U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000
U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000
By PATRICK QUINN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 34
BAGHDAD, Iraq - In the few short years since the first
shackled Afghan shuffled off to Guantanamo, the U.S.
military has created a global network of overseas
prisons, its islands of high security keeping 14,000
detainees beyond the reach of established law.
Disclosures of torture and long-term arbitrary
detentions have won rebuke from leading voices
including the U.N. secretary-general and the
U.S. Supreme Court. But the bitterest words come from
inside the system, the size of several major U.S.
"It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad
shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi told The Associated
Press after his release without charge last month.
"I lived with the Americans for one year and eight
months as if I was living in hell."
Captured on battlefields, pulled from beds at
midnight, grabbed off streets as suspected insurgents,
tens of thousands now have passed through U.S.
detention, the vast majority in Iraq.
Many say they were caught up in U.S. military sweeps,
often interrogated around the clock, then released
months or years later without apology, compensation or
any word on why they were taken. Seventy to 90 percent
of the Iraq detentions in 2003 were "mistakes," U.S.
officers once told the international Red Cross.
Defenders of the system, which has only grown since
soldiers' photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the
world, say it's an unfortunate necessity in the
battles to pacify Iraq and
Afghanistan, and to keep suspected terrorists out of
Every U.S. detainee in Iraq "is detained because he
poses a security threat to the government of Iraq, the
people of Iraq or coalition forces," said U.S. Army
Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for U.S.-led
military detainee operations in Iraq.
But dozens of ex-detainees, government ministers,
lawmakers, human rights activists, lawyers and
scholars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States
said the detention system often is unjust and hurts
the war on terror by inflaming anti-Americanism in
Iraq and elsewhere.
Building for the Long Term
Reports of extreme physical and mental abuse,
symbolized by the notorious Abu Ghraib prison photos
of 2004, have abated as the Pentagon has rejected
torture-like treatment of the inmates. Most recently,
on Sept. 6, the Pentagon issued a new interrogation
manual banning forced nakedness, hooding, stress
positions and other abusive techniques.
The same day, President Bush said the CIA's secret
outposts in the prison network had been emptied, and
14 terror suspects from them sent to Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, to face trial in military tribunals. The U.S.
Supreme Court has struck down the tribunal system,
however, and the White House and Congress are now
wrestling over the legal structure of such trials.
Living conditions for detainees may be improving as
well. The U.S. military cites the toilets of Bagram,
Afghanistan: In a cavernous old building at that air
base, hundreds of detainees in their communal cages
now have indoor plumbing and privacy screens, instead
of exposed chamber pots.
Whatever the progress, small or significant, grim
Human rights groups count dozens of detainee deaths
for which no one has been punished or that were never
explained. The secret prisons unknown in number and
location remain available for future detainees. The
new manual banning torture doesn't cover CIA
interrogators. And thousands of people still languish
in a limbo, deprived of one of common law's oldest
rights, habeas corpus, the right to know why you are
"If you, God forbid, are an innocent Afghan who gets
sold down the river by some warlord rival, you can end
up at Bagram and you have absolutely no way of
clearing your name," said John Sifton of Human Rights
Watch in New York. "You can't have a lawyer present
evidence, or do anything organized to get yourself out
The U.S. government has contended it can hold
detainees until the "war on terror" ends as it
"I don't think we've gotten to the question of how
long," said retired admiral John D. Hutson, former top
lawyer for the U.S. Navy. "When we get up to
'forever,' I think it will be tested" in court, he
The Navy is planning long-term at Guantanamo. This
fall it expects to open a new, $30-million
maximum-security wing at its prison complex there, a
concrete-and-steel structure replacing more temporary
In Iraq, Army jailers are a step ahead. Last month
they opened a $60-million, state-of-the-art detention
center at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport. The
Army oversees about 13,000 prisoners in Iraq at
Cropper, Camp Bucca in the southern desert, and Fort
Suse in the Kurdish north.
Neither prisoners of war nor criminal defendants, they
are just "security detainees" held "for imperative
reasons of security," spokesman Curry said, using
language from an annex to a
U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S.
