Despite ten years of occupation and untold millions of dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan’s broken judicial and criminal justice system, the Afghan courts are “still too weak,” the Washington Post reported on August 12, for the United States to relinquish its control over the Parwan Detention Center on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. On September 21, the same paper reported that the U.S. military is seeking contractors to significantly increase the capacity of the prison there.
The number of Afghans detained at Bagram has tripled over the past three years to more than 2,600 and the new construction will raise the capacity to 5,500 prisoners. Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. task force that oversees detention operations in Afghanistan, told the Post that the expansion was necessary to “accommodate an increase in the number of suspected insurgents being detained as a result of intelligence-based counter- terrorism operations, which we conduct with our Afghan partners.”
Many of those held at Bagram have been there since the U.S. occupied the former Soviet air base in 2001, and some two thirds of prisoners there have not been charged with or convicted of any crime. Corruption is rampant in Afghan courts and among police there as it is in many other places but the major fear of the United States is not that the Afghan courts will not function according to their constitution and accepted norms of law, but that they will. In order for Afghanistan to take sovereignty over its own judiciary and prison system, the Afghans must first fix the “cracks of an undeveloped legal system” and adopt essential “reforms,” including adoption of the U.S. practice of detaining suspected insurgents indefinitely without trial.
I’m delighted to reproduce below a statement by my friend, the former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, which was read out at a rally (at which I spoke) outside the White House on January 11, 2011, the 9th anniversary of the opening of the prison. Omar, whose testimony is at the heart of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with Polly Nash, was held in US custody from May 2002 until December 2007, and spent most of that time at Guantánamo, after being held first in Pakistan and in Bagram, Afghanistan.
His comments provided a powerful conclusion to the rally, and a reminder not only of how justice still eludes the 173 men still held, but also of how the American people are prevented from hearing about the injustices of Guantánamo first hand, as Omar, and every other cleared prisoner, is prevented from visiting the US to meet people and to tell their stories, and the Obama administration, Congress and the D.C. Circuit Court have all made sure that no cleared prisoner will be allowed to live in the US, even if they face torture in their home countries, and no other country can be found that is prepared to offer them a new home.
A statement from Omar Deghayes, January 11, 2011
Two years ago, President Barack Obama pledged to bring an end to the anomaly that is Guantánamo within a year, and to thereby restore America’s moral standing in the world. Yet today, on January 11, 2011, we are marking the beginning of the tenth year since the first prisoners were transferred to Camp X Ray — and Guantánamo remains open, Obama’s promise in ruins.
Convicted of attempted murder, Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, 38, was sentenced to 86 years in prison in New York on Thursday. The Pakistan-native was held in custody for two years after allegedly shooting at US troops and an F.B.I agent in Afghanistan with an assault rifle she grabbed from behind a curtain, unlocked, and fired before being shot in the stomach by an interpreter.
Although she infamously topped America’s most wanted list for years, most Americans would be hard pressed to comment at all on the MIT and Brandeis graduate who is due to serve decades in jail for compromising their security.
Perhaps Siddiqui’s trial has received so little attention in the US because the charges brought against her do not relate not to her’s supposed links to Al-Qaeda, or the canisters of chemicals, bomb-making manuals, and lists of American landmarks that she had been carrying at the time her detainment in Afghanistan. This has been seen by Harper’s and many others as an all too easy story, especially given the immense variance in claims made by US officials and Afghani eye-witnesses, as well as Siddiqui’s own story. Despite the questionable circumstances of her arrest, however, no evidence about her capture was allowed to surface at all in the recent trial, only furthering protest in Pakistan.
While the verdict was announced only in the regional section of the New York Times, in her own country, Siddiqui’s case become something of a cause célèbre. Many Pakistanis have long condemned what they believe to be an unjust trial based on fabricated evidence through demonstrations as well as information campaigns.
Given this divergence in understanding, it is worthwhile to ask not only who Aafia Siddiqui is, but what she has come to represent to everyday Pakistanis.
Omar Khadr, the only Canadian citizen in Guantánamo, was seized in Afghanistan on July 27, 2002, when he was just 15 years old. On September 19 he turned 24, and has grown, physically, into a man during the eight years and two months he has spent in US custody, first at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and, since October 2002, at Guantánamo. At heart, however, he remains a child, whose youth has been stolen from him by the US authorities responsible for detaining him, and by the Canadian government, which has refused to demand his return.
