Dozens and perhaps hundreds of terrorism suspects held in US detention centers around the globe have been wrongfully imprisoned, an investigation revealed on Sunday. The finding is the latest in a series of allegations and setbacks in US efforts to prosecute such suspects. Analysts say that some of these setbacks may force Washington to fundamentally change the way it approaches the detention of "enemy combatants."
McClatchy newspapers' eight-month investigation of US detention practices in 11 countries found that many of the wrongfully detained have also been abused. McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees and spoke with former prison guards as well as several current and former US military legal advisers.
While international attention has focused on abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, "sadistic violence" first appeared in US detention facilities in Afghanistan.
Guards said they routinely beat their prisoners to retaliate for al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks, unaware that the vast majority of the detainees had little or no connection to al-Qaida.
Former detainees at Bagram [a US detention base north of Kabul] and Kandahar said they were beaten regularly. Of the 41 former Bagram detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, 28 said that guards or interrogators had assaulted them. Only eight of those men said they were beaten at Guantánamo Bay.
The report goes on to say:
Specialist Jeremy Callaway, who admitted to striking about 12 detainees at Bagram, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he was uncomfortable following orders to "mentally and physically break the detainees." He didn't go into detail.
"I guess you can call it torture," said Callaway, who served in the 377th from August 2002 to January 2003.
Asked why someone would abuse a detainee, Callaway told military investigators: "Retribution for September 11 2001."
According to the McClatchy investigation, however, most detainees in Bagram were not involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Major Jeff Bovarnick, the former chief legal officer for operational law in Afghanistan and Bagram legal adviser, said in a sworn statement that of 500 detainees he knew of who'd passed through Bagram, only about 10 were high-value targets, the military's term for senior terrorist operatives.
In March, the Associated Press reported that a US military investigation revealed that detainee abuse occurred at Bagram. In April, The New York Times reported that the US turned over dozens of detained men to Afghan authorities, who then held secret trials where "witnesses [did] not appear in court and cannot be cross-examined. There [were] no sworn statements of their testimony." Instead, The Times writes,
[T]he trials appear to be based almost entirely on terse summaries of allegations that are forwarded to the Afghan authorities by the United States military. Afghan security agents add what evidence they can, but the cases generally center on events that sometimes occurred years ago in war zones that the authorities may now be unable to reach.
"These are no-witness paper trials that deny the defendants a fundamental fair-trial right to challenge the evidence and mount a defense," said Sahr MuhammedAlly, a lawyer for the advocacy group Human Rights First who has studied the proceedings. "So any convictions you get are fundamentally flawed."
The latest allegations by McClatchy come at a moment when US detention policy is suffering major setbacks. Last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that habeas corpus, or the right to challenge one's detention, applies to inmates held at Guantánamo Bay, meaning that these detainees have the right to challenge their detention in a court of law. The ruling undermines the premise of US detentions – that prisoners are "enemy combatants" held during wartime and therefore not subject to Constitutional law, reports the BBC.
"I think that the decision today is the end of Guantanamo as we know it," said Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal, who represents one of the detainees.
Andrew McBride, who wrote a brief on behalf of former GOP attorneys general siding with the administration, called it a watershed decision: "For the first time in history, it does inject judicial supervision into the conduct of war."
The New York Times writes in a news analysis about Guantánamo:
"To the extent that Guantánamo exists to hold detainees beyond the reach of U.S. courts, this blows a hole in its reason for being," said Matthew Waxman, a former detainee affairs official at the Defense Department.
And without that, much will change.
The decision granted detainees the right to challenge their detention in civilian courts, meaning that federal judges will now have the power to check the government's claims that the 270 men still held there are dangerous terrorists. That will force officials to answer questions about evidence that they have long deflected despite international criticism and expressions of support, from President Bush on down, for closing the camp.
The findings also come at a time when US- and Afghan-run prisons are under increased scrutiny in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters attacked a prison in Kandahar on Friday, resulting in the escape of hundreds of prisoners, reports The Christian Science Monitor. The prison had witnessed frequent protests because of alleged mistreatment. Last month, more than 200 inmates launched a week-long hunger strike in protest of dismal living conditions and abuse, the Associated Press reported.
[S]ome of those on the hunger strike had been held without trial for over two years. Others were given lengthy prison sentences after short trials…. 47 of the prisoners had stitched their mouths shut during the strike....
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said… that the prisoners had complained that foreign troops searched their homes on the basis of faulty intelligence and that they were tortured and humiliated during investigations.