US grants legal rights to 600 Bagram prisoners

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The Independent Online

The Pentagon is expected this week to announce steps to bolster the minimal legal rights of some 600 prisoners held at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, that will allow them for the first time to hear the specific charges against them and challenge the basis of their detention.

The review is, however, unlikely to satisfy critics of the camp, just north of Kabul. It will reportedly entail assigning military officials to each of the detainees to help to collect evidence and witnesses to support any case they may have to be freed. Those cases would then be submitted not to a court but rather a newly formed Detainee Review Board.

A leading Afghan human rights group that has been pressing for changes at Bagram, a former Soviet base, last night welcomed the reforms. "We support this and approve this," Lal Gul, chief of the Afghan Commission For Human Rights, said. "We are ready for any help and co-operation in this regard."

The detainees, who are mostly suspected Taliban members, reportedly began protesting in July against their absence of legal rights by refusing special privileges such as recreation time.

The US is preparing to upgrade its rickety facility at Bagram. Prisoners have had fewer legal rights even than those held at Guantanamo Bay. Some of them have been behind bars in Bagram for more than six years.

Critics have long castigated the US for violating international human rights standards there. Washington has typically responded the detainees are captives in an active theatre of war and must as a result be treated differently. Since coming to office, however, President Barack Obama has been reviewing all the "enemy combatant" detention policies. An outline of the proposed changes for prisoners at Bagram was submitted to the relevant committees of Congress for a 60-day review in July, sources said.

The review encompasses Mr Obama's pledge to close down Guantanamo Bay. Although he is technically committed to shutting that facility by 1 January 2010, very little progress has been made on deciding what to do with the detainees.

A lawyer for one of the Bagram detainees dismissed the new rules as "window dressing". Ramzi Kassem, a law professor in New York who has taken up the case of Amin al Bakri, a Yemeni detainee there, told the Associated Press: "These changes don't come anywhere near an adequate substitute for a real review."