MAY 7, 2007
Early last spring, outside a guesthouse in Kabul where I was staying, an injured Afghan man limped up to the locked gate. He wore a blazer with suede elbow patches and leaned on crutches. Because a suicide bomber had attacked the building not long before, a guard blocked the entrance of the unannounced supplicant. The fact that the man refused to give his name didn't help his case. But, finally, once inside, he blurted his reason for travelingacross a war zone to the building: He had heard that American lawyers with whom I was traveling were staying there and that these lawyers wanted to represent prisoners held by the Americans atBagram Airbase, some 40 miles north. "My son is in prison atBagram," the man said, clutching a cell phone: A sympathetic Afghan guard inside Bagram Theater Internment Facility (btif) had sent him a photograph of his son after he had been badly beaten, his eye swollen shut.
Btif is currently home to about 650 detainees. Unlike the prison in Guantanamo, there aren't congressional junkets regularly touring the facility, let alone any reporters. Inside one of the low-slung, pale concrete buildings, on the vast floor of what was once a machine shop, is a scene one former interrogator describes as adungeon, full of "medieval sounds"--the dragging of leg shackles, shouts from military police. Most of its windows, initially installed by the Soviet army, are broken and boarded up. There are six large 60- foot-long cages ringed in coiled barbed wire where detainees are kept, 15 to 20 prisoners to a cage. Before the prisoners enter or leave these cages, they are transferredtemporarily to cages large enough for only one prisoner called"sally ports," which are encased in coils of concertina wire and reinforced with steel beams. On a level above the machine shopfloor, there are isolation rooms walled in plywood with chicken-wire ceilings.
The man had come to the guest house on bad information. The lawyerswith whom I traveled represented prisoners in Guantanamo, and theyweren't seeking new clients from Bagram. As the man took in thisdepressing fact, he grew irate and began pressing his case witheven greater fervor. "There are more photographs," he exclaimed,turning to leave. "Someday, you will see them."
That day may be fast approaching. The photos accompanying this pieceare the first to be published from inside the prison. Last month,lawyers pleaded two separate cases before the D.C. District Court, demanding that the justices review petitions of habeas corpus for Bagram detainees. These cases represent the rare moment when Bagramwill actually receive scrutiny. Unlike Guantanamo, a puddle-jumper away from Miami, Bagram is tucked into the Afghan countryside, not far from where combat with the Taliban still flares. And thisremoteness has made the plight of its prisoners all the more dire:Only the International Committee of the Red Cross knows the namesof Bagram's occupants. Eric Lewis, a co-counsel in one of the habeas cases, says, "The nightmare of Guantanamo is something of a picnic compared to Bagram," a fact that prisoners can relate with firsthand knowledge: A good portion of the detainees in Guantanamo were first held in Bagram. "Our clients were beaten more badly inAfghanistan than in Guantanamo, basically because, in Cuba, the whole world is watching," says Lewis.
Bagram is a 6.5-square-mile plot located on the vast, once-verdant Shomali plain and encircled by the snowy Panjshir mountains. After the Soviet invasion in the late '70s, the Russians built a two-mile runway and airbase at Bagram. During the decades of civil war, the defunct base repeatedly switched between Taliban and Northern Alliance control. In late 2001, as it trounced the Taliban, theUnited States took possession of the base and outfitted its cavernous machine shop to detain captured combatants. Former prisoners and interrogators say that there were old Soviet signswritten in Cyrillic still on the walls.
The detention facility was designed as a short-term collectionpoint, where American interrogators sorted erroneous and low-level captures from those of higher intelligence value. And, at first,the prison actually served this purpose: Detainees from SaudiArabia, Yemen, and North Africa were transported to Guantanamo--although there are still some Arabs held at Bagram. (Weknow this, in part, because a Yemeni prisoner, held virtually in communicado for more than five years, sent his father a letterthrough the Red Cross. "BT," meaning Bagram Theater, was marked onthe upper-left-hand corner.)
From the start, the processing of prisoners entailed some grislypractices. When Captain Carolyn Wood assumed control of the prisonin the summer of 2002-- she ran it until taking over Abu Ghraib ayear later--interrogation tactics came to include beatings, anal violation with sharp objects, blows to the genitals, and "peroneal"strikes (an incapacitating blow to the leg with a baton, a knee, or a shin). We know about these tactics because an internal Army investigation into two prisoner deaths was obtained by The New York Times. These detainees--a 22-year-old taxi driver and the brotherof a Taliban commander--were found dead and hanging from the wrists by shackles. A coroner's report said the two men died after being subjected to dozens of peroneal strikes. According to the coroner's report, the "pulpified" legs of one of the corpses looked as if they had "been run over by a bus."
