Global Policy Forum

US Detentions: Reform Needed


By Dominic Moran

ISN Security Watch
September 12, 2008

Responding to widespread international opprobrium over past prisoner abuse scandals, the US military says it has significantly improved conditions, treatment and processing of internees. However, major human rights groups and other critics maintain serious concerns regarding both prisoner welfare and the overall efficacy and wisdom of maintaining detention systems which, they charge, lack transparency and a basic commitment to the maintenance of fundamental prisoner rights. The US Congress sought to strengthen legal provisions banning torture through the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prevents actions inconsistent with the US Army Field Manual for Human Intelligence Collector Operations.

Critics charge that the CIA does not act under the authority of the Manual and that the bill's removal of habeus corpus protection, a presidential signing statement and subsequent emendation of the Act itself, effectively delimits the impact of the law on military and intelligence interrogation methods. Alongside reforms to procedures designed to prevent prisoner abuse, the Multi-national Force-Iraq (MNF) says it has strengthened its commitment to habilitation, via inmate education, vocational training and literacy programs and moderate Islamic study programs that contribute to an extremely low degree of re-internment of around one percent. Reviewing his 14 months in charge of the Multi-National Force-Iraq detention system upon reassignment, Major General Douglas Stone told a press briefing in June that a new emphasis had been placed on individual prisoner welfare, a commitment that included the isolation of extremists within the system. This change in focus last year seemed designed to quell widespread disturbances that included riots, escapes and attacks on guards and to address a lack of prisoner separation and safety that appeared to foster rather than diminish the power of militant groups.

Access denied

Stone's claim that the Iraqi detention system is now marked by greater transparency was largely refuted by critics and representatives of major international human rights groups spoken to by ISN Security Watch. Asked if there had been improvements in conditions and the treatment of prisoners in MNF facilities in Iraq, Joseph Stork of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told ISN Security Watch, "We're not hearing the same sorts of complaints to the same degree. So that suggests – it doesn't prove anything – that there have been improvements […] The situation certainly doesn't seem to be as dire as it was three or four years ago." He cautioned, "Frankly we don't know for sure. Our requests to visit the places of detention have up to this point not been met." Global Policy Forum's Ciara Gilmartin told ISN Security Watch, "There have been what some people could say are improvements with regards to US facilities, such as Camp Bucca, in the sense that they have been replacing the tents with huts. But the fact still remains that we don't really know what's going on there." The primary US detention facilities in the country are Camps Bucca and Cropper.

Questions remain concerning improvements in operating procedures after six US Navy personnel were charged in May with assaulting inmates at Camp Bucca. In a second incident, detainees were left overnight in a cell sprayed with riot control agent. Joseph Logan, also of HRW, told ISN Security Watch that only a minority of MNF detainees face an Iraqi court as MNF legal advisers estimate that "only about a tenth of the cases have court-worthy evidence that they are willing to put forward." In US-controlled detainee review processes, "Not everyone that is party to proceedings has access to all of it [evidence], including Iraqi government participants in some cases and the detainees themselves in other cases," he said. According to the MNF, "the captured person is advised in detail why they are in custody," and only those considered "an imperative threat" are detained.

Expanding system

As the US military seeks to gradually divest itself of the burden of mass detentions in Iraq, a contrary trend is emerging in Afghanistan where the number of detainees held at Bagram Theater Internment Facility (BTIF) north of Kabul has reportedly doubled since 2004, with an estimated 630 prisoners on site in January. Detainees are fed to BTIF (formerly known as the Bagram Collection Point) from a number of field detention facilities throughout the country. The prison is considered by defense officials and critics alike to be grossly inadequate for the task of mass internment. The Pentagon says it is presently building a new detention facility on site that will replace the current prison once complete and will include recreation and visitor areas on a par with more modern facilities at Camps Cropper and Bucca. Initially designed for up to 650 inmates, the new prison can be expanded to hold 1,100. The extra capacity will probably be needed, with the expansion of NATO and US-led forces and operations likely in coming months in response to a major upturn in insurgent violence this year. BTIF operations have been marred by a series of scandals involving prisoner abuse and grossly substandard conditions of detention, with two inmates killed by US military personnel in 2002.

