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U.S. WARTIME PRISON SYSTEM HOLDS 14,000 IN LEGAL LIMBO

Defenders call it an unfortunate necessity; critics say it's inflaming anti-Americanism

By PATRICK QUINN
Associated Press/Sept. 18, 2006

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, 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 most bitter words come from inside the system, the size of several major U.S. penitentiaries.

"It was hard to believe I'd get out," Baghdad shopkeeper Amjad Qassim al-Aliyawi said 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 often were interrogated around the clock, then released months or years later without apology, compensation or any word on why they were taken.

Defenders of the system say it's an unfortunate necessity in the battles to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan and to keep suspected terrorists out of action.

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 and 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.

Grim realities

Reports of extreme physical and mental abuse, symbolized by the notorious Abu Ghraib prison photos of 2004, have abated as the Pentagon has rejected torturelike treatment of inmates. Most recently, on Sept. 6, the Pentagon issued a new interrogation manual banning forced stripping, 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.

Whatever the progress, small or significant, grim realities persist.

Human rights groups count dozens of detainee deaths for which no one has been punished or that were never explained. The secret CIA 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 limbo, deprived of one of common law's oldest rights, habeas corpus, the right to know why you are imprisoned.

"If you, God forbid, are an innocent Afghan who gets sold down the river by some warlord rival, you can end up at (Bagram prison in Afghanistan) and you have absolutely no way of clearing your name," said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. government has contended that it can hold detainees until the "war on terror" ends.

"When we get up to 'forever,' I think it will be tested" in court, said John D. Hutson, a retired admiral and a former top lawyer for the U.S. Navy.

In Iraq, the Army oversees about 13,000 prisoners at Camp Cropper near Baghdad airport, Camp Bucca in the south and Fort Suse in the north.

Deemed security threats

Neither prisoners of war nor criminal defendants, they are just "security detainees" held "for imperative reasons of security," said command spokesman Curry, using language from an annex to a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S. presence here.

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 security."

Meanwhile, officials of Nouri al-Maliki's 4-month-old Iraqi government say the U.S. detention system violates Iraq's national rights.

Almost 18,700 have been released in Iraq since June 2004, U.S. command says, not including many more held and then freed by local military units and never shipped to major prisons. Some later joined or rejoined the insurgency.

Inside Afghanistan

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 has leaked out. The U.S. military is believed to be holding about 500 detainees — most Afghans but also apparently Arabs, Pakistanis and Central Asians.

Guantanamo received its first prisoners from Afghanistan 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 the "war on terror" prisoners, only 10 of the Guantanamo inmates have been charged with crimes. Charges are expected against 14 al-Qaida suspects flown to Guantanamo from secret CIA prisons 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. Since the court decision, the Bush administration has taken steps recognizing that the Geneva Conventions' legal and human rights do extend to imprisoned al-Qaida members. At the same time, however, the new White House proposal on tribunals retains such controversial features as denying defendants access to some evidence against them.

Millions spent on prisons

The Navy is planning long-term at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This fall it expects to open a $30 million maximum-security wing at its prison complex.

In Iraq, Army jailers are a step ahead. Last month they opened a $60 million, state-of-the-art detention center at Camp Cropper.

The clandestine jails are now empty, Bush announced, but will remain an option for CIA detentions.

Louise Arbour, U.N. human rights chief, is urging Bush to abolish the CIA prisons altogether, calling them ripe for "abusive conduct."

The CIA's techniques for extracting information still are secret, she noted.

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