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Land Of The Free, From Accountability

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Andalib Aziz writes about the ordeal of 43 Pakistanis who returned from the Bagram Prison five years ago. Life in captivity broke them in a way that it will never be the same. 

It has been five years since 43 Pakistanis returned from the Detention Facility in Parwan, also known as the Bagram Prison. The atrocities these men faced broke them. Their lives have not been the same and never will be. Life in captivity made them mere shadows of themselves.

Having a normal life is something most of us take for granted. A power breakdown, patchy internet, an empty water tank, and iron marks on a shirt are all a day’s work in the life of a Pakistani. The problems of the former Bagram detainees, however, are far graver — physically and mentally handicapped, unable to work, and incapable of leaving Pakistan.

Who is responsible for their dismal lives?

The sudden abduction, interrogation, humiliation, torture, wait, hopelessness, distress, and judgment without a trial by the United States and the abject apathy of the Pakistani government in depriving them of their fundamental human rights beg accountability. But, is there a way to hold the Americans accountable for this?

The detainees’ days in Bagram were endless. Not allowed to leave their cells, which they shared with eight to 10 others, the men relieved themselves in one corner behind a curtain.

The food they were given was barely enough to sustain them. They were made to shower every few days, handcuffed and shackled in a queue in full view of the American jailers. The jailers would strike a metal rod on their cell’s iron bars at night while the men were sleeping. Medical aid was only provided if they were seriously ill, and that too after weeks of delay.

Many started protesting by going on hunger strikes. They wanted accountability, proper food, blankets, to talk to their families, and the return of their cellmates who had been put in isolation.

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But when they did go on hunger strikes, the Americans would do a ‘jail bust’, during which they would barge into the cells with shields, use Tasers and pepper spray on the detainees, and drag them out and into isolation, which was a small room with just enough space for a person to lie down.

The room had no toilet and the detainees had to bang on its door for hours before they were allowed to use one. Some weren’t allowed enough time. Some of the men stopped drinking water because of this, resulting in kidney stones and pain. They would then be force-fed with tubes.

The men would be put in isolation for a week to fifteen days. One detainee recounted being in isolation for three months while others were possible there for even longer.

This was their life for years!

Even though America and Pakistan are not signatories to the Rome Convention, Afghanistan is. This enabled the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct investigations on crimes including, ‘War crimes by members of the US armed forces on the territory of Afghanistan, and by members of the CIA in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan’[1]. It would not apply to these former detainees but it would have at least provided some solace. But the Americans openly declared to not cooperate with the ICC[2].

In April 2019, The ICC unanimously rejected continuing with the investigation saying it would not serve the interests of justice[3]. Some critics view the court’s decision as a sign of cowering down to American pressure[4]. The US thus dodged the accountability bullet.

The United States ratified the Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1994 and 1992, respectively. In the concluding observations by the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee in 2014, both voiced concern on the use of torture of detainees as part of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and recommended that those involved should be investigated and prosecuted, including those in positions of command[5]. It was also stated by both the committees that effective remedies and redress to victims, including fair and adequate compensation along with full rehabilitation, should be provided to the victims. The US hasn’t done any of the above. Dodged another bullet.

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The Universal Periodic Review (UPR)[6] is a unique process which involves a review of human rights records. In the last review, the use of torture in detention facilities was a grave concern by many states. In response, America stated in its report that the Department of Justice has brought two cases and obtained convictions against two contractors for abuse of detainees in Afghanistan.

The US will tentatively be reviewed in April-May 2020. During this review, it is key that the matter regarding remedies and compensation to the former detainees be discussed and acted upon. It’s the absolute least that the US government can do for them.

The Fifth Amendment in the Constitution of the United States states, `No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. Clearly the ‘land of the free’ has a different meaning when it comes to the life and liberty of some.

[1] https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=171120-otp-stat-afgh#_blank

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/mar/15/mike-pompeo-us-war-crimes-investigation-international-criminal-court

[3] https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=pr1448

[4] https://www.npr.org/2019/04/12/712721556/world-criminal-court-rejects-probe-into-u-s-actions-in-afghanistan

[5] https://www.ohchr.org/en/countries/lacregion/pages/usindex.aspx

[6] https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/upr/pages/uprmain.aspx

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