Obama Nearly Triples Bagram Detainee Population

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Justin Elliot

President Obama has presided over a threefold increase in the number of detainees being held at the controversial military detention center at Bagram Air Base, the Afghan cousin of the notorious prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. It’s the latest piece of news that almost certainly would be getting more attention — especially from Democrats — if George W. Bush were still president.

There are currently more than 1,700 detainees at Bagram, up from over 600 at the end of the Bush administration.

The situation at Bagram, especially the legal process that determines whether detainees are released, is the subject of a new report by Human Rights First. It finds that the current system of hearings for detainees “falls short of the requirements of international law” because they are not given “an adequate opportunity to defend themselves against charges that they are collaborating with insurgents and present a threat to U.S. forces.” Human Rights First also argues that cases of unjustified imprisonment are damaging the broader war effort by undermining Afghans’ trust in the military.

I spoke to the author of the report, Daphne Eviatar, a senior associate in the law and security program at Human Rights First who traveled to Bagram to observe the situation first-hand. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So to start with the basics, what is Bagram and what is its purpose?
It’s a U.S. military detention center in Afghanistan that, like the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba, is on a military base. People who are sent there now are being picked up in Afghanistan. When it was first opened in 2001, there were some detainees brought in from other countries as well. The military has said that stopped in recent years. By the end of the Bush administration, there were about 600 or 650 detainees being held there. There are now more than 1,700.

What do we know about who the detainees are and why they were sent to Bagram?
We know that these are people who have been captured by the U.S. military during the war in Afghanistan or during the broader war on terror. The people who have been sent there recently were largely picked up during so-called night raids. The military will go into villages where they believe there are Taliban and raid a house. They take all the men out, and put the women and children in a separate area. If the soldiers find weapons when they search the house, the men are likely to be detained, and they may end up being sent from the village to Bagram. Some of those people end up being held at Bagram for years.

What legal status do the detainees at Bagram have? Are they prisoners of war?

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