recent renovations, they rarely saw daylight except for brief visits to a small exercise yard.

"Bagram was never meant to be a long-term facility, and now it's a long-term facility without the money or resources," said one Defense Department official who has toured the detention center. Comparing the prison with Guantanamo, the official added, "Anyone who has been to Bagram would tell you it's worse."

Bagram is, of course, the place where two detainees were tortured and beaten to death; among other horrors, they were chained by the arms to the ceilings of their cells for hours or even days, and they were subjected to repeated knee strikes that "pulpified" their thigh tissue according to testimony given by a forensic pathologist, who also noted that their injuries were similar to those of a person run over by a bus.

Now here's the part that I find particularly interesting:

After an Army investigation, the practices found to have caused those two deaths -- the chaining of detainees by the arms to the ceilings of their cells and the use of knee strikes to the legs of disobedient prisoners by guards -- were halted by early 2003. Other abusive methods, like the use of barking attack dogs to frighten new prisoners and the handcuffing of detainees to cell doors to punish them for talking, were phased out more gradually, military officials and former detainees said.

Human rights officials and former detainees said living conditions at the detention center had also improved.

This happened after the torture and murders of these two detainees had become known to the outside world, as a result of reports in the New York Times, which themselves were based in part on information contained in Army criminal investigation reports that Human Rights Watch had obtained. The Los Angeles Times also published an article about the results of the autopsy done on Dilawar (one of the murdered detainees). All of these details were written up by Jeanne at Body and Soul, who blogged this story throughout.

If these atrocities had not come to public attention, the Army's criminal investigation would not have happened, either. No one outside of the military would have known about the horrendous conditions at Bagram, and the deaths that resulted from them, and those conditions would still prevail.

Here's my point: Torture and abuse and human rights violations thrive under conditions of secrecy; they never, ultimately, can withstand the light of day. The Bush administration wants to maintain that secrecy; it wants these prisoners to exist in a legal black hole with no rights and with no one on the outside knowing they are there (or at least who they are). At Guantanamo, that secrecy is gone. The legal void has been compromised. That is why the military is expanding its prison facility at Bagram.

"Guantanamo was a lightning rod," said a former senior administration official who participated in the discussions and who, like many of those interviewed, would discuss the matter in detail only on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding it. "For some reason, people did not have a problem with Bagram. It was in Afghanistan."

Yet Bagram's expansion, which was largely fueled by growing numbers of detainees seized on the battlefield and a bureaucratic backlog in releasing many of the Afghan prisoners, also underscores the Bush administration's continuing inability to resolve where and how it will hold more valuable terror suspects.

It seems to me we (meaning liberal, left-leaning, progressive bloggers and anyone else who cares about human rights) have got to disabuse the Bushies of this notion they seem to have that indefinite, arbitrary detention, without charges, without any legal rights, and without outside accountability, can work if they can only find the perfect spot where no one will notice, or find them, or care.

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