Questions of Law, Sovereignty
President Bush laid out the U.S. position in a speech
"These are enemy combatants who are waging war on our
nation," he said. "We have a right under the laws of
war, and we have an obligation to the American people,
to detain these enemies and stop them from rejoining
But others say there's no need to hold these thousands
outside of the rules for prisoners of war established
by the Geneva Conventions.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared last March
that the extent of arbitrary detention here is "not
consistent with provisions of international law
governing internment on imperative reasons of
Meanwhile, officials of Nouri al-Maliki's 4-month-old
Iraqi government say the U.S. detention system
violates Iraq's national rights.
"As long as sovereignty has transferred to Iraqi
hands, the Americans have no right to detain any Iraqi
person," said Fadhil al-Sharaa, an aide to the prime
minister. "The detention should be conducted only with
the permission of the Iraqi judiciary."
At the Justice Ministry, Deputy Minister Busho Ibrahim
told AP it has been "a daily request" that the
detainees be brought under Iraqi authority.
There's no guarantee the Americans' 13,000 detainees
would fare better under control of the Iraqi
government, which U.N. officials say holds 15,000
But little has changed because of these requests. When
the Americans formally turned over Abu Ghraib prison
to Iraqi control on Sept. 2, it was empty but its
3,000 prisoners remained in U.S. custody, shifted to
Life in Custody
The cases of U.S.-detained Iraqis are reviewed by a
committee of U.S. military and Iraqi government
officials. The panel recommends criminal charges
against some, release for others. As of Sept. 9, the
Central Criminal Court of Iraq had put 1,445 on trial,
convicting 1,252. In the last week of August, for
example, 38 were sentenced on charges ranging from
illegal weapons possession to murder, for the shooting
of a U.S. Marine.
Almost 18,700 have been released since June 2004, the
U.S. command says, not including many more who were
held and then freed by local military units and never
shipped to major prisons.
Some who were released, no longer considered a threat,
later joined or rejoined the insurgency.
The review process is too slow, say U.N. officials.
Until they are released, often families don't know
where their men are the prisoners are usually men
or even whether they're in American hands.
Ex-detainee Mouayad Yasin Hassan, 31, seized in April
2004 as a suspected Sunni Muslim insurgent, said he
wasn't allowed to obtain a lawyer or contact his
family during 13 months at Abu Ghraib and Bucca, where
he was interrogated incessantly. When he asked why he
was in prison, he said, the answer was, "We keep you
for security reasons."
Another released prisoner, Waleed Abdul Karim, 26,
recounted how his guards would wield their absolute
"Tell us about the ones who attack Americans in your
neighborhood," he quoted an interrogator as saying,
"or I will keep you in prison for another 50 years."
As with others, Karim's confinement may simply have
strengthened support for the anti-U.S. resistance. "I
will hate Americans for the rest of my life," he said.
As bleak and hidden as the Iraq lockups are, the
Afghan situation is even less known. Accounts of abuse
and deaths emerged in 2002-2004, but if Abu
Ghraib-like photos from Bagram exist, none have leaked
out. The U.S. military is believed holding about 500
detainees most Afghans, but also apparently Arabs,
Pakistanis and Central Asians.
The United States plans to cede control of its Afghan
detainees by early next year, five years after
invading Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaida's base and
bring down the Taliban government. Meanwhile, the
prisoners of Bagram exist in a legal vacuum like that
elsewhere in the U.S. detention network.
"There's been a silence about Bagram, and much less
political discussion about it," said Richard Bennett,
chief U.N. human rights officer in Afghanistan.
Freed detainees tell how in cages of 16 inmates they
are forbidden to speak to each other. They wear the
same orange jumpsuits and shaven heads as the
terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, but lack even the
scant legal rights granted inmates at that Cuba base.
In some cases, they have been held without charge for
three to four years, rights workers say.
Guantanamo received its first prisoners from
Afghanistan chained, wearing blacked-out goggles
in January 2002. A total of 770 detainees were sent
there. Its population today of Afghans, Arabs and
others, stands at 455.