During these early years, one of the most notorious figures at the prison was Private First Class Damien M. Corsetti, known in turnsas the "King of Torture" and "Monster." Corsetti tattooed anItalian translation of the latter moniker across his stomach. Inthe end, a military tribunal cleared Corsetti of all charges. Hislawyer successfully argued before the tribunal that the rules for detainee treatment were unclear: "The president of the United States doesn't know what the rules are. The secretary of defense doesn't know what the rules are. But the government expects this Pfc. to know what the rules are?" But, in the course of proving his innocence, Corsetti revealed several damning details. One of the prisoners he called to testify on his behalf told the military judges that a Saudi detainee recounted how Corsetti had threatenedto rape him. He had even taken out his penis and yelled, "This isyour God!"
It's not that Bagram has entirely escaped scrutiny. Armyinvestigators have recommended criminal charges for 27 alleged Bagram-based torturers. But, of these 27, only four soldiers have been sentenced to prison time--for no more than several months. Thealleged abusers have evaded punishment largely with the help of,among others, Donald Rumsfeld, who approved a December 2002 memorandum that permitted the use of stripping, dogs, and stress positions in interrogations. In fact, many of the top brass who presided over Bagram have done more than escape punishment. Despite the many accounts of Captain Wood's encouragement of torture--Amnesty International has called her a "torturearchitect"--she has received two Bronze Stars.
While Bagram began as a temporary jail, it has over time morphedinto a more permanent facility. As the bulk of its Arab prisonerswere shipped to Guantanamo, it increasingly held Afghans for long(and in many cases indefinite) terms. "One of the worst aspects of Bagram is that no one knows how long they'll be held there," saysSam Zia-Zarifi, the research director for the Asia division ofHuman Rights Watch. The secrecy shrouding the prison makes it hardto discern the precise composition of its occupants. But we do knowthat, last year, its population swelled by about 100 detainees,thanks to new U.S.- nato operations aimed at routing the resurgent Taliban. And even the Pentagon has implicitly conceded that the prison no longer serves its initial short-term purpose, changing its name from Bagram Collection Point to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility.
During this transformation, some of the worst abuses at Bagram, suchas anal violations and beatings, have been curbed, according toformer detainees, the Afghan Human Rights Commission, and Human Rights Watch. The Department of Defense claims that prisoners now gain an average of 15 pounds during their detention. And, several weeks ago, the first Afghan prisoners were transferred from Bagram into Afghan custody in the U.S.-built wing of the infamous Policharki prison. Lieutenant Colonel Todd Vician, a spokesman forthe Department of Defense, tells me, "We have no desire to be the world's jailer."
But, for all these changes, the growing detainee population still lives in overcrowded cages. Prisoners don't even have the limited access to lawyers available to prisoners in Guantanamo. Nor do they have the right to Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which Guantanamo detainees won in the 2004 Supreme Court ruling in Hamdiv. Rumsfeld. Instead, if a combat commander chooses, he can convenean Enemy Combatant Review Board (ecrb), at which the detainee has no right to a personal advocate, no chance to speak in his own defense, and no opportunity to review the evidence against him. The detainee isn't even allowed to attend. And, thanks to such limitedaccess to justice, many former detainees say they have no idea whythey were either detained or released.
With a victory in the pending habeas cases, Bagram detainees might eventually win the same legal rights now held by Guantanamoprisoners. But, according to Tina Foster, executive director of theInternational Justice Network and co-counsel on the habeaspetitions, "Even if the cases are successful, we are unlikely to see dramatic changes at Bagram any time soon." It will remain toofar from the public eye, too deep in a war zone, to receive the public pressure that forced the reform of Guantanamo. That's a shame, because the prison--and, more precisely, its infamy--hashurt the American cause in Afghanistan. "[It] undermines our legitimacy in building democracy and human rights in Afghanistan,"says Barnett Rubin, director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
I began to understand this cost as I sat in the Kabul guest housewith the American lawyers. Over a cup of tea, one local official named Zalmay Shah told us that he had once worked closely with U.S. Special Forces. At the beginning of the U.S. invasion, he hadhelped a commander named "Tony" round up a handful of midlevel Taliban. The soldiers had awarded him a letter of commendation for his efforts, and he developed a sincere affection for the Americans. That soon changed.
While delivering one wanted man into U.S. custody, Shah was himselfarrested, hooded, shackled, and stripped. Soldiers taped his mouthshut, refusing to let him spit out the snuff he was chewing. Forthree days, his jailers in Bagram denied him food. All the while,Shah pleaded his innocence and reminded the Americans of his friendship with "Tony." And, eventually, the Americans concluded that they had mistakenly identified the man as a Taliban official and released him. Despite all this, the U.S. military has continued to ask Shah for his help. "I have refused," he told us. "When the Americans came, we thought we would be free. But, on the contrary, we have suffered." Placing his elbows on the table, he hunched forward and cupped his hands around the now cold tea. "If the Americans don't change their policies soon, neither we nor they will have a way out."
Eliza Griswold is currently a Nieman Fellow in journalism at Harvard University. Her first book of poems, Wideawake Field, will be published in May, and she is at work on a non fiction book