Bagram baton passed: US returns notorious prison to Afghan control

A general view of the prison compound before a ceremony handing over the Bagram prison to Afghan authorities, at the U.S. airbase in Bagram, north of Kabul September 10, 2012. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)
The notorious Bagram military detention facility has been transferred to Afghan control. But the US will still administer a special cell block with dozens of non-Afghan detainees, and have a right to arrest suspects on Afghan territory.

Also known as the Parwan Detention Facility, Bagram is the biggest military prison in Afghanistan and has rivaled the fame, or infamy, of prisons such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Iraq in all aspects of controversy: from prisoners’ complete lack of rights to sanctioning the torture of inmates. No prisoner in the facility was ever granted POW status so the Geneva Convention rules do not exist for Bagram inmates.

The US has already handed over 3,082 detainees to Afghan control. The transfer of about 600 prisoners who were detained after the handover agreement was signed on March 9 this year is still in process.

The US preconditioned keeping control over a small part of the prison to keep about 50 detainees, none of them Afghan nationals, there. Reportedly those are mostly Pakistanis and others captured by Americans in other wars, in neighboring Iraq, for example.

US command allegedly fears the Afghan authorities might treat the detainees improperly, in other words set them free or use them as bargaining chips of them in negotiations with Taliban, AFP reports.

Reportedly, the Taliban leadership agreed to start a negotiation process with the government of President Hamid Karzai. The talks might be conducted in Qatar and the transfer of inmates of Bagram prison should be regarded as an act of goodwill

Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised the transfer, saying that control over the detention facility is a matter of sovereignty for Afghanistan.

The prison is situated just north of Kabul on the territory of Bagram air base that was initially built for Soviet Air Force during the Afghan War in 1980s. Once the US ousted the Taliban, they made Bagram American Air Force base.

US soldiers stand guard beside prison cells during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul, on November 15, 2009. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)
US soldiers stand guard beside prison cells during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul, on November 15, 2009. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)

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‘Afghan Guantanamo’

Human rights watch has more than once mentioned Bagram detention facility as a place where illegal torture interrogation techniques were used, but no official investigation has been launched.

Information also emerged that British MI5 secret service used Bagram prison too – when they needed to question captured terrorist suspects.

In February this year the Bagram detention facility found itself in the middle of an immense religious scandal after US troops improperly disposed of hundreds of Korans and other religious literature confiscated from inmates. The holy books were burnt, but not completely, so when locals found them in the base’s junkyard, the incident caused mass public outcry.

Despite NATO command in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama officially apologizing in an attempt to quell the outrage, violent protests near the US military base in Bagram continued for a week, claiming more than 30 Afghan lives. Hundreds were injured, including NATO soldiers.

By 2014, when American troops are expected to leave Afghanistan, all prisons under American jurisdiction are going to be passed under Afghan authority. The transfer of Bagram prison has become the first step towards this goal.

But as local media reports, Americans reserve the right to arrest suspects on Afghan territory, subsequently handing them over to the Afghan authorities.

A US soldier stands guard next to beds with folded prayer mats and headwear in a common cell during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul, on November 15, 2009. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)
A US soldier stands guard next to beds with folded prayer mats and headwear in a common cell during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul, on November 15, 2009. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)
This file photo taken on November 15, 2009 shows US soldiers standing beside common cells during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)
This file photo taken on November 15, 2009 shows US soldiers standing beside common cells during a media tour of Bagram prison, north of Kabul. (AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini/Files)