Standing at the National Defence University, then President Obama reiterated his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. After all, he said, “this war, like all wars, must end.” Four years later, another President has promised the world that “by the way, we keeping [it] open” and how he looks forward to “load[ing] it up with some bad dudes.”
And while the world has, rightly, paid close attention to Gitmo (it does cost over $445 million a year to run) – there is another detention centre much closer to home that is as dark in its history as it is in its reputation. The Detention Facility in Parwan, otherwise known as ‘Bagram’ in Afghanistan, at its height held 3,000 detainees.
In addition to thousands of Afghan nationals, the U.S. military held over 60 Third Country Nationals, of which 45 were Pakistanis.
“Prisoner 1432" – The story of former Bagram prisoner Amanatullah Ali
During his 14 year detention Amanatullah was only allowed to write and receive letters, and have one Skype telephone call a month with his family. Both means of communication were heavily monitored and censored.
To learn more about Amanatullah's story watch the short video below or the full length documentary here.
As if a nightmare; Abdul Haleem Saifullah reveals the abuses he faced in Bagram
Saifullah was subjected to weeks of solitary confinement, mental and physical stress, and physical abuse over the span of his nine year detention.
Watch the short video below to hear the atrocities faced by Saifullah or the full length documentary here.
Whereas, Bagram became a symbol of everything wrong with America’s post 9/11 foreign policy choices, it has also come to represent a gross indifference on the part of the Pakistan government. Its citizens were held for years without charge, access to lawyers, contact with their families, or the possibility of outright release.
More ghosts than citizens, these detainees were ignored, lost in a legal black hole.
So in the way of their duties, that Pakistani diplomats visited them only once before 2010. That across the border, 45 families were mourning the unexplained disappearance of their loved ones did little to move them. The fact that its citizens were being illegally detained and held beyond the rule of law was accepted. That they had no consular access, representation or protection was just their luck.
Bagram appeared to be beyond the reach of the law. The Americans didn’t want proof of terrorist activities. They wanted bodies. They wanted to show the world that they were fighting the good fight, and pawned the lives of 45 Pakistanis, many innocent, to look like they were winning.
And so, these 45 Pakistanis were repeatedly brought forward to Detainee Review Boards – a makeshift court of law that had no lawyers, just American military officials. Even when they concluded that they had no reason to hold ordinary and impoverished citizens, U.S. government would not approve their repatriation.
But there was one institution that was listening. The Lahore High Court paid close attention, holding hearings on the matter nearly every week until the Pakistan government took action.
After four years of painstaking litigation and media campaigns by Justice Project Pakistan, 42 Pakistanis were finally repatriated – released without charge, but with years shaved off their backs.
Broken men slowly moved back to a country that had turned its back on them. They remain crippled by their trauma, unable to integrate, unable to forget. At least two of my clients have permanent physical injuries that prevent them from working. Those who were mentally ill had been kept in solitary confinement for years. They all live hand-to-mouth, as jobs are hard to come by. They are viewed with suspicion, with many still on Schedule IV, a legal status that requires them to report their whereabouts and activities to the police on a weekly basis.
None of the regimes in the U.S., Pakistan or Afghanistan have apologised to even one of these detainees so far; not for their injustice, not for their incompetence. My clients were promised compensation, an amount for each day of their wrongful imprisonment. They have yet to see a dollar.
Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, a Guantanamo inmate was awarded a settlement estimated to be around $8 million. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled that officials from Canada had violated Khadr’s rights when they interrogated him in prison.
Reparations are necessary, not only to help those that suffer from the worst excesses of American imperialism but also to compensate for the future that was taken away from them. They must be proportionate to the damage done, unlike the menial $110,000 that was given out to Yemeni family victims of a 2013 U.S. drone strike. Nevertheless, the precedent is there.
And likewise, Pakistan under its Civilian Victims Act is obligated (in Punjab, at least) to compensate victims of terrorism. This illegal detention was nothing short of just that and must be redressed.
Now 17 years later, we live in a post 9/11 world, drowning in post 9/11 wars, justified by our post 9/11 discourse. Big ideas that dehumanise their casualties, categorising them as “collateral damage”, as nuisances in “special measures for special times.” Too bad that its worst victims are those that are too small to even stand against them, let alone fight back.
Which, they would never have had to do if their government had.
Sarah Belal is the Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm based in Lahore. JPP was instrumental in the repatriation of Pakistani citizens from Bagram, and it remains the largest repatriation of the citizens of any one country in the world. To learn more, visit www.jpp.org.pk.
Video shorts based on original films by Asim Rafiqui and Spinning Head Films.