Lawyer questions plan to tear down Afghan prison

AP News
Posted: Dec 31, 2009 2:40 PM

A Pentagon plan to demolish its prison at Bagram, Afghanistan, amounts to destroying evidence in the cases of detainees who say they were tortured there, an attorney said Thursday.

Ramzi Kassem, counsel for a number of Guantanamo and Bagram prisoners, was responding to notification of the planned demolition filed a day earlier with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Defense Department plans to finish moving all prisoners by Jan. 19 from the Bagram facility to a new one built nearby, according to the notification filed Wednesday by the Justice Department. Then the Pentagon "intends to immediately begin the necessary steps for the demolition," the document said.

Kassem, also a professor of law at the City University of New York, said the site should be preserved as evidence and as a crime scene.

"What took place at Bagram is at the heart of many, if not most, Guantanamo cases," he said in an e-mail. "That facility is relevant to accounts of torture and coercion raised by many (Guantanamo Bay) prisoners _ and by present Bagram prisoners _ in their various cases before the military commissions and in criminal and habeas proceedings in federal court."

Kassem represents Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi Arabian prisoner at Guantanamo who previously was held in Bagram and has alleged torture there, as well as Yemeni Amin al Bakri, a Bagram prisoner since 2003 who Kassem said had been held before that at a secret prison in Afghanistan.

"The government's destruction of this evidence in the name of ongoing military operations in Afghanistan looks a lot like an underhanded attempt at covering its own tracks," Kassem said.

The military plans to use the site of the current prison to build a new command and control center for U.S. and NATO forces that is particularly needed due to the buildup of 30,000 additional U.S. forces now under way in Afghanistan, according to the court filing.

It said the site is the only adequate parcel at the sprawling Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan, and that judicial action to preserve it "would raise serious separation-of-powers concerns" because of the President Barack Obama's decision-making authority in a theater of war.

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It said, however, that officials were informing the court of the planned demolition because they recognize that the cases of the prisoners "are of extraordinary public moment" and want to be open about their plan.

Officials also plan to "create a photographic and video record" of the prison "in recognition of the historical significance of a site such as" the Bagram prison, the notification to the court said.

It was unclear Thursday exactly how many were being held in the old prison, though 600 were reported by officials to be there in late September. The new prison is on another site at the same military base.