Today, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records about the detention and treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody at the Bagram Airfield prison in Afghanistan. The ACLU is requesting release of basic information such as how many people are imprisoned at Bagram, who they are, how long they've been detained, and where and under what circumstances they were captured. The ACLU is also requesting records about the process for prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as "enemy combatants." The request was sent to the Departments of Justice, State, Defense and the CIA.
Many fear that Bagram is (or may soon be) the "next Guantánamo," yet the public knows practically nothing about what's happening there. It's reported that the U.S. is detaining as many as 600 prisoners at Bagram; this includes not only Afghans captured in Afghanistan but also non-Afghans captured thousands of miles away and rendered (or sent) to Bagram. At least two Bagram prisoners have died while in U.S. custody there, deaths Army investigators concluded were homicides.
Some Bagram prisoners have been held as long as six years without charge or access to counsel. A federal judge recently found (PDF) that the meager opportunity Bagram prisoners get to challenge their detention is even more inadequate than the process Guantánamo prisoners received — a process the Supreme Court found unconstitutional last year.
In late February, the Obama administration stunned many human rights advocates when the Justice Department asserted in court that detainees at Bagram have no right to challenge their detention, a holdover policy from the Bush administration. Earlier this month, a federal judge disagreed, ruling that three prisoners being held by the U.S. at Bagram can challenge their detention in U.S. courts. The Justice department is appealing that decision.
Melissa Goodman, the ACLU National Security Project Staff Attorney who filed the request, said in a statement today:
The U.S. government's detention of hundreds of prisoners at Bagram has been shrouded in complete secrecy. Bagram houses far more prisoners than Guantánamo, in reportedly worse conditions and with an even less meaningful process for challenging their detention, yet very little information about the Bagram facility or the prisoners held there has been made public. Without transparency, we can't be sure that we're doing the right thing — or even holding the right people — at Bagram.
As President Obama deliberates about how to close Guantánamo, scrutiny of U.S. detention policies will only intensify. And what the U.S. government is doing (or planning to do) at Bagram is a big piece of that puzzle. We cannot close Guantánamo only to permit 'other Gitmos' to exist in other places.