The post-9/11 U.S. Military Prison Complex

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, few Americans realize that the United States is still imprisoning more than 2800 men outside the United States without charge or trial.  Sprawling U.S. military prisons have become part of the post-9/11 landscape, and the concept of “indefinite detention” — previously foreign to our system of government — has meant that such prisons, and their captives, could remain a legacy of the 9/11 attacks and the “war on terror” for the indefinite future. Although the American public is vaguely aware that the government still holds 172 prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, far fewer Americans realize that our government is also imprisoning more than 2600 men indefinitely in Afghanistan.  While some of these men may be dangerous members of the Taliban or associated insurgent forces, many are probably not. Yet that’s impossible for anyone outside the U.S. military to know, because the defense department provides no public information about any of them. The prison opened at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2002.  Thousands of suspected insurgents have been captured and imprisoned there since then, some for more than eight years.  During the Bush Administration, the prison held up to 650 prisoners at Bagram a time.  Since the start of the Obama Administration, that number has almost quadrupled. The Detention Facility in Parwan, as the new prison completed in 2009 is called, was built to hold 1100 detainees. It now holds more than double that number. The secrecy surrounding the U.S. prison in Afghanistan makes it impossible for the public to judge whether those imprisoned there deserve to be there.  What’s more, because much of the military’s evidence against them is classified, the detainees themselves have no right to see it.  So although detainees at Bagram are now entitled to hearings at the prison every six months, they’re often not allowed to confront the evidence against them. As a result, they have no real opportunity to contest it. When I was in Afghanistan with a colleague in February, I had the opportunity to interview Afghans who’s been released from the U.S. detention center at Bagram within the previous year.  Not surprisingly, all insisted that they were innocent of any wrongdoing. Many also claimed they had been wrongly accused of assisting the Taliban by a personal enemy – someone with whom they had a land dispute, a family conflict, or a tribal rivalry — who had provided false information to American troops. It is impossible to know if these stories are true, because the U.S. government won’t share any information about these former prisoners. But given that all were eventually released, the U.S. government likely decided at some point that these men were not threatening.  Their stories – including how it took years for some to even get an opportunity to prove their innocence – provide the only first-hand accounts we have of the experiences of those that the U.S. is detaining without trial in Afghanistan. Many of the former detainees we spoke with were angry, confused, or at least frustrated. As one former detainee, a teacher and engineer who’d worked on projects for international development agencies, said following his release after three hearings and more than a year in U.S. custody:

“People say Americans are very clever people because now they have control of most of the world, and they can go even into space. But why they are being deceived by false intelligence or false reports of some stupid or foolish individuals?”

Another claimed he was repeatedly told by his interrogator that U.S. forces knew he had done nothing wrong, but wanted him to inform on others in his village, and threatened to keep him in prison until he did.  He repeatedly insisted he had no information about insurgents in his are

“When I said there were no bad guys in my village, he said I would be detained for life. They wanted me to work for them and point out the bad guys.”

In honor of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Human Rights First has published summaries of some of these individual stories, along with a blurred photograph of each detainee (their names have also been changed to protect their identity) and edited transcripts of our interviews with them, translated from Pashto or Dari to English. Their stories offer a revealing and often disturbing glimpse into the system of indefinite detention that the U.S. government is operating in Afghanistan. For HRF’s full report on current U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan, check out Detained and Denied in Afghanistan: How to Make U.S. Detention Comply with the Law.


Published on September 8, 2011


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