Bagram from the air
The US military unveiled a new $60 million prison at Bagram airbase, north of the capital Kabul today, saying it would provide detainees with better living conditions and also promote transparency. Reporters were allowed to visit the facility although it presently contains no inmates. They will start being moved into their new cells during the next two weeks. It is expected that all 700 prisoners presently held in the old prison at Bagram will be transferred by the end of the year. The new prison can hold up to 1,240 prisoners.
Asked how he would describe conditions at the old prison, US commanding officer Brigadier Mark Martins said it had always met international and domestic standards. In fact, prisoners at Bagram have minimal rights. They wear the same orange jump suits as prisoners held at Guantanamo, but have even fewer basic legal rights, such as the right to appear at military hearings that could assess whether or not they pose a security threat.
In June the BBC reported allegations of abuse and neglect at the facility, having interviewed 27 former detainees. The former detainees alleged they were beaten, deprived of sleep and threatened with dogs at the base.
In April 2009 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents and information held by the CIA and Department of Defence on the prisoners in Bagram. It was seeking information on "the number of people currently detained at Bagram, their names, citizenship, place of capture and length of detention, as well as records pertaining to the process afforded those prisoners to challenge their detention and designation as ‘enemy combatants.’"
In a letter responding to the ACLU’s FOIA request, the CIA said it could "neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence" of records containing the information requested by the ACLU.
The DOD’s response said that the department has a list containing basic detainee information, including names, capture dates and circumstances, and length of detainment. However, the DOD said that this list is classified, and cannot be released for national security and personal privacy reasons.
"There are serious concerns that Bagram is another Guantánamo – except with many more prisoners, less due process, no access to lawyers or courts and reportedly worse conditions," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "As long as the Bagram prison is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know the truth or begin to address the problems that exist there." In September ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Departments of Defense, Justice and State and the CIA, to enforce a FOIA request for the Bagram records. That case has still to be heard.
In recent years Bagram Airbase has expanded enormously and is now a small town spread over around 5,000 acres. The airfield is already handling 400 tonnes of cargo and 1,000 passengers daily, while plans are underway to build a new $22 million passenger terminal and a cargo yard costing $9 million. To increase cargo capacity, a parking ramp supporting the world's largest aircraft is to be completed in early 2010.