Thousands of “Enemy Combatants” Held in Global Gulag

by Matt Vogel, Catholic Worker

Jan. 11, 2009 began the eighth year of operation for the prisons at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In the past few months, Guantánamo has been much in the news, with Barack Obama’s promise to close it down. Many people around the world hope that President Obama will indeed shut down this terrible symbol of torture and abuse, and are working to hold him to this promise.

Peering into the moral and legal black hole that is Guantánamo, however, one quickly sees that Guantánamo’s 270 or so prisoners are but the tip of the iceberg; the US is and has been holding thousands more prisoners around the world as “enemy combatants” in the course of the Global War on Terror. Human rights and anti-death penalty lawyer Clive Stafford Smith reported in early December 2008 that the US is holding 27,000 other prisoners in prisons worldwide. Like Guantánamo early on, very little is known about these prisons or the people they house, and that should worry us. The US system of detention in this war truly is a global gulag.

Many of the prisoners are held in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bagram Air Base, the center of US operations in Afghanistan, is one of the most infamous US prisons anywhere. At least since 2005, with reports of the deaths of two men in custody at Bagram in 2002, allegations of abuse and torture have swirled around the prison. Several prisoners at Guantánamo, who had previously been held at Bagram, say Bagram is worse. (The US says it stopped transferring prisoners from Bagram to Guantánamo in 2004). But, unlike Guantánamo, there are no plans to close Bagram. In May 2008, the Pentagon announced plans to replace the current prison at Bagram with a $60 million, 40-acre prison housing up to 1,100 prisoners, suggesting that the current prison, housing roughly 625 prisoners, is simply not big enough. Additionally, the US government wants to beef up the intelligence staff at the prison, asking for more interrogators and analysts, according to a September 2008 report in USA Today.

In June 2008, the Afghan Human Rights Organization reported that ten children between the ages of nine and thirteen were being held at Bagram, and, in its May 2008 report to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child, the US acknowledged that children were being held in Bagram, though the Pentagon has repeatedly denied that anyone under 16 is in custody there. As if all of this didn’t mirror Guantánamo enough, a 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, which does have access to the prisoners at Bagram) report is said to claim horrible conditions at the prison, including overcrowding, prisoners being held incommunicado, prisoners held without charge or lawyers for over five years, some prisoners hidden away from even the ICRC itself and cruel treatment violating the Geneva Conventions. In responding to the report, the Pentagon said that the ICRC had access to all Department of Defense prisoners at Bagram, raising a serious question, as similar language did in Guantánamo: are other agencies (like the CIA) holding prisoners at Bagram?

The two major US-run prisons in Iraq are Camp Bucca in southern Iraq near the Kuwaiti border (reportedly with a capacity of 30,000) and Camp Cropper near Baghdad (with a capacity of roughly 4,000). Together, these two hold the vast majority of the 27,000 prisoners to which Stafford Smith referred. The US military reports that it holds, as of this writing, roughly 15,800 prisoners in Iraq. While the recent Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Iraqi governments at least in theory ends the US military’s ability to arrest and hold prisoners in Iraq, with the Iraqi institutions still so unstable, it is unclear how exactly those restrictions will be played out on the ground. Already, the US military has announced that some US troops will remain in Iraqi cities and towns after the summer of 2009, when the Status of Forces Agreement stipulates their withdrawal. Will the provisions regarding the prisoners be discarded as easily?

As of January 1, 2009, the US, according to the Status of Forces Agreement, was to transfer those prisoners believed to be dangerous to the Iraqis and release the rest. The Iraqis, lacking provisions for preventive detainment under Iraqi law, must either charge those prisoners transferred to them with a crime or release them. The US is to release prisoners “in a safe and orderly manner,” and, in December the plan was to release 1,500 prisoners each month until the prisons are emptied, with Feb. 1, 2009 as the first release date.

The military also claims that once there are 8,000 prisoners left in Camp Bucca, they will be transferred to a new prison being built in Taji, scheduled to begin operation in March 2009, and Camp Bucca will be closed. This Taji prison is planned to be turned over to Iraqi control in December 2009, nearly a year past the January 1, 2009 date the Status of Forces Agreement sets for an end to the arrest and detainment of captives by the US. The US military has not announced any plans to close Camp Cropper, the US detention system’s headquarters and main processing center in Iraq.

Even if the US were to follow the Status of Forces Agreement and either turn prisoners over to the Iraqi government or free them, the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s prisons receive a great deal of money from and are advised by the US—yet another successful US government imprisonment-by-proxy exercise, it appears. December reports placed the population of Iraqi prisons around 25,000. Conditions in these prisons are so bad that Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups are genuinely worried that prisoners will be transferred only to be tortured; a recent UN report cites “ongoing widespread ill-treatment and torture of detainees by Iraqi law enforcement authorities.”

Nevertheless, the US military is trying to find evidence of criminality for the roughly 5,000 prisoners it considers dangerous, prior to turning them over to the Iraqis. This underscores the fact that thousands of people have been held without access to courts or lawyers and without charge, many for years. Clive Stafford Smith reported in a May interview with Amy Goodman on the radio program Democracy Now! that the US is even bringing people into Iraq from other places, giving credence to the notion that the US is using its prisons in Iraq to keep people hidden away, just as it tried to do in Guantánamo.

