WASHINGTON – Hundreds of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan will for the first time have the right to challenge their indefinite detention and call witnesses in their defense under a new review system being put in place this week, according to administration officials.
The new system will be applied to the more than 600 Afghans held at the Bagram military base, and will mark the first substantive change in the overseas detention policies that President Barack Obama inherited from the Bush administration.
International human rights organizations have long criticized conditions at the Bagram facility, where detainees have been held – many of them for years – without access to lawyers or even the right to know the reason for their imprisonment. Afghans have cited Bagram, where virtually all prisoners in U.S. custody are held, as a major source of resentment toward coalition forces, a senior administration official said.
Under the new rules, each detainee will be assigned a U.S. military official, not a lawyer, to represent his interests and examine evidence against him. In proceedings before a board composed of military officers, detainees will have the right to call witnesses and present evidence when it is “reasonably available,” the official said. The boards will determine whether detainees should be held by the United States, turned over to Afghan authorities or released. For those ordered held longer, the process will be repeated at six-month intervals.
The Bagram system is similar to the annual Administrative Review Boards used for suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Officials said the review proceedings at Bagram will mark an improvement in part because they will be held in detainees’ home countries – where witnesses and evidence are close at hand.
“This process is about doing the right thing – only holding those we have to,” said the administration official.
Human rights organizations briefed by the Pentagon described the new system as a step in the right direction but inadequate.
“Any reforms in U.S. detentions in Afghanistan is an improvement, but it remains to be seen whether the new procedures will cure the ills of arbitrary and indefinite detention that have been the hallmark of detentions in Bagram,” said Sahr Muhammed Ally of the New York-based group Human Rights First.
Stacy Sullivan, counter-terrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch, said the procedures have to be “meaningful – not window dressing as we saw at Guantanamo Bay, where the military created a sham review process that looked good on paper but in reality resulted in prolonged detention for men who didn’t commit any crimes.”
Obama has pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay by the end of the year. An interagency panel, led by the Justice Department, is conducting a case-by-case review of some of the 226 remaining detainees there to determine which should be released and which should be subject to legal proceedings. The panel is scheduled to finish its reviews next month and report to the president.
The Defense Department has said approximately 600 detainees are being held at Bagram. Although some have been there since the early days of the Afghan war, which began in September 2001, there is considerable turnover with new arrivals and releases.