The Forgotten Guantanamo: Prisoner Abuse Continues at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan

By , John Goetz and Britta Sandberg

US President Barack Obama has spoken out against CIA prisoner abuse and wants to close Guantanamo. But he tolerates the existence of Bagram military prison in Afghanistan, where more than 600 people are being held without charge. The facility makes Guantanamo look like a "nice hotel," in the words of one military prosecutor.

The day that Raymond Azar was taken by force to Bagram was a quiet day in Kabul. There were no attacks and the sun was shining.

Azar, who is originally from Lebanon, is the manager of a construction company. He was on his way to Camp Eggers, the American military base near the presidential palace, when 10 armed FBI agents suddenly surrounded him.

The men, all wearing bulletproof vests, put him in handcuffs, tied him up and pushed him into an SUV. Two hours later, they unloaded Azar at the Bagram military prison 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Kabul.

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Photo Gallery: America's Torture Chamber

As Azar later testified, he was forced to sit for seven hours, his hands and feet tied to a chair. He spent the night in a cold metal container, and he received no food for 30 hours. He claimed that US military officers showed him photos of his wife and four children, telling him that unless he cooperated he would never see his family again. He also said that he was photographed while naked and then given a jumpsuit to wear.

'A Need for This Sort of Place'

On that day, April 7, 2009, President Barack Obama had been in office for exactly 77 days. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama had ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and ordered the CIA to give up its secret "black site" prisons. He wanted to shed the dark legacy of the Bush years -- there should be no torture any more, no more secret kidnapping operations of terrorism suspects, no renditions. At least, that was what Obama had promised. He did not mention Bagram in his speeches.

Azar was in Kabul on business. His company had signed contracts with the Pentagon worth $50 million (€34 million) for reconstruction work in Afghanistan. On April 8, Azar was placed onto a Gulfstream and flown to the US state of Virginia to face charges. He was accused of having bribed his US Army contact to secure military contracts for his company, and he was later found guilty of bribery.

It was a classic case of corruption, which is not the sort of crime for which a suspect is normally sent to a military prison. No one can explain to Azar why he was taken to Bagram, where the US military treated him like a terrorism suspect and, in doing so, inadvertently provided him with an insight into a world it normally prefers to keep under wraps.

Bagram is "the forgotten second Guantanamo," says American military law expert Eugene Fidell, a professor at Yale Law School. "But apparently there is a continuing need for this sort of place even under the Obama administration."

From the beginning, "Bagram was worse than Guantanamo," says New York-based attorney Tina Foster, who has argued several cases on behalf of detainee rights in US courts. "Bagram has always been a torture chamber."

And what does Obama say? Nothing. He never so much as mentions Bagram in any of his speeches. When discussing America's mistreatment of detainees, he only refers to Guantanamo.

Classified Location

The Bagram detention facility, by now the largest American military prison outside the United States, is not marked on any maps. In fact, its precise location, somewhere on the periphery of the giant air base northeast of the Afghan capital, is classified. It comprises two sand-colored buildings that resemble airplane hangars, surrounded by tall concrete walls and green camouflage tarps. The facility was set up in 2002 as a temporary prison on the grounds of a former Soviet air base.

Today, the two buildings contain large cages, each with the capacity to hold 25 to 30 prisoners. Up to 1,000 detainees can be held at Bagram at any one time. The detainees sleep on mats, and there is one toilet behind a white curtain for each cage. A $60 million extension is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Unlike Guantanamo, Bagram is located in the middle of the Afghan war zone. But not all the inmates were captured in combat areas. Many terrorism suspects are from other countries and were transported to Bagram for interrogation after being captured. Since the military prison first came into operation, all the detainees there have been classified as "enemy combatants" rather than prisoners of war, which would make them subject to the provisions of the Geneva Convention.

Bagram's most prominent temporary detainee to date was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. After his arrest in Pakistan, Mohammed was initially taken to Bagram for three days and was then held at a secret prison in Poland before being flown to Guantanamo. He told representatives of the Red Cross that he was beaten in Afghanistan, suspended from shackles attached to his hands and sexually humiliated. "I was made to lie on the floor," he said. "A tube was inserted into my anus and water poured inside."

"In my view, having visited Guantanamo several times, the Bagram facility made Guantanamo look like a nice hotel," says military prosecutor Stuart Couch, who was given access to the interior of both facilities. "The men did not appear to be allowed to move around at will, they mostly sat in rows on the floor. It smelled like the "monkey house" at the zoo."

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