Monday, February 27, 2006

A new Guantanamo in Afghanistan

The New York Times reports that as Guantanamo has come under increased scrutiny, the detention center at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan is quietly turning into another version of the same problem.

Pentagon officials have often described the detention site at Bagram, a cavernous former machine shop on an American air base 40 miles north of Kabul, as a screening center. They said most of the detainees were Afghans who might eventually be released under an amnesty program or transferred to an Afghan prison that is to be built with American aid.

But some of the detainees have already been held at Bagram for as long as two or three years. And unlike those at Guantánamo, they have no access to lawyers, no right to hear the allegations against them and only rudimentary reviews of their status as "enemy combatants," military officials said.

Privately, some administration officials acknowledge that the situation at Bagram has increasingly come to resemble the legal void that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 affirming the right of prisoners at Guantánamo to challenge their detention in United States courts.

While Guantánamo 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.

So Guantanamo has become an international embarassment -- and rightly so. And instead of learning that lesson and changing the way we run our "war on terror" prisons, we simply find another place out of the spotlight to keep doing the same old thing -- guaranteeing that the problem will continue.

To repeat once again:

1. It is sleazy and unethical to deliberately place a prison in a "legal limbo" so we do not have to afford the inmates even rudimentary legal protections.

2. It also violates core American values and actively hampers our fight against terror.

3. If a prisoner was captured on the battlefield, the Geneva Convention should apply. Technically we can ignore it for non-signatories, but it has been American tradition to heed the Conventions even when not legally required -- which is the practical *and* moral thing to do. Such POWs should be released when the fighting in Afghanistan ceases, rather than being held for the duration of a vaguely defined "war" on terror.

4. If a prisoner was captured elsewhere, they are entitled to the rights we afford all criminals, even serial killers: To be charged and tried before an impartial court, in a speedy manner and with legal help.

5. Keeping detainee's identities secret serves no practical purpose, but it can easily mask many unsavory purposes. Our detentions should be able to withstand outside scrutiny.

It's really not that difficult.

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