Demolishing Bagram to Destroy Evidence?

In a notification filed on December 30th in a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Justice Department has announced that in addition to shifting prisoners from Bagram to a newly built facility nearby, the Pentagon also intends to demolish the original facility at Bagram.  According to the notification, the Department of Defense will shift prisoners to the new facility by January 19th.  Shortly thereafter, plans to demolish the Bagram facility will be put into effect.

According to an article in the Huffington Post on December 31st, Ramzi Kassem – a lawyer serving as counsel for several Guantanamo and Bagram detainees – has stated that the plan to demolish Bagram “amounts to destroying evidence in the cases of detainees who say they were tortured there.”

Kassem, also a law professor at City University of New York, maintains that Bagram ought to be preserved as evidence and as a crime scene. In Kassem’s view, the administration’s decision to demolish the facility  can be read as an  “underhanded attempt” on the part of a government concerned with “covering its own tracks.”

Following the demolition of the Bagram facility, military plans to create a new command and control center for U.S. and NATO forces at the former detention site have also been announced. The Department of Defense argues that reconstruction at Bagram is necessary given the administration’s plan to supplement existing military forces in Afghanistan with an additional 30,000 troops.

While officials have also stated that video and photographic records of the Bagram facility will be created in recognition of its “historical significance,” it remains unclear whether these records will be made public or even accessible to lawyers defending detainees previously held at Bagram.

In addition to the issues arising in response to the government’s plans to demolish Bagram, the new detention facility is producing its own concerns.  Having recently toured the new facility, Jonathan Horowitz, a consultant working on conflict related detentions in Afghanistan, notes that while the new facility deserves a “vastly improved grade,” much ambiguity remains around whether similar improvements will be applied to detention policies.

In an article for the Huffington Post in November 2009, Horowitz raises the following questions with respect to detention policies at the new facility: “Will the United States grant human rights groups access to the facility once the detainees arrive? Will the new Detainee Review Boards, charged with determining if someone should be released or not, be accurate and fair?”

Given the fast approaching deadline for the transfer of detainees, it will soon become clear whether the new facility is merely a ‘face lift’ that produces the appearance of improvement while detention policies remain largely unchanged, or if this literal ‘shift’ reflects more substantial improvements to the system of detention; the kind of rehauling, for example,  that would require changing the structures and processes of redress available to detainees, alongside the ‘new and improved’ material conditions currently being showcased.

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