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     Volume 5 Issue 89 | April 7, 2006 |

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From Bagram to Abu Ghraib

Emily Bazelon

(Continued from last week)

THE DEATHS OF HABIBULLAH and Dilawar weren't the only signals that something was going awry in the Afghan detention centres. In March 2003, just as U.S. troops were streaming into Iraq, American troops in Afghanistan arrested an 18-year-old soldier in the Afghan army, Jamal Naseer, at the behest of a provincial governor embroiled in a dispute with local warlords. The arrest wasn't recorded and no charges were filed, but Naseer was taken to a U.S. base near Gardez. Two weeks later, he was dead. A report prepared for the Afghan attorney general, who considered bringing charges against unnamed American soldiers in the case, found that he had been severely beaten over the course of two weeks. The Afghan investigators and a report by the United Nations also recorded allegations that other prisoners at Gardez had been beaten, immersed in cold water, given electric shocks, hung upside down, and had their toenails torn off. The U.S. Army investigated the circumstances of Naseer's death, but closed its inquiry because there were no records of who was in charge at the base, or of the names of victims and witnesses.

By the summer and fall of 2003, more and more detainees were coming forward to complain about abuse in U.S. custody. In September 2003, a former Afghan police colonel told the Afghan human rights commission that he had been sexually abused while being detained at Bagram, Gardez, and Kandahar for a total of 40 days. Another former detainee named Abdurahman Khadr, who was held at Bagram in March 2003, later testified in a Canadian federal court that U.S. soldiers "got me naked and they were taking pictures of my face and my private parts just constantly taking pictures of my private parts." Khadr also said that he'd seen other prisoners hung from a wall by their shackles for as long as four days. Two other detainees, Saif-ur Rahman and Abdul Qayyum, told the Associated Press that they had been deprived of sleep, forced to stand for long periods, and taunted by female soldiers during the Fall and Winter of 2002.

The Army report on the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah documented similar practices. The investigators found that members of the Cincinnati-based 377th Military Police Company, which was based at Bagram along with the 519th, slammed prisoners into walls, twisted their handcuffs, shackled a detainee's arms to the ceiling, and forced water into another detainee's mouth "until he could not breathe." Finally, last June, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted a private CIA contractor, David Passaro, in connection with the death of an Afghan man who had voluntarily surrendered to U.S. troops at another base in Afghanistan; the man had been savagely beaten with a flashlight.

LAST SUMMER, a small group of American lawyers began talking about the pattern of misconduct at Bagram and Abu Ghraib laid out in the Army's Fay-Jones report; attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups are now preparing to file lawsuits on behalf of a number of detainees who claim to have been tortured in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The lawyers argue that the Bush administration laid the groundwork for abuse by claiming that those captured in Afghanistan were "enemy combatants" not covered by international law. With the restrictions of the Geneva Conventions lifted, says Priti Patel, a lawyer with the group Human Rights First, interrogators developed harsh techniques that ultimately were transferred to Iraq. (The Bush administration has not backed down from its stance on the detainees' legal status; in fact, it has looked for additional ways to hold foreign prisoners outside the reach of American courts. In October, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would allow foreign detainees to be deported to countries that engage in torture. Also late last year, the White House helped kill a legislative provision that would have explicitly banned intelligence officers from torturing detainees.)

The lawyers also fault the military and the Pentagon for failing to track responsibility for the abuses up the chain of command. To date, only 10 soldiers have been prosecuted for crimes involving prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq none of them above the rank of staff sergeant. "All of the investigations have looked down rather than up," says Lucas Guttentag, a lawyer at the ACLU. "Our goal is to hold high-level officials accountable for the policies and practices that caused widespread torture, and to hold them accountable for their failure to stop the abuse once it came to light. This is really about who bears ultimate responsibility."

Part of the challenge in assigning accountability for the Afghan abuses is that, in contrast to the uproar about Abu Ghraib, very little about them has become public. Last May, the Army assigned Brig. General Charles Jacoby to conduct a review of American detention centers in Afghanistan. Jacoby completed his report in July, but it remains classified; the only hint of its contents has come in the Washington Post, which in December reported that it had found that many of the prisons lacked clear interrogation guidelines, inviting commanders in the field to set their own limits.

Outside investigators, meanwhile, have been almost entirely barred from the Afghan detention centres. The International Committee for the Red Cross has had no access to any of them except Bagram, and even there its representatives have not been able to see all parts of the facility. Former prisoners have said the Red Cross never visited detainees being held in the upstairs cells, including Dilawar and Habibullah. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have not been allowed to visit the base at all; neither has the Afghan human rights commission, which has been asking the U.S. military for access to Bagram and other detention centres for a year. "We expected to have a friendly relationship with the coalition forces," says deputy chair Hakim. "But what the coalition has done, the abuses, overshadows the friendly aspect of the American intervention. I ask you: What is the difference between the Americans and the Soviet forces who occupied Afghanistan?"

IN EARLY AUGUST 2002, Hussain Mustafa was flown from Bagram to Guantanamo. There, he was held mostly in the prison's "preferred" area, reserved for detainees who were deemed to be cooperating with interrogators. At one point, Mustafa said, he went 10 months without being questioned. "I was led to believe that the frequency of the questioning depended on what they thought you had done," he said. "So I assume from the limited number of times they bothered to question me that they knew all along that I had nothing that I could say."

Mustafa was released from Guantanamo last August. His wife and seven of his children were waiting for him in Jordan. His son Abdullah, however, had died six months earlier. Abdullah had had a heart condition that he'd been able to keep under control in Pakistan, where visits with a specialist were relatively cheap. But when the family moved to Jordan after Mustafa's arrest, he couldn't afford to see a doctor regularly. "It is a nightmare to me that I did not even know Abdullah had died until I was released," Mustafa said, and then he stopped talking.

The day after he finished his interview with Stafford Smith, Mustafa returned to read over his statement and sign it. He brought with him a document stating that he had been "determined to pose no threat to the U.S. Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan"the standard release that the military gives detainees when they are allowed to return home. Mustafa said he'd been given one other thing when he left Guantanamo: a pair of white canvas sneakers. He shook Stafford Smith's hand and walked out of the law office, the sneakers bright in the autumn sun.

This article was first published in motherjones.com

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