Afghan detainees are seen in March through a mesh wire fence inside the United… (Dar Yasin, AP )
Reporting from Bagram air base, Afghanistan — The teenager in the white prayer cap and prison uniform with a number scrawled across the front in black marker took his place on the stand, absentmindedly biting his lip.
"You are advised," the court reporter said as an interpreter repeated in Dari, "that this is not a criminal trial."
The detainee was among those at the Parwan detention facility, the central prison for suspected insurgents captured by NATO forces. The $60-million center, near Bagram air base about 25 miles north of Kabul, the capital, houses more than 1,800 detainees, almost triple the number since 2008.
Under the law of armed conflict, prisoners are entitled to a release hearing before a detainee review board of three U.S. military officials every six months. The board, along with the prison commander, determines whether prisoners remain behind bars, get transferred to the Afghan criminal justice system or are set free.
So far this year, a team of military and legal officials at Bagram has held 1,200 detainee release hearings, 200 in April alone, as more suspects are rounded up during North Atlantic Treaty Organization offensives. They expect to hold 4,000 by year's end, compared with 2,300 last calendar year, so many they have had to add a third hearing room.
The majority of detainees remain in U.S. custody, about 63%, while about 30% are referred to the Afghan court system for prosecution and the rest are released.
Human rights officials acknowledge that conditions at the detention center are a vast improvement over the old Bagram prison, a converted Soviet aircraft hangar where prisoners were held in cages and U.S. troops were court-martialed in connection with the 2002 deaths of two detainees.
But they complain that the release hearings violate detainees' right to counsel and to review evidence against themselves — much of which is classified. After officials from the New York-based nonprofit group Human Rights First visited Parwan this year, they alleged that they had met with detainees who had been held at the facility for years, some even after they had been cleared for release.
"We deal with classified evidence in the U.S. all the time and there's ways of dealing with that, to declassify portions and make it usable," said Daphne Eviatar, a senior associate with the rights group and author of a scathing report released Tuesday based on observation of seven hearings and interviews with 18 former detainees.
The hearing system "fails to provide detainees with an adequate opportunity to defend themselves against charges that they are collaborating with insurgents and present a threat to U.S. forces," the report says. "Former detainees we interviewed repeatedly emphasized that they believed they were wrongly imprisoned based on false information provided to U.S. forces by personal, family or tribal enemies."
Rights advocates worry that Parwan's system is becoming an unjust model for U.S. detention policy, particularly after President Obama ordered the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to adopt the same types of review board procedures in March. Military officials defend the Parwan model, and insist that representatives assigned to detainees can review classified evidence, ensuring that detainees receive fair hearings and are released in a timely manner.
"When you detain someone on the battlefield, what sort of due process do you give them?" said Air Force Col. Peter R. Masciola, a military lawyer who supervised defense lawyers at Guantanamo and has been overseeing the board hearings at Parwan. "What you're trying to determine is if you release this person, will they return to the fight? Our mandate is not to be an adversary, it's to be fair."
But he said restricting detainee access to classified evidence makes sense.
"This is still an armed conflict," he said. "That information could be used by our enemies against us."
At the teenager's hearing, the three members of the board watched from behind their laptops as the recorder, Army Capt. Sean Mahoney, who represents the case against the detainee, outlined how the youth was detained.
The youth, whose name was not released by U.S. military officials because it is an ongoing case, had been captured by NATO and Afghan forces during a raid in the eastern province of Khowst in February. Officials say he admitted participating in attacks by the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot. However, his hands tested negative for explosives residue.
He insisted that he was 13, despite his wispy beard and a bone scan that showed he was 19.
Mahoney turned on a big-screen television to display the image of a battered cellphone.
"Do you recognize this phone?" he asked.
No, the detainee said.
Mahoney then asked when the youth had met a Haqqani warlord he was accused of working for. He denied he had ever met the man.
"Who were you with the day you were captured?" Mahoney asked.
"I was alone," the detainee said.