NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – Legal, diplomatic, religious and human rights authorities are struggling to be heard on what many consider to be the “Son of Guantanamo”–a secret prison in Afghanistan where the U.S. military is said to have been holding some 500 “enemy combatants” for as long as four years without access to lawyers.

The existence of the prison, located at Bagram air base near Kabul, was reported recently by The New York Times. But the story was quickly relegated to back pages by the revelation that Dubai Ports World (DPW), a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, was about to take over the management of as many as six major U.S. seaports.

Times reporters Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt, who broke the Bagram story, wrote: “Some administration officials acknowledge that the situation at Bagram has increasingly come to resemble the legal void that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in June 2004 affirming the right of prisoners at Guantanamo to challenge their detention in United States courts.”


They added, “Bagram has operated in rigorous secrecy since it opened in 2002. It bars outside visitors except for the international Red Cross, and refuses to make public the names of those held there.

“From the accounts of former detainees, military officials and soldiers who served there, a picture emerges of a place that is in many ways rougher and more bleak than its Cuban counterpart. Men are held by the dozen in large wire cages, the detainees and military sources said, sleeping on the floor on foam mats and, until about a year ago, often using plastic buckets for latrines. Before recent renovations, they rarely saw daylight except for brief visits to a small exercise yard.”

The Times reported that the detainee population at Bagram rose from about 100 prisoners at the start of 2004 to as many as 600 at times last year, according to military figures. This was, in part, the result of a Bush administration decision to shut off the flow of detainees into Guantanamo after the Supreme Court ruled that those prisoners had some basic due process rights under U.S. law.

Bagram has often been described by the U.S. military as a temporary “screening center” from which some detainees would be released and others transferred to Guantanamo Bay. But as Guantanamo became a lightning rod for worldwide criticism of Bush administration detention policies, transfers to Cuba were canceled.

The views of the U.S. human rights community were typified by Deborah Pearlstein, director of the U.S. Law and Security Program for Human Rights First, a major advocacy group.

She told IPS, “Apart from the ongoing harms to human rights, one of the most remarkable features of the U.S. detentions at Bagram and elsewhere is that four-and-a-half years after Sept. 11, the administration continues to hold nearly 15,000 detainees worldwide without rights recognized under any domestic or international legal regime, and without a plan for how it might begin detaining people legally in what the administration now calls the ‘long war’ going forward.”

Noah Leavitt, who served on the International Law Commission of the United Nations in Geneva and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, took issue with the U.S. military’s chief spokesman in Afghanistan, who is quoted as saying the U.S. is “providing the best possible living conditions and medical care in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Convention.”

That statement, Mr. Leavitt charged, “highlights the administration’s ignorance of or cavalier attitude toward long-established international law.

“The world will always be in catch-up mode when it comes to investigating, discovering and challenging the many ways the Bush administration has undermined international legal norms. Just as they did for Guantanamo, concerned lawyers, journalists and researchers will have to figure out how to gain access to Bagram in order to bring the harsh treatment of the prisoners to the attention of the U.S. judicial system and the international community before any improvements are seen,” he added.

Leaders of the religious community have also weighed in on the Bagram issue. George Hunsinger, McCord professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of the peace group Church Folks for a Better America, told IPS, “America must lead by example. If we continue to shame our country through secret prisons, torture and abuse, the world will no longer look to us as a beacon of hope, but as a dungeon of despair. The only way to defeat terrorism is by upholding our ideals, not by trampling on them.”