The Story Of Bagram Prison

The Soviet Union built Bagram as a base of operations for troops and supplies shortly after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal, the base changed hands between different militia groups. The American’s took over the base after their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, converting its massive machine shop into a prison facility. The base lies some forty miles north of Kabul and is officially known as a the Parawan Theater Internment Facility at the Bagram Air Base. The prison actually began as a ‘collection and sorting’ facility – prisoners captured during military operations were interrogated here before either being released, held or forward to Guantanamo, or to CIA ‘black sites’ in other countries. Over time Bagram was transformed into a full-scale prison and more so after it become clear that US courts were going to demand habeas corpus rights for those being held in Guantanamo, something that is still denied to those held at Bagram.

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Bagram has been infamous for the use of torture and other inhuman techniques. Even the ICRC was compelled to file a complaint at the treatment of prisoners being held at Bagram. Though the US military has claimed to have improved conditions in the prison, there is no independent verification that such changes have in fact been carried out and to what degree. We only have the military’s word for it. 

Bagram is not just a prison but in fact one piece of a vast network of prisons – from major sites like Guantanamo, to secret CIA sites, third-country prisons, off-shore detention facilities, and practices – like extra-ordinary renditions, indefinite detentions and clear use of torture. It has to be seen in terms of the ‘new paradigm’ of detention and detainee treatment that emerged, away from the eyes of the US executive and the US Congress, and all international legal and human rights bodies, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and how the Bush administration took ‘its gloves off’. It is part of a system explicitly designed to be opaque to the organs of the law, both domestic and international, and beholden only to the prejudices and needs of the executive, and a small body of men who advise it.

Today the Parawan facility is under the dual control of the US and Afghani governments. In 2005 the US and Afghanistan signed an agreement that lay out the rules for a gradual transfer of Afghan prisoners to the control of the Afghani administration. The USA spent nearly $30 million rebuilding and reconfiguring a high-security part of the prison known as the Afghan National Detention Facility (ANDF) in Pul-i-Charki on the outskirts of Kabul. The USA also tried to convince the Afghan government to adopt Guantanamo like rules of indefinite detentions and military commission trials, which the Afghans refused to follow. The Afghan government has insisted on its right to try its citizens under Afghan criminal law. 

On March 2013 the transfer of the prison, after some problems in the negotiations, was complete and nearly 3000 Afghan prisoners were handed over to the Afghan government. However, the USA retains control of all non-Afghanis who remain in the prison. There are nearly 40 Pakistanis and about another 30 foreign nations still being held there, though it is difficult to judge the exact numbers of prisoners in a site that remains off-limits to anyone other than the US military and military prison authorities.