New U.S. Plan Reportedly To Let Afghan Prisoners Challenge Incarceration
September 14, 2009
By Ron Synovitz
New rules being prepared by the Obama administration would reportedly allow more than 600 suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners at a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan to challenge their incarceration.
The guidelines for the U.S. military facility at Bagram Air Field, to the north of Kabul, have emerged as the administration reviews Bush-era detention policies and studies what changes should be made.
"The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" newspapers are reporting details of proposed rule changes that were given to Congress in mid-July for a 60-day review. They are expected to be officially made public later this week.
Sam Zia Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, argues that there is no legal basis for the existence of U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan. Zarifi says that the system created by the Bush administration has hampered the efforts of the international community to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan.
Zarifi says that when the administration asked Major General Douglas Stone "to review the problems of the Bagram detention facility," Stone "came back and appropriately pointed out that the lack of a legal structure for Bagram means that it is undermining the rule of law in Afghanistan and it has caused a lot of resentment among Afghans."
"This is, as a process, completely counterproductive to what the Afghan government and its allies -- especially the United States -- want to accomplish in Afghanistan," Zarifi continues.
"If you want to establish the rule of law, if you want to signal that you respect human rights, you can't do it while you are running an illegal detention facility."
Closer To Legal Representation
According to reports on the new plan, a U.S. military official would be assigned as a representative for each Bagram prisoner. All detainees at Bagram also would be given a chance to go before newly created "detainee review boards" to have their cases considered.
Human rights activists say they welcome any move that gives Bagram detainees some legal representation and protections. They say the plan would mark the first time Bagram prisoners have been allowed to challenge their detention by calling witnesses and submitting evidence in their defense.
Still, Zarifi says Amnesty International is treating reports about the plan with caution and skepticism. Ultimately, he says, detainees should be represented by lawyers rather than U.S. military officers.
"We've seen the Bush administration try something like this in Guantanamo with the Administrative Review Board process. The U.S. courts found that process quite deficient. And in practice, it didn't really work very well," Zarifi explains.
"So the best way forward, in fact, would be to just have lawyers represent the detainees."
An order creating the review boards at Bagram was signed in July by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.
AP reported that some military officers serving in Afghanistan already have been assigned to the boards and that some personal representatives for detainees have been identified.
AP also quoted an unnamed Pentagon official as saying that the review-board system at Bagram would be more like a system used in Iraq than at Guantanamo. In Iraq, authorities used review boards to help determine which detainees posed the greatest threat and which could be rehabilitated and released.
Afghan Prisoners' Rights
In Kabul, Afghan human rights activists also welcomed reports that the Obama administration is planning to let Bagram prisoners challenge their detention.
Lal Gul, chairman of the Afghan Commission for Human Rights, has been pushing for years for Bagram detainees to have access to legal representation.
Gul says that the jailing of suspects without giving them access to courts, defense lawyers, or family members is a violation of both Afghan and international law. Gul also says he agrees with demands from the Justice Ministry that all Bagram detainees from Afghanistan should be dealt with according to Afghan law.
"While an independent judiciary exists in a country, the U.S. government or another foreigner has no right to arrest its citizens and detain them indefinitely," Gul says.
"We have criticized such American actions in the past. And we have termed them as against human rights norms and that those arrests and detentions are illegal."
Prisoners themselves -- some of them held at Bagram for more than six years without trial -- have also been protesting their treatment. Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross have indicated that Bagram detainees have been refusing privileges since July as a protest against their lack of legal rights.
Meanwhile, Zarifi notes that the United States is also running detention facilities in Afghanistan outside of Bagram and, in some cases, is turning suspects over to the Afghan government for detention elsewhere.
He says Amnesty International and other human rights groups are closely monitoring what other steps will be taken by the Obama administration to create a legal framework for the handling of all detainees in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Hamid Mohmand contributed to this report from Kabul
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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