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What Will Happen to Secret Prisoners at Bagram as US Withdraws More Forces from Afghanistan?

Kaleem, one of the forever prisoners at Bagram who was detained when he was 14 years-old (Photo from Justice Project Pakistan)

The United States will face a deadline at the end of the year and will apparently no longer have the right to hold prisoners in Afghanistan. It will have to decide what to do with a group of prisoners at Bagram military base, who President Barack Obama’s administration would like to continue to hold in indefinite detention.

According to a report from Reuters, Brigadier General Patrick J. Reinert, the current facility’s commander, said, “We’ve got to resolve their fate by either returning them to their home country or turning them over to the Afghans for prosecution or any other number of ways that the Department of Defense has to resolve.” The administration is considering transferring the prisoners to the US court system or possibly Guantanamo Bay.

“If someone has committed a crime overseas that could be a crime also in the United States, a detainee could be transferred back to the United States,” Reinert told Reuters. He also claimed the US would like to “repatriate” the prisoners to “their home countries,” however, “that might not be possible” without “assurances they will not be prosecuted at home or kept in humane conditions.”

Reinert would not tell Reuters how many prisoners are still being held at Bagram in indefinite detention. There are prisoners at the facility, many from Pakistan, whose identities are unknown. If the Obama administration subjected them to rendition and brought them to the US, it would greatly upset human rights groups trying to get these prisoners freed.

“It would be an absolute nightmare if that happened … We don’t even know who they are … Our effort is to ensure all Pakistanis are back before the end of December,” said Maryam Haq, a lawyer with the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP).

The comments come just over a week after the US released 14 Pakistani prisoners from Bagram. It was the “largest ever batch of detainees to be flown in from Bagram,” the JPP declared.

A report by JPP titled, “Closing Bagram: The Other Guantanamo,” was published in May [PDF] and described what families of the forever prisoners have been experiencing, including the impact of enforced secrecy:

…Across the border in Pakistan, detainees’ families know little about their condition and nothing about their eventual fate. For years, families have been waiting for news, their lives also in limbo. They endure emotional, economic, and social burdens from the long absence of their loved ones, all worsened by the restrictions the US military imposes on communication. Sons grow up never knowing their fathers. Mothers die without ever again seeing their sons. Wives strive to keep hope that their husbands will someday return. Neither the United States nor Pakistan provides families with any direct information regarding their relatives’ legal status, or the conditions under which they could ever be released. Families blame the Pakistani government for failing to provide them with urgently needed assistance and basic information—and for failing to defend the rights of their citizens in US detention. Families also denounce the United States as hypocritical, questioning why it continues to detain their relatives in indefinite detention without charge or trial, while proclaiming to champion human rights and the rule of law…

After it became more difficult to bring prisoners to Guantanamo, the Bagram Internment Facility (BTIF) became a “primary detention site” for prisoners, who the US government claimed were “militants and terrorists,” in 2004. The facility, by 2008, had 630 prisoners. Concerns with confinement conditions and treatment increased and there was a shortage of resources and space. BTIF shut down and a more permanent prison, Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) or Bagram Prison, came into operation in September 2009. The war in Afghanistan escalated, and there were 3,000 prisoners in the facility by September 2012.

As of May, as agreed upon between the Afghan and US governments following years of negotiations, the US transferred the Bagram prison and 3,000 Afghan prisoners to the Afghan government. Yet, according to JPP, the US still maintained control over 60 prisoners, who were not from Afghanistan—third country nationals (TCN).


