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The US legacy of Bagram prison

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The father of Hamidullah Khan, who was 14 when he was abducted and handed over to the U.S., relates his story

Abdul was just 20 years old when he drove his father to the medical clinic one day for an exam. He dropped his father off, then left to run a few errands, saying nonchalantly that he would be back by the time the tests were done. But..he never showed up at the clinic. It was as if he had disappeared into thin air. His family agonized over what had happened to the young man, who – as the oldest son — had worked as a laborer to support his parents and siblings in the wake of his father’s disability. The family fell into debt as a result, and his brother fell ill. It was more than a year later when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) informed them that Abdul was alive, but in prison, being held indefinitely, without formal charge or trial.

You’re probably thinking the captor is Israel, and the victim is Palestinian, because this narrative sounds oh so familiar. But actually, this incident occurred in Pakistan. And the jailer that kidnapped Abdul Halim Saifullah off the streets of Karachi, then imprisoned him without a word to anyone, access to a lawyer or trial, was the United States. Abdul disappeared in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2007 that his family was finally told where their son was being held – the infamous Bagram prison, the largest detention facility in the world and known as “Afghanistan’s Guantanamo.” In January of this year, Afghan investigators accused the U.S. Army of abusing detainees at Bagram, including torture.

Although the CodePink delegation is in Pakistan to publicize the disastrous effects of U.S. drone attacks in the region of Waziristan, many organizations and individuals who have suffered at the hands of Americans have sought an “audience” with us, hoping that we will take on their cause as well when we return home. One of those organizations is the “Justice Project Pakistan,” modeled after and mentored by the UK’s Reprieve. JPP advocates for the most vulnerable of prisoners – primarily those facing the death penalty or who are detained beyond the rule of law in secret prisons. Included among the latter are 37 Pakistanis – one as young as 16, who was seized in circumstances similar to Abdul’s at the age of just 14. Although the U.S. handed Bagram over to the Afghan government in September, the transition did not include prisoners from other countries, such as Pakistan, of which there are 52. (A side note: It also did not include more than 600 Afghans who were detained after the agreement was signed in March; they all remain in U.S. custody.)

Sarah Belal interprets for the detainees’ families.

Sarah Belal, an Oxford-trained lawyer and director of JPP, interpreted for a group of men whose brothers and sons are being held in Bagram. According to the men, some of the prisoners had been visiting Afghanistan for work or education, but others were in their hometowns in Pakistan. Many Americans do not realize that for years, the United States has been running “search-and-seize” operations in Pakistan as well, detaining these nationals for years without formal charge or trial. The longest has been there since 2002.

When Sarah asked the men how long they had waited, thinking their relatives were dead, before learning from the ICRC that they were in Bagram, the answers ranged from six months to as long as two years.

“Some have no idea why their son or brother was taken,” Sarah said. “Others say their relative was mistaken for someone else, but they haven’t been released. No formal charges are ever filed, except for a label in an Excel sheet given to the Pakistani government, such as ‘suspected member of Taliban’ or ‘IED (improvised explosive device) manufacturer’.”

Once they learn of their loved ones’ whereabouts, the families are allowed to see them only by video conference, once every two months. They must travel to Islamabad, a long distance for many who live in more distant regions of Pakistan. When they arrive, poor Internet connections often mean the trip is for naught. When they do talk, or send letters, the prisoners are not permitted to discuss how they were seized or under what conditions they are being held.

“We have been told by the few detainees who have been released that when there are first interned in Bagram, the prisoners are exposed to extreme temperatures, and the floors of their cages are covered with two feet of water,” Sarah told us. “It is one to two months before the ICRC is allowed to see them, and then they are moved to their ‘regular’ quarters.” Their lawyers are never allowed direct access.

The Pakistani prisoners are held together, in one big cage divided into small cubicles with only one open toilet for all 37. Teenagers are mixed with the adults. Fazal Karim, who was abducted in 2003 when he was traveling cross country for a business trip, was held in solitary confinement for the past five years. In 2011, the Pakistani embassy in Kabul announced that Fazal had been cleared for release. However, today, he is still in Bagram, with no explanation.

“The Pakistani government has been no help,” the father of 16-year-old Hamidullah Khan told us through Sarah. “We are Pakistani citizens, but we totally on our own, at the mercy of the United States.”

JPP has filed a petition with the Pakistani government on behalf of 10 of the detainees, including Abdul Halim Saifullah and Hamidullah Khan. In October 2011, a Pakistani justice ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to visit its citizens in Bagram. In February of this year, the High Court in Lahore directed the government of Pakistan to negotiate with the U.S. for the return of the detainees. However, no concrete results have yet been achieved, and on Sept. 25, the JPP proposed a draft memorandum of understanding which would, once signed by the U.S. and Pakistan, order the safe return of Pakistani citizens held in Bagram. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Prisoners’ cases are reviewed behind closed doors every six months, and even when they are told they will be released, it can take weeks or longer before it becomes reality.

“What is unsettling,” Sarah told us, “is that prisoners often come home very fluent in English cuss words – with an American accent.”

What a legacy we are leaving the world – an encyclopedic knowledge of English profanity, among individuals often so damaged they either can no longer work as productive members of society or are so filled with hate they may still grow into that terrorist label we gave them. 

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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6 Responses

  1. Stephen Shenfield
    October 9, 2012, 1:17 pm

    I’ve just been reading Raja Shehadeh’s “When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege.” He mentions how Palestinian kids first pick up Arabic cuss words from Arabic-speaking Israeli soldiers (most Israelis who speak Arabic do so because they or their families are originally from Arab countries). This is called cultural diffusion (or something).

  2. gamal
    October 10, 2012, 6:37 am

    firstly while i am willing to believe that the first picture is of Hamidullah’s father and that he is the spitting image of Max Stafford Clarke the wonderful British human rights lawyer i suspect that is in fact Max.

    “are so filled with hate they may still grow into that terrorist label we gave them.” right so one could say that those who opposed (sorry to use this analogy but it is a symptom of the moral illiteracy of many westerners that this is only way to make the point) the Nazi occupation of the lands and oppression of their people were merely motivated by “hate”, the abuses you relate not with standing? do you not see that many people are motivated by love and a desire to protect their loved ones and community from this barbarity. Fighting foreign occupiers does make one a terrorist, except to likes of Klaus Barbie.

  3. gamal
    October 10, 2012, 6:51 am

    obviously “their lands” in 4th line from end.

  4. gamal
    October 10, 2012, 7:56 am

    also i meant Clive Stafford Smith, Max is a theatre director, so its all pretty confusing, could of course just be Hamidullahs Dad. Smith made a great documentary about the execution of an almost certainly innocent young black man in the USA, its very good and worth watching, he tracks down the man very likely responsible for the crime and has a tense interview with him in which the likely killer manages to be both charming and threatening.

  5. Pam Bailey
    October 11, 2012, 7:33 am

    Yes, you are quite right. The photo above is of Clive Stafford-Smith. I cannot seem to post pictures to my blog entries, so I email them to Adam or Phil. In this case, I accidentally emailed the wrong photo. I caught the error and sent the correct one, but it has not been changed online!!! Sorry folks…

    • gamal
      October 11, 2012, 8:04 am

      yes i was not being funny, except unintentionally, doppelgangers do exist and Afghans and Pakistanis come in an entertaining kaleidoscope of colours and physiognomies, as one Jean Charles de Menezes found to his cost. wonderful article really inspiring, except the end, people do not just fight oppression out of hate and anger, cf “we teach life sir!”, otherwise they would soon be exhausted. The jacket gave me confidence who else but a selfless servant of justice would wear such a thing.

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