Monday, March 22, 2010

Bagram prison in Afghanistan may become the new Guantánamo

The Times

Michael Evans, Pentagon Correspondent

The American detention centre at Bagram in Afghanistan could be expanded into a Guantánamo-style prison for terrorist suspects detained around the world.

This is one of the options being considered as US officials try to find an alternative to Guantánamo Bay, which President Obama promised to close within a year of taking office. The continued use of the prison in Cuba has presented Mr Obama with an embarrassing dilemma because of the difficulty of finding somewhere acceptable to imprison those considered to be the most dangerous detainees.

A decision to send al-Qaeda suspects detained in countries such as Yemen and Somalia to Bagram, which is located north of Kabul, would be highly controversial.

General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, has already voiced his opposition, according to the Los Angeles Times newspaper, because of the negative publicity it would generate.

Bagram is synonymous in Afghan eyes with past human rights abuses, although the old prison has been replaced by a new facility at the large US airbase.

A senior Pentagon official said: "No one particularly likes any of the choices before us right now, but Bagram may be the least bad among them."

The other alternative - of using a special prison in the US - is seen as less practical because the detainees would have to be put through the American justice system, and some of the suspects considered by the US as the most dangerous would be difficult to prosecute because of the lack of sufficient evidence. Congress would also oppose such a move.

Bagram currently houses about 800 detainees, including a small number of foreign fighters who were not arrested in Afghanistan. They were taken there under the Administration of George W. Bush.

The other complication for Mr Obama is that, under current plans, Bagram is to be handed over to the Afghan Government next year, so unless the US military retained control over one section of the prison - solely for suspects detained outside of Afghanistan - it is unlikely that the Government of President Karzai would approve of having responsibility for those detained by US special forces or the CIA in another part of the world.

A US official told the Los Angeles Times that General McChrystal supported the idea of Bagram being used for foreign fighters detained in Pakistan, provided they had a direct bearing "on the fight in Afghanistan". That would include Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the alleged Taleban leader captured in Pakistan in February.

The issue of where to put high-risk detainees is so sensitive that when Admiral Eric Olson, commander of US Special Operations Command, was asked at a Senate hearing last week where he would send a terrorist suspect arrested in Yemen, he said that he could answer that question only in closed session.

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