The report from JPP articulated the chief issue:

…With the US withdrawal of combat forces on the horizon, and the handover of Afghan detainees to Afghan authorities now complete, the continued detention of TCNs raises the specter of another Guantanamo Bay on Afghan soil. TCNs, some of whom have already been recommended for release by the detention review system described below, are falling into a dangerous legal and political limbo—similar to that of many Guantanamo detainees. Afghan officials have insisted they will not permit the US to operate detention centers on Afghan soil. But the United States continues to have control and custody over TCNs in the DFIP, outside of the jurisdiction of any courts and law, and with no certainty as to when such detention power will end…

There has been a detainee review board process in place for prisoners since 2009. Each prisoner has their case reviewed every six months. However, the prisoners do not have the right to independent legal counsel. They are given a “personal representative,” who is a member of the US military and not legally trained. Prisoners are expected to believe that US military officers will advocate for the release of people they actively have tried to kill and eliminate from battlefields in Afghanistan.

Ayaz, who is described in the JPP report as a “boyish man barely in his twenties,” was released after six years of detention. He traveled to Afghanistan and had been working a job at a restaurant when US forces asked for him by name and captured him. He suspects a co-worker “falsely accused him of being a terrorist in exchange for a bounty.” And, he endured several DRB hearings:

The DRBs were a joke, another way to humiliate us. At my DRB they said that I was a suicide bomber and that I want to bomb the USA. I had a representative who was not a lawyer. He would often make my case worse. After the hearing the Americans would tell me the result within a month and whether I would be sent back to Pakistan or would have to stay there for 6 more months. The only evidence they had against me is what they first forced me to sign at [a U.S. military base in] Paktika [province].

The US is reportedly still holding two men from Yemen, one man from Tunisia and is suspected of holding individuals from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And others are suspected to be in detention but remain unknown.

There is a risk of Pakistani prisoners being tortured after they are repatriated to their home country. Individuals who have been “detained for national security reasons are particularly vulnerable.” Yet, the JPP report points out that the government of Pakistan, so far, has a decent record when it comes to the treatment of former prisoners held by the US at Guantanamo and Bagram. The government may not view the prisoners in US custody as much of a threat.

Prisoners have gone on hunger strike like prisoners at Guantanamo. The US government has fought to keep this a secret, but The Guardian spoke to a Pakistani prisoner released from Bagram, who spoke about how this was the only way to get what they wanted. “The Americans did not want to talk to us,” Abdual Sattar, a twenty-six year-old preacher detained in Bagram for two and a half years said.

Detainees held out hope that word of their hunger strikes would pierce the layers of secrecy surrounding their confinement.

“We always had in mind that if someone from the media or someone would know that we’re protesting inside on hunger strike, they would definitely help us and be our saviors and things would go better. Whenever we protested, people did know about it: the authorities and concerned governments like the Pakistani government or Arab governments who had citizens in Bagram,” Sattar said.

There is very little in the public domain about Bagram, but journalist Andy Worthington has over the past years attempted to piece together a list of prisoners held there.

Many of the prisoners identified have thumbnail descriptions of what the US government suspects them of doing as “terrorists” or “militants.”

“I have no idea whether the allegations against these men are true, but, more importantly, I have not failed to notice that the majority of the prisoners (often men identified by only one name) are clearly not significant figures at all, and my fear — which, I have no doubt, will be confirmed when more information emerges — is that many of them will be revealed to be victims of the same chaotic approach to the capture of prisoners that has done so much to lose the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq for the last eight years,” Worthington stated.


The best thing that could happen to the prisoners who remain in US custody—however many there are—is to have them quietly returned to their home country or some other country that can be trusted to take them. If they are brought to the US, the Republicans will start to holler about the march of militant Islam and how the government cannot show any weakness in the face of terrorism by trying them for crimes. The prisoners will likely wind up in Guantanamo before long or some equally shady Supermax prison in the continental United States that holds American inmates who suffer routine abuse.

Sadly, the predicament that these prisoners face is they either risk torture if returned to their home countries or they remain in US custody and are put on a rendition flight to the American homeland, where they will likely never be back home to see their families again and face more inhumane treatment.

Possible torture when repatriated or indefinite detention in America with a chance of solitary confinement and other abuse from prison officials? One could understand if the prisoners chose to try and escape their captors once and for all and go back home, even if it meant having to convince their own government to treat them humanely and let them go free. But they probably don’t have any say in what happens to them.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."