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Inmates in Afghanistan to get reviews

September 13, 2009|Karen DeYoung and Peter Finn | Washington Post

WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON — Hundreds of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan will for the first time have the right to challenge their indefinite detention and call witnesses in their defense under a new review system being put in place this week, according to Obama administration officials.

The new system will be applied to the approximately 600 Afghans being held at the Bagram military base, and will mark the first substantive change in the overseas detention policies that President Obama inherited from the Bush administration.

International human rights organizations have long criticized conditions at the Bagram facility, where detainees have been held -- many of them for years -- without access to lawyers or even the right to know the reason for their imprisonment.

Afghans have cited Bagram, where virtually all prisoners in U.S. custody are held, as a major source of resentment toward coalition forces, a senior administration official said.

As part of a prison-wide protest that began in July, detainees at Bagram, north of Kabul, the capital, have refused visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross and have declined video teleconferences with their families.

The goal of the new procedures, the official said, is to create a "more robust" system that would "allow detainees to tell their story."

Under the new rules, each detainee will be assigned a U.S. military official, not a lawyer, to represent his interests and examine evidence against him. In proceedings before a board of military officers, detainees will have the right to call witnesses and present evidence when it is "reasonably available," the official said. The boards will determine whether detainees should be held by the United States, turned over to Afghan authorities or released. For those detainees ordered held longer, the process will be repeated at six-month intervals.

The system is similar to the annual Administrative Review Boards used for suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Officials said the review proceedings at Bagram will mark an improvement in part because they will be in the detainees' home country -- where witnesses and evidence are close at hand.

"This process is about doing the right thing -- only holding those we have to," said the administration official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about policy.

Human rights organizations briefed by the Pentagon described the new system as a step in the right direction but inadequate. "Any reforms in U.S. detentions in Afghanistan is an improvement, but it remains to be seen whether the new procedures will cure the ills of arbitrary and indefinite detention that have been the hallmark of detentions in Bagram," said Sahr MuhammedAlly of the New York-based group Human Rights First.

An order creating the Detainee Review Boards was signed in July by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and was transmitted to Congress for a required 60-day review period, which ends this week.

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