Responding by e-mail to ISN Security Watch, Amnesty International campaigner Maya Pastakia wrote: "We are very concerned about the legal status of the detainees and their lack of access to due process." Referring to BTIF and the inmates killed in 2002, she added, "We also do not know what current conditions of detention are. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that since the deaths in custody of [the two inmates], improvements have been made regarding detention conditions, including sanitation conditions and the building itself." The decision to extend the system of enemy combatant review boards to BTIF was described as an important step by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors detainee welfare in both Iraqi and Afghan facilities but does not publicize its findings. Since January detainees have also been able to speak to their families via video link every two months for 20 minutes. In contrast to its largely positive public pronouncements, leaks from a recent ICRC report on BTIF purportedly alleges overcrowding and that some detainees have been held for more than five years without charge. It also claims that prisoners are "sometimes subjected to cruel treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions" and that some inmates were held incommunicado in "a previously undisclosed warren of isolation cells."

Repatriation or rendition?

A new wrinkle to the extraordinary renditions saga was revealed this month with details of the repatriation of 216 foreign fighters from Afghanistan to their home countries, the New York Times reported. Around 170 foreign fighters remain in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Iraqi government understood to be holding 426 more. Egyptian and Saudi nationals were among those transferred to their countries of origin under the program during the last four years, according to the report. The repatriation program is similar to the renditions program, but with notable differences, the paper said. Detainees are moved with the knowledge of the ICRC and are able to block their repatriation, according to military officials.

"The obvious concern is that they are not being transferred into the possibility or probability of abuse and that has been a real consideration with the government of Egypt certainly and to an extent with the government of Saudi Arabia," Logan from HRW said. Repatriation avoids the controversies inherent in the multi-state transfer and interrogation of detainees that, reports claim, came to characterize the renditions network and would not appear to preclude the transfer of further intelligence gleaned by state agencies interrogating returned detainees to their US counterparts.

Transfer concerns

Under parallel US-Iraqi status of forces and strategic framework agreements, currently under negotiation, it is likely that responsibility for US-held detainees will gradually be transferred to Iraqi authorities, whose grossly overcrowded prisons system will need to be significantly expanded and reformed to cope. Stone told the briefing that "more than a thousand" Iraqi detainees may ultimately prove beyond rehabilitation and that the Iraqi authorities will face a difficult decision as to whether to assume responsibility for them. Fresh allegations of inmate abuse in Iraqi prisons and detention facilities were made in Amnesty's 2008 international report including the alleged use of beatings, electrocutions and suspensions along with threats against close relatives at a Baghdad facility and the purported torture of detained minors.

There have been few signs that a substantive reform of the Iraqi prison system is on the cards, despite ongoing US-funded efforts to expand capacity. The Iraqi government has repeatedly refused to publicize details of its investigations into prisoner abuse. There are claims that confessions submitted under torture are being used in court, including capital cases. In Afghanistan, sporadic government efforts to win greater control over the US-run detention system have fallen flat and a transfer of full authority appears unlikely in the short term. Yet concerns remain regarding the transfer of prisoners, Pastakia noted. "People captured by International Security Assistance Force troops and handed over to the Afghan authorities are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment while in Afghan custody, particularly the custody of the NDS [the National Directorate of Security - Afghanistan's Intelligence Service]," she wrote. "Detainees have little recourse to the law, and government officials, particularly in the NDS, violate Afghan and international law with impunity," she added.

Policy critiqued by rights groups

According to official MNF figures, 12,000 Iraqi detainees have been released since 1 January with the current detainee population standing at 19,000, down from a historic high around a year ago of 26,000. Prior to the surge the US-run detention system held around 14,000 inmates. According to a 5 September MNF press release, 24 internees a day were being accepted and 67 released, on average with plans for the emancipation of a further 3,000 detainees during Ramadan. MNF denies that this constitutes a "mass release." The expedited liberation process began last September, well before the February passage of an amnesty law in the Iraqi legislature, pointing to a fundamental change in US military policy. The limited amnesty bill applies to convicts, not detainees, but does pledge to move MNF internees "to the Iraqi prisons to implement the provisions of this law to their cases."

To Logan, Stone "was very much of the view, I think, that most of the [detainee] population was amenable to rehabilitation […] and [that] keeping them was more likely to create problems than releasing them would." Gilmartin believes that a countertrend is evident with "word that they are going to expand Camp Bucca from holding 20,000 detainees to 30,000." She said that "the Iraqi parliament […] has voiced some concerns themselves that it [the amnesty law] is not trickling down, it is not having any affect." For all four critics of detentions spoken to by ISN Security Watch, a shift in focus is not enough. "These detainees are entitled to due process […] They have certain guarantees under international law about the rights of people deprived of their liberties which these people are denied under the MNF's interpretation of its ability to detain," Logan said.

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