In Courts, Afghanistan Air Base May Become Next Guantanamo

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jawed Ahmad, a driver and assistant for reporters of a Canadian television network in Afghanistan, knew the roads to avoid, how to get interviews and which stories to pitch. Reporters trusted him, his bosses say.

Then, one day about seven months ago, the 22-year-old CTV News contractor vanished. Weeks later, reporters would learn from Ahmad's family that he had been arrested by U.S. troops, locked up in the U.S. military prison at Bagram air base and accused of being an enemy combatant.

Lawyers representing Ahmad filed a federal lawsuit early this month challenging his detention on grounds similar to those cited in successful lawsuits on behalf of captives at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The lawyers are hoping to turn Ahmad's case and a handful of others into the next legal battleground over the rights of terrorism suspects apprehended on foreign soil. More lawsuits are expected on behalf of Bagram detainees in coming months, the lawyers said.

The lawsuits seek the right of habeas corpus for the detainees. Habeas corpus is a centuries-old legal doctrine that gives people taken into custody the right to challenge their detention before a judge.

Although legal experts expressed uncertainty about the potential for success, the detainees' lawyers say they are optimistic. They note the Supreme Court's decision two weeks ago that granted detainees at Guantanamo Bay the right to challenge their detention in federal courts.

"They stopped sending people to Guantanamo and are sending them to Bagram instead," said Barbara J. Olshansky, who represents Ahmad and is the legal director of the International Justice Network, a nonprofit organization that provides legal support to detainees. "In some ways, we have a stronger case than Guantanamo."

The U.S. military referred questions about the habeas corpus petitions to the Justice Department and declined to confirm whether any of those who filed suits are being held at Bagram. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, saying lawyers are reviewing the Supreme Court's June 12 decision in Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. U.S.

In legal filings, however, the Justice Department has fiercely fought the Bagram suits, arguing that "Bagram airfield is in the zone of war" and not in a peaceful locale such as Guantanamo.

"To provide alien enemy combatants captured at the battlefield and detained in a theater of war the privilege of access to our civil courts is unthinkable both legally and practically," the government argued.

Human rights groups and activists have become increasingly concerned about the U.S. military prison at Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul. The prison has grown steadily over the years and has about 600 detainees, military officials said. The military is planning to spend $60 million to build a new, larger facility that would house the same number of captives but could accommodate as many as 1,000.

Some of the Bagram prisoners have been there since 2002, activists said. Although the vast majority were picked up in Afghanistan, activists and lawyers say at least a few were arrested in other countries.

"It provides a convenient place to hold people who you might not want the world to know you are holding," said Tina Monshipour Foster, a lawyer who represents Bagram detainees.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company