Red Cross: Change Needed at US Prison

By: AP
By: AP

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The Red Cross criticized the way the U.S. handles prisoners at the highly secretive Bagram military base, urging reforms Monday that would allow detainees to introduce testimony in their defense.

The criticism of the prison, which few outsiders have seen, goes to the heart of the system the Bush administration uses to justify holding detainees outside the U.S.

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said many of the 600-plus detainees at Bagram complain they do not even know why they are being held. Kellenberger spent a half day at the prison during a one-week visit to Afghanistan that ended Monday.

"They do not know what the future brings, how long will they be there and under which conditions will they be released," Kellenberger told a news conference.

While Kellenberger's comments were aimed specifically at Bagram, Red Cross chief spokesman Florian Westphal said there was "a strong parallel" with the U.S. military detention centers in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"We've talked about the absence of a clear legal framework and of sufficient procedural safeguards with regard to Guantanamo, in particular, as we have done for Bagram," Westphal said in Geneva.

In Iraq, the U.S. military currently holds about 23,000 detainees and schedules review hearings every six months to decide on release or continued custody. But new evidence is rarely - if ever - introduced, and the panel mostly assesses a detainee's conduct and statements while in custody.

Unlike Afghanistan, the U.S. asserts a U.N. Security Council resolution gives it the authority to detain prisoners in Iraq. U.S. forces can recommend a detainee be put on trial in an Iraqi court, but they are not bound by the court's ruling, military spokesmen have said.

Kellenberger welcomed the establishment of "enemy combatant review boards" in Afghanistan that examine every six months whether a detainee can be released. But he called Monday for expanded prisoner rights, including allowing detainees to introduce outside testimony.

"I do consider the establishment of this body as progress, but I think it was high time," Kellenberger said. "This body should also get evidence from the persons outside, ... evidence which can speak in favor of those who are detained ... Evidence of people who know them, so that this evidence is brought into the process."

U.S. military officials at Bagram declined comment Monday. The prison is highly secretive, and unlike the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, the military does not allow journalists to visit. It also does not reveal who is detained there or what their alleged offenses are. Some of the detainees are fighters who were held after clashes or raids.

"If you are (an) interned person for security reasons, one of the rights you have is to have a regular review by the body which is seriously examining if you are still a security problem or not," Kellenberger said. "We want to see that in this review process you get in as much evidence as possible, also from the outside."

Kellenberger praised U.S. authorities for acting on some Red Cross recommendations, such as allowing video-conferencing between families and detainees.

The Red Cross and the U.S. military set up a video-conferencing system this year that allows Bagram prisoners to speak with and see family members on a video hookup, the only outside contact the prisoners are allowed to have.

Kellenberger said he is hopeful family visits will soon be allowed at Bagram. "It is not yet achieved, but I am confident," he said.

Human rights groups accuse the U.S. military of holding prisoners without charge at facilities like Bagram, in some cases for over five years.

The ICRC has visited the Bagram prison facility 120 times, according to Reto Stocker, head of the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

During his weeklong visit to Afghanistan, Kellenberger met with top U.S. military commanders and President Hamid Karzai.

As the conflict in Afghanistan has escalated over the past year - more than 8,000 people were killed in hostilities in 2007 - so have the number of wounded, Kellenberger said.

He said that during talks with the Taliban, the militants asked for more medical help.

"They say they wish us to extend our medical activities, especially in the remote areas in the provinces in the south," Kellenberger said. "I said that is fine for us provided I have necessary credible security guarantees for our staff."

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Associated Press Writers Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this report.

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