Former detainees held and interrogated during the past year at a notorious secret jail near the US Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan told human rights investigators that they were tortured there, even after the military committed to reforming overseas detention centers.
This is not the first time the military has come under fire for conditions in the facility, known as the “Tor” or “Black Jail,” (Tor is Pashtu for “black”), but several former detainees claim being abused there during 2009 and 2010, after the Obama administration claimed to have brought an end to the Bush-era legacy of torture and abuse.
The detainees reported being forced into nudity and humiliated upon arrival, malnourishment resulting from inadequate and foul-smelling food, sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation resulting from cold temperatures and inadequate bedding. They reported being blindfolded and shackled when leaving their cells and losing complete track of the time and date. The International Committee of the Red Cross was also reportedly denied access to the detainees and the secret facility.
If the detainees’ claims are true, then the conditions at the Black Jail appear to violate United Nations rules for prisoner treatment and the military’s own commitment to an article of Geneva Convention which prohibits “cruel treatment and torture” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment,” according to the authors of a new report released on Thursday.
The report, published by the George Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation (OSF), reveals the testimony of 20 former detainees, 18 of whom could confirm that they were held in the Black Jail. Half of those interviewed were held and allegedly mistreated at the hands of the US during 2009 or 2010.
The OSF refers to the alleged treatments of detainees only as “abuse” and “mistreatment,” but some human rights advocates say the treatment constitutes torture.
“These techniques, regardless of which administration employs them, constitute torture,” said Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights. “President Obama has said that he has ended the previous administration’s use of torture. Until these reports are fully investigated and these tactics are explicitly prohibited, the president’s statements ring hollow.”
In September 2009, the Department of Defense created a task force to improve facilities and reform detention policies and practices, but reports of alleged torture and abuse at the Black Jail persisted in the media. The OSF report seems to confirm that abuse continued after the Obama administration implemented the reforms and the authors of the report claim that the consistency of the detainees’ accounts reveals “general areas of concern and not outliers.”
“Despite the government’s insistence that its detention rules meet the minimum requirements under international law, it appears that this facility is either ignoring those rules or interpreting them so loosely that they make detainees susceptible to mistreatment,” said Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights expert and author of the OSF report.
A Truthout report from December 2009 revealed how the Obama administration simultaneously took a hard line against torture and detainee abuse while failing to hold members of the Bush administration accountable for supporting torture and secret CIA prisons.
The OSF report on the Black Jail follows on the heels of new evidence that abusing detainees is a systemic problem in the military, not an isolated one. Iraq war veteran and whistleblower Ethan McCord on Wednesday released three videos that he claims are evidence that soldiers are trained to subject detainees to mental and emotional abuse.
McCord, an anti-war activist, served with the Bravo Company 2-16, the same company of ground troops depicted in the infamous “collateral murder” video released by WikiLeaks that provides a crosshairs view of a US helicopter gunning down civilians.
McCord’s videos show members of Bravo Company verbally harassing detainees in Iraq, but McCord insisted in a blog post that his fellow soldiers are not to blame.
“I’ve held on to these for three years now, debating on how to release them responsibly. I want to point out, first hand, that these soldiers are doing EXACTLY as they have been trained,” McCord wrote on Michael Moore’s web site. “I’m not trying to excuse their behavior, but simply pointing out that this is a systematic problem. While your anger may initially be placed with the soldiers in the videos, I think your anger should be directed towards the system that trained them.”
McCord wrote that the abuse show in the videos is not physical, but “the mental, emotional, degrading type.”
No videos depicting the alleged torture inside the Black Jail near the Bagram have yet surfaced. Government officials have not even responded to allegations of torture at the Black Jail because of the classified nature of the facility, but, last year, a Pentagon official responded to a journalist’s question by asserting that detainees are not to be held at “Special Operations camps” for longer than two weeks, according to the OSF report.
The Black Jail became infamous among detainees at the air force base, as two men who were held in a different facility at Bagram recalled in an interview with the OSF.
“They were deprived of sleep,” the first man said. “Interrogators screamed and banged on the table and walls. Prisoners said Tor Jail was like hell on earth. There was horrible food, sleep deprivation. They were given water but not taken to the bathroom a lot.”
The other man stated that detainees who passed through the Black Jail told him, “the food was horrible – just some biscuits. They were in small cells without toilets. Prisoners from Tor Jail could call to go to the bathroom, but the guards wouldn’t come until long after they called. They had one blanket and United States would reduce the temperature in cells to get them to confess.”
These descriptions are consistent with the testimony of the former Black Jail detainees detailed in the report. Many of them reported being malnourished because the smell of the facility and the food provided them was horrible and prevented them from eating. They were humiliated by being forced to strip off their clothes for a medical inspection upon arrival. They consistently described being blindfolded and shackled whenever they were taken from their cell to use the bathroom or be interrogated. Sleep deprivation, cold temperatures and a windowless environment disoriented the detainees and they reported being unaware of the time of day, preventing them from making their daily prayers.
The report calls for an end to the alleged abuse at the secret facility and a full investigation to ensure that the Black Jail and other detention facilities on the Bagram Air Base meet military and international standards.