Transparency on Bagram detentions needed from Obama administration

A US federal judge has ordered the administration of President Barack Obama to provide him with updated information on the detainees held by the USA in Bagram airbase in Afghanistan by 11 March. District Court Judge John Bates is considering whether the detainees may challenge their detention before courts in the USA.

Judge Bates asked the Bush administration in January 2009 to disclose the number of people being held in Bagram, how many of them were taken into custody outside of Afghanistan, and how many of them were Afghan nationals. The administration responded by classifying the key details as secret and redacted them from the unclassified version of the filing.

Judge Bates has now asked the Obama administration the same questions, noting that the details supplied to him by the government in January may now be out of date.

Figures released in late February by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only organization with access to Bagram detainees, indicate that there were then about 550 detainees in the airbase. This was down from the figure of “about 615” provided by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the Senate Armed Services Committee a month earlier.

New detentions by US and allied forces in Afghanistan continue. According to reports by the American Forces Press Service, at least 120 “militants” were taken into custody during January and February 2009. It is not known how many, if any, have been or will be transferred to Bagram.

Amnesty International has written to the US administration urging it to inject some much needed transparency into the Bagram detention regime, including by making fully available to the public the information requested by District Court Judge John Bates.

Amnesty International has urged the new administration not to repeat its predecessor’s use of secrecy to conceal from the public its response to the judge. Transparency, essential to accountability and detainee protection, must be central to US detention policy. As President Obama has himself instructed his administration, “transparency promotes accountability”.

The need for transparency was illustrated late last month when the UK government revealed that two individuals it handed over to the USA in Iraq in 2004 had subsequently been transferred to US custody in Afghanistan, where they remain five years later.

Amnesty International has asked the US government to confirm whether the two are held in Bagram and to provide further information on their cases. The organization has raised the possibility that the USA’s transfer of these individuals to Afghanistan constituted a war crime.

Amnesty International continues to call for the Bagram detainees to be granted access to an independent court to challenge the lawfulness of their detentions, to effective remedies in relation to their treatment and conditions of detention, and to meaningful access to legal counsel for such purposes. At present, the detainees have no access to lawyers or courts.