The CIA, however, has a more effective way of hiding people—it uses secret prisons. Much has been written over the past several years about the CIA’s “black sites,” and President Bush confirmed their existence in 2006. However, the CIA has never stated that the program has ended, nor has it ever released any of the locations of its prisons, the number of prisoners, their names, or described the treatment they received. US officials have admitted that the CIA has used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Bush administration’s euphemism for torture), including waterboarding, in the past. Secret prisons are believed to be in or have been in Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Thailand, Jordan, Morocco, Eastern Europe (including at least Poland and Romania) and Guantánamo. Moreover, in March 2008, the BBC reported the story of a Yemeni man who claimed he was held in secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe and was tortured as late as 2006. Years after the existence of these black sites was uncovered, we are still far from the whole truth.

Closely tied to the CIA’s black sites is the extraordinary rendition program, by which the US government kidnaps people and “renders” them to a third country for interrogation and often torture. Countries people report having been “rendered” to include Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Uzbekistan, all with worrisome human rights records. Stafford Smith’s organization, Reprieve, claims, in a report released in June 2008, that there have been at least 200 or so renditions since 2006 when President Bush claimed the program ended. A congressional report cited in a June 2008 article in The Guardian claims that at least 14,000 people may have been subjected to rendition and secret imprisonment since 2001. With these programs still shrouded in secrecy, it is impossible to know exactly how many people the CIA is holding (or holding by proxy) throughout the world—and whether or not they‘re still being tortured.

It seems that a key component of the rendition program is US military ships. Reprieve’s June 2008 report claims that the US has used at least seventeen ships as prisons since 2001. Often, prisoners were brought to these ships for interrogation and then “rendered” elsewhere. The US has admitted to using the USS Bataan and the USS Peleliu as prisons, and Reprieve believes the USS Ashland and other ships stationed off Somalia in the Gulf of Aden have also been key prisons in the War on Terror. What could be more isolated or secret than a prison floating in the middle of an ocean?

Reprieve’s report also cites fifteen other ships it believes should be investigated, given their presence in the Indian Ocean around the island of Diego Garcia. Located about 1,000 miles south of India, Diego Garcia is the largest of a sixty-five-island archipelago known as the Chagos Islands. A tiny island, thirty-seven miles long, with only twelve square miles of land, Diego Garcia is a British territory leased to the US since 1971 for use as a military base (after the 2,000 inhabitants were removed). It has been a key staging area for both the first and second Iraq wars and is thought to have been home to a secret CIA prison from 2002 until at least 2006. In fact, Reprieve believes that most of the “high-value” prisoners were “rendered” through or were held in Diego Garcia, on British soil. Despite the fact that a senior US official admitted the existence of the CIA’s prison on Diego Garcia to Time magazine in August 2008, officially, the US and Britain deny such claims. The revelation of the existence of a CIA prison on Diego Garcia not only illustrates the truly global nature of the US system of indefinite detention, it highlights its deliberate secrecy.

The US military estimates that, since 2001, in the course of the War on Terror, it alone has detained over 80,000 people. Those prisoners and those held by other US agencies have found themselves in different prisons all over the world, but all have been held without trial, charges or access to lawyers, hidden away from the outside world, and many prisoners faced torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment. Scores of people have fought to bring light into Guantánamo, to open it to the courts and the press, to humanitarian oversight and legal representation. But as the years wear on, we learn more and more that this makes Guantánamo an exception to this clandestine world-wide prison operation. Thousands upon thousands languish unheard of in these other prisons, and as we press President Obama to shut down Guantánamo, we cannot forget the rest of those the US has disappeared.


This story originally appeared in the January-February 2009 issue The Catholic Worker, newspaper of the New York City branch of the Catholic Worker movement, 36 East 1st St., New York, NY 10003



Witness Against Torture 100 Days Campaign

Afghanistan Human Rights Organization

“Bagram: Worse Than Guantanamo?” IPS, Jan. 12, 2009

“UN: Human Rights Abuses in Iraq Still Widespread,” VOA, Dec. 2, 2008

“Pentagon To Expand Intel Ops at US Prison in Afghanistan,” USA Today, Sept. 16, 2008, online at Common Dreams

“Source: US Used UK Isle for Interrogations,” Time, July 31, 2008

“US accused of holding terror suspects on prison ships,” The Guardian, June 2, 2008

“Yemeni describes CIA secret jails,” BBC News, March 14, 2008

“Clive Stafford Smith: US Holding 27,000 in Secret Overseas Prisons,” Democracy Now! May 19, 2008

See also:

Detainees Launch Non-Violent Resistance Behind Pentagon’s Iron Veil
by Tanya Theriault, Catholic Worker
World War 4 Report, December 2005

From our Daily Report:

Obama: no rights for Afghan detainees
World War 4 Report, Feb. 22, 2009

New evidence of DoD cooperation with CIA “ghost detention” program
World War 4 Report, Feb. 18, 2009

Secret CIA gulag: Bush admits it
World War 4 Report, Sept. 7, 2006

Iraq detainees: US troops threw us to lions (on Camp Bucca)
World War 4 Report, Nov. 16, 2005

Testimony claims secret CIA archipelago
World War 4 Report, Aug. 7, 2005

Pentagon maintains secret floating prisons?
World War 4 Report, July 2, 2005

War crimes charges for Rumsfeld, Bush? (on Camp Cropper)
World War 4 Report, May 29, 2005

From our archive:

Report: CIA using harsh interrogation technqiues (on Bagram torture case)
World War 4 Report, Dec. 30, 2002


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, March 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution