Afghans Worry Bagram Could Turn Into Guantanamo

Three months ago in Afghanistan, U.S. officials yielded to the demands of President Hamid Karzai and promised to turn over control of the prison at Bagram airbase to Afghan control. But as the process gets underway, neither side seems to agree on the details. There are worries the Americans may have created a Guantanamo-style administrative detention regime that is against Afghan law.

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Much has been made of the Obama administration's failure to close down the prison in Guantanamo Bay. But there is another similar U.S. prison in an American airbase just north of Kabul. That prison at Bagram is being handed over to the Afghan government. Or at least it's supposed to be.

Earlier this year, Afghan president Hamid Karzai demanded the prison come under Afghan control. The U.S. agreed to hand over its more than 3,000 detainees by this summer. But as that process gets underway, some Afghans worry that their government is inheriting a similar system of indefinite detention without trial. NPR's Quil Lawrence has been following this issue and joins us now.

And, Quil, tell us about this prison. Who are the prisoners and who is in charge at this moment in time?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, most of these prisoners have been scooped up over the years in these U.S. military night raids that are going on - dozens of them every night - although there are at least 50 non-Afghan detainees at this prison and U.S. officials won't tell us where they came from - if they're from the Afghan battlefields or if they've been dropped here from other countries.

This spring, the prison came under the command of an Afghan general - Farooq Barakzai. But General Farooq is a commanding a prison inside a huge U.S. base, and he has no authority over who can get in and out through that perimeter. Whenever he had meetings with anyone from outside, American advisors sit in on those meetings with him.

This is supposed to be part of a transition, but it's hard to see how everything will change, because Bagram Airbase is expected to remain U.S. hands even after the major troop withdrawal in 2014.

MONTAGNE: And also these detainees they've never had proper trials.

LAWRENCE: That's right. And many Afghan lawmakers are complaining that some of the prisoners might have languished in prison for years just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or someone gave a bad tip to the Americans.

The Afghan general in charge says that about half of the detainees are now in the Afghan-controlled section of the prison. And there's a long process by which they can be referred to the criminal system in Afghanistan or released. But it's not really clear what happens otherwise. Critics of the government say that they're creating a system of indefinite detention without trial, like in Guantanamo.

MONTAGNE: Well, also, though, does this transfer mean that some prisoners that the U.S. considers dangerous will be set free, theoretically, back on the battlefield?

LAWRENCE: Possibly. The general in charge says that 154 have been released so far for time served, which is pretty speedy work since he took over. The U.S. does have - in this memorandum of understanding they signed with the Afghan government, they've got an effective veto over the release of prisoners who they consider particularly dangerous. But that's also something that the Afghan government is reluctant to admit publicly, because this is supposed to be an issue of Afghan sovereignty.

But there are a few other problems. The Americans have a legal duty to make sure that anyone they captured on the battlefield that these people are treated humanely. But they're now turning these prisoners over to a government that has a pretty bad record of abuse in its prisons. And the Americans don't yet have a monitoring program to follow them.

MONTAGNE: So that's a problem. But President Karzai pushed to get this detention center transferred to Afghan hands. Why was he so anxious to take this all on?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's seen in some ways as a point of pride that the Afghan government would have sovereignty over all their citizens, that no Afghans would be left under American control.

But as I was trying to understand this complicated process, I spoke to one Afghan analyst who told me that I was completely missing the forest for the trees. He said he thought that President Karzai was looking at the election coming in 2014. And he just said this is a political process for President Karzai from start to finish. He pushed to show that he could force the Americans to bring this prison under Afghan control.

And this analyst told me he thought with upcoming election that there would be different constituencies that would want prisoners released and that President Karzai and other Afghan power brokers would be releasing these people for political reasons, pure and simple.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.

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