Guantánamo II? Worries About Detainees in Bagram Prison

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Afghan detainees are seen through mesh wire fence inside the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. March 2011. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)
Afghan detainees are seen through mesh wire fence inside the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in 2011. Afghan and U.S. military officials have signed a deal to transfer oversight of the main U.S. detention center in the country to the Afghan government within six months. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)

NPR reported Monday on the handover of the U.S. airbase in Bagram to Afghan officials scheduled for later this summer. There are worries that the prison could turn into a “Guantánamo-style administrative detention regime that is against Afghan law.” NPR’s Quil Lawrence told Morning Edition that “many Afghan lawmakers are complaining that some of the prisoners might have languished in prison for years just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or someone gave a bad tip to the Americans.”

“The Afghan general in charge says that about half of the detainees are now in the Afghan-controlled section of the prison. And there’s a long process by which they can be referred to the criminal system in Afghanistan or released. But it’s not really clear what happens otherwise. Critics of the government say that they’re creating a system of indefinite detention without trial, like in Guantánamo.”

“But there are a few other problems. The Americans have a legal duty to make sure that anyone they captured on the battlefield … are treated humanely. But they’re now turning these prisoners over to a government that has a pretty bad record of abuse in its prisons. And the Americans don’t yet have a monitoring program to follow them.”

A scene from a Vanity Fair video in which Christopher Hitchens is waterboarded and then interviewed about the experience.

A scene from a Vanity Fair video in which Christopher Hitchens is waterboarded and then interviewed about the experience.

Meanwhile, a new book published Tuesday suggests an unusual impetus for the 2008 Department of Justice investigation into the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Politico published a brief excerpt from Dan Klaidman’s new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, reporting that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to launch the investigation after reading Christopher Hitchens’s first-person account (“Believe Me, It’s Torture“) and watching his online video of what it’s like to be waterboarded in a 2008 issue of Vanity Fair.

“Holder was at home catching up on his reading when he came across an article in Vanity Fair magazine by Christopher Hitchens, in which the writer and critic described what it was like to be waterboarded. Hitchens had arranged to be ‘abducted’ by a team of security contractors in a rural part of North Carolina. They hooded him, placed him in a dark room, and strapped him to a sloping board, positioned so that his head was lower than his heart. They placed a thick towel over his hooded face and proceeded to pour water into his nostrils, a managed-drowning technique.”

“After reading the article, Holder viewed the accompanying video online, at Vanity Fair’s website. He sat in his study, engrossed in the macabre spectacle. Hitchens lasted for fewer than ten seconds before asking for mercy, sputtering and gagging as the cloth used in the demonstration was removed from his mouth. Watching the video, Holder was both mesmerized and repulsed. Over the next few weeks he plunged into classified reports and briefings on the CIA’s interrogation program. He was increasingly convinced that he would need to launch an investigation, or at least a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full-blown probe was warranted.”

John Hudson notes on The Atlantic‘s Wire blog that “influencing the U.S. attorney general on such a high-profile issue is obviously something Hitchens would be proud of were he alive today,” but observes that however much the video may have affected Holder, it wasn’t enough to sustain his resolve. Holder ended the “wide-ranging probe into the CIA’s interrogation, rendition and detention practices” in June of last year.

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