In order to reveal something about the salience of incoherence in today’s world, let’s examine this recent event:
On May 21st, the Appeals Court for the District of Columbia ruled that detainees at Bagram do not have the right to habeas corpus; that is, the right to challenge their detention; that is, the same right that was extended to Guantanamo detainees in two separate Supreme Court rulings, Rasul (2004) and Boumediene (2008). The Bagram decision was based on reasoning that because the prison is located in Afghanistan – a zone of active combat – the precedent in Boumediene, concerning Guantanamo Bay, cannot be applied. Additionally, the Court ruled that while the United States, in maintaining full and complete control over Guantanamo Bay for over a century, was constitutionally required to provide detainees with the right to challenge their detention, the status of Bagram was a different case because the U.S. does not intend to maintain control over Bagram with any “permanence.” At first, the logic of the court, which is grounded in Supreme Court precedent, ‘may’ sound compelling to the reader, but this is where things get sticky…..
In a series of interviews by the Talking Dog, lawyers for Bagram and Guantanamo detainees have been discussing why they do what they do; namely, represent clients who the government has and continues to maintain are ‘terrorists.’ In the most recent of these interviews, Ellen Lubell, co-counsel for Abdul Aziz Naji, tells us what’s at stake for her in detainee representation and why such work must continue to be done.
I spent Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday in Washington, D.C. as part of the Witness Against Torture fast, which campaigns to end all forms of torture and has worked steadily for an end to indefinite detention of people imprisoned in Guantanamo, Bagram, and other secret sites where the U.S. has held and tortured prisoners. We’re on day 9 of a twelve day fast to shut down Guantanamo, end torture, and build justice.
The community gathered for the fast has grown over the past week. This means, however, that as more people sleep on the floor of St. Stephen’s church, there is a rising cacophony of snoring. Our good friend, Fr. Bill Pickard, suggested trying to hear the snores as an orchestra, when I told him I’d slept fitfully last night.
There is a young boy in Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, in Pakistan, who also lies awake at night, unable to sleep. Israr Khan Dawar is 17 years old. He told an AP reporter, on January 14th, that he and his family and friends had gotten used to the drones. But now, at night, the sound grows louder and the drones are flying closer, so he and his family realize they could be a target. He braces himself in fear of an attack.
The Obama administration and Judiciary have been providing a pretty grim preview of 2010 in relation to Guantanamo Bay and Bagram policies. Here’s a three-part update on some of the devastating ‘developments’ that have taken place in recent days:
1) In the final days of 2009, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that U.S. government agencies may refuse to confirm or deny the existence of records when faced with a Freedom of Information Act request that might disclose sensitive intelligence activities, sources, or methods.
The ruling came on the heels of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted in 2006 by 23 lawyers representing detainees at Guantánamo Bay. In the aforementioned case, lawyers were seeking access to records from the National Security Agency (NSA) and Justice Department that were obtained or related to “ongoing or completed warrantless electronic surveillance or physical searches regarding, referencing, or concerning”any of the 23 lawyers.
During the ruling, one of the three presiding appeals court judges, Jose Cabranes, uses logic that strikes the ear as painfully predictable in stating that “as long as the disclosure of such data puts national security at risk, intelligence agencies can withhold secret information.” Cabranes further writes, ” The fact that the public is aware of the program’s existence does not mean that the public is entitled to have information regarding the operation of the program, its targets, the information it has yielded, or other highly sensitive national security information that the government has continued to classify.”
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.”
On Monday, November 30th the Supreme Court overturned a Second Circuit Court of Appeals order to release photographs of U.S. soldier abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a statement by Solicitor General Elena Kagan, disclosing these photographs “would pose a clear and grave risk of inciting violence and riots against American troops and coalition forces.”
The contestation over the release of these photographs began four years ago, when a trials court judge claimed that the Bush administration was evading obligations imposed on it by the Freedom of Information Act in withholding the images. Although earlier this year the Obama administration argued in favor of releasing the photographs in an effort to encourage ‘transparency’, the decision was later reversed. While the Supreme Court has historically challenged the state’s assertions in cases concerning the rights of detainees, this time they sided with the Obama Administration, permitting the Pentagon to block the release of these photographs and others like them.
Are we to believe that concern for the safety of U.S. soldiers and civilians lies at the heart of this decision, or can we sense a certain disingenuity when we think about how the state endangers both soldiers and civilians everyday by subjecting them to war? Insincerity, as George Orwell tells us, is “the gap between one’s real and declared aims.”
What is it about the nature of the image in general and, more specifically, about the ‘possible’ content of these images in particular that is creating a palpable gap between the state and judiciary’s real and declared aims?