New Afghan prison marks change in Obama strategy

BAGRAM, Afghanistan Wed May 26, 2010 1:55pm EDT

U.S. soldiers talk with reporters inside a cell block at a new detention centre at the U.S. Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, November 15, 2009. REUTERS/Jonathon Burch

U.S. soldiers talk with reporters inside a cell block at a new detention centre at the U.S. Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, November 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathon Burch

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - With his wrists and ankles handcuffed, Lahur Gul sits before a panel of U.S. military officers who will decide whether he is a threat to Afghanistan's security or can go free.

Bearded and wearing bottle-green overalls over loose brown trousers that indicate he is a medium risk to security, he tells Colonel Robert Arnell, who leads the panel, that all he was doing at the time he was captured was looking for firewood.

Gul is one of 800 men who used to be kept in a prison on Bargram airbase, the main base for foreign troops in Afghanistan, but since January has been moved to a new detention center nearby, part of U.S. General Stanley McChrystal's strategy which includes preventing military prisons from becoming breeding grounds for insurgents.

"You've got to deal with (insurgents) but the second thing you got to do is you don't make that problem worse," McChrystal told Reuters during a tour of the center.

"I think our experience with all detention operations from 2001 has made us smarter in a lot of ways. It's made us smarter physically, technically and legally," McChrystal said.

^ Prisoners have been held at Bagram airbase since U.S. and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban government in 2001, but for many Afghans its name has become synonymous with abuse.

Two prisoners died there in 2002 after being beaten by American soldiers and many former detainees complained of abuse and torture while in captivity.

The stories, as well as pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, angered people across the Muslim world and beyond.

In September 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to change policy toward prisoners at Bagram, granting them lawyers for the first time and a review of their status every 6 months.

"It was not lawful to torture before either, what has changed is the limitation on some techniques. None of the techniques go anywhere near (torture)," said Brigadier General Mark Martins, deputy commander for detention operations in Afghanistan.

A GLIMPSE OF DETENTION

Inside a dark, hangar-like building, small containers made of reinforced corrugated metal hold other detainees. Through a one-way mirror, visitors can peer into the boxes to get a glimpse of what NATO's enemies look like.

Inside one, a man sways gently in his chair, chanting to himself while fingering prayer beads. In another, a bearded detainee talks to a woman wearing a headscarf who sits next to a tanned, smooth-shaved young Western man taking notes.

About 30 of the 800 detainees at the new detention center are foreign, the majority from Pakistan. High risk inmates wear long orange shirts, similar in style to the traditional shalwar-kameez worn by many in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Detainees can take literacy classes or lessons in farming and also have access to a high-tech medical center. There is a playground for their children when they come to visit.

About 25 of the most badly behaved and dangerous detainees are kept in special housing units -- individual cells about 45 square feet in size (3.5 sq m). There is a foam mat, a prayer rug, mattress, toilet and a small wash basin in each.

"It's not isolation, there is no sensory deprivation," said Colonel John Garrity, who has been showing the center to a select group of Afghan lawmakers, some of whom were ministers under the Taliban.

Like Gul, each detainee will face a panel to determine whether they should be released. About a quarter who have been reviewed since January have been sent back to their communities, said Martins.

Whether the "Detention Facility at Parwan" has undergone enough rebuilding and rebranding to shed the reputation of its predecessor a stone's throw away remains to be seen.

U.S. military officers want to be able to hand the prison to the Afghan government in 2012 to chime with a U.S. forces deadline to start withdrawing from Afghanistan.

One parliamentarian, Fazlullah Mojadedi from nearby Logar province, said the center was "very good" but that the most important part achievement would be its handover.

(Reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by David Fox and Sugita Katyal)

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