Described as the most dangerous of America's "war on
terror" prisoners, only 10 of the Guantanamo inmates
have been charged with crimes. Charges are expected
against 14 other al-Qaida suspects flown in to
Guantanamo from secret prisons on Sept. 4.
Plans for their trials are on hold, however, because
of a Supreme Court ruling in June against the Bush
administration's plan for military tribunals.
The court held the tribunals were not authorized by
the U.S. Congress and violated the Geneva Conventions
by abrogating prisoners' rights. In a sometimes
contentious debate, the White House and Congress are
trying to agree on a new, acceptable trial plan.
Since the court decision, and after four years of
confusing claims that terrorist suspects were
so-called "unlawful combatants" unprotected by
international law, the Bush administration has taken
steps recognizing that the Geneva Conventions' legal
and human rights do extend to imprisoned al-Qaida
militants. At the same time, however, the new White
House proposal on tribunals retains such controversial
features as denying defendants access to some evidence
In his Sept. 6 speech, Bush acknowledged for the first
time the existence of the CIA's secret prisons,
believed established at military bases or safehouses
in such places as Egypt, Indonesia and eastern Europe.
That network, uncovered by journalists, had been
condemned by U.N. authorities and investigated by the
Council of Europe.
The clandestine jails are now empty, Bush announced,
but will remain a future option for CIA detentions and
Louise Arbour, U.N. human rights chief, is urging Bush
to abolish the CIA prisons altogether, as ripe for
"abusive conduct." The CIA's techniques for extracting
information from prisoners still remain secret, she
Meanwhile, the U.S. government's willingness to resort
to "extraordinary rendition," transferring suspects to
other nations where they might be tortured, appears
Prosecutions and Memories
The exposure of sadistic abuse, torture and death at
Abu Ghraib two years ago touched off a flood of
courts-martial of mostly lower-ranking U.S. soldiers.
Overall, about 800 investigations of alleged detainee
mistreatment in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to
action against more than 250 service personnel,
including 89 convicted at courts-martial, U.S.
diplomats told the
United Nations in May.
Critics protest that penalties have been too soft and
too little has been done, particularly in tracing
inhumane interrogation methods from the far-flung
islands of the overseas prison system back to policies
set by high-ranking officials.
In only 14 of 34 cases has anyone been punished for
the confirmed or suspected killings of detainees, the
New York-based Human Rights First reports. The
stiffest sentence in a torture-related death has been
five months in jail. The group reported last February
that in almost half of 98 detainee deaths, the cause
was either never announced or reported as
Looking back, the United States overreacted in its
treatment of detainees after Sept. 11, said Anne-Marie
Slaughter, a noted American scholar of international
It was understandable, the Princeton University dean
said, but now "we have to restore a balance between
security and rights that is consistent with who we are
and consistent with our security needs."
Otherwise, she said, "history will look back and say
that we took a dangerous and deeply wrong turn."
Back here in Baghdad, at the Alawi bus station, a
gritty, noisy hub far from the meeting rooms of
Washington and Geneva, women gather with fading hopes
whenever a new prisoner release is announced.
As she watched one recent day for a bus from distant
Camp Bucca, one mother wept and told her story.
"The Americans arrested my son, my brother and his
friend," said Zahraa Alyat, 42. "The Americans
arrested them October 16, 2005. They left together and
I don't know anything about them."
The bus pulled up. A few dozen men stepped off, some
blindfolded, some bound, none with any luggage, none
with familiar faces.
As the distraught women straggled away once more, one
ex-prisoner, 18-year-old Bilal Kadhim Muhssin, spotted
U.S. troops nearby.
"Americans," he muttered in fear. "Oh, my God, don't
say that name," and he bolted for a city bus, and
EDITOR'S NOTE The Associated Press staff in Baghdad
and AP writers Andrew Selsky in San Juan, Puerto Rico;
Matthew Pennington in Kabul, Afghanistan; Anne Plummer
Flaherty in Washington, and Charles J. Hanley in New
York contributed to this report.