New plan lets Afghan detainees question detention

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has begun putting into place a new program under which hundreds of prisoners being held by the military in Afghanistan will be given the right to challenge their detentions, a defense official said Sunday.

Prisoners at Bagram military base are all to be given a U.S. military official to serve as their personal representative and a chance to go before new Detainee Review Boards, to have their cases considered, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be able to discuss a program that has not been formally announced.

The initiative amounts to the first time prisoners will be able to call witnesses and submit evidence in their defense. There are some 600 detainees at the facility, some who have been held for up to six years.

An order creating the review boards was signed in July by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn. Some military officers serving in Afghanistan have already been assigned to the boards and some who will serve as personal representatives have already been identified, the official said. He declined to say whether any proceedings have already been held.

The guidelines came to light as the Obama administration is reviewing Bush-era detention policies and determining where to make changes.

The proposed rules were given to Congress in mid-July for a 60 day review, according to The Washington Post and New York Times, which reported on the new program in stories late Saturday night on the Web.

Under the rules, the military-assigned representatives, though not a lawyer, are charged with gathering evidence and calling witnesses on behalf of the prisoners.

That process is similar to the one used for detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Unlike those prisoners, the Bagram detainees have had no means to challenge their detentions or to hear allegations against them. But the official said the initiative is more like a system used in Iraq than in Guantanamo. In Iraq, authorities used review boards to help manage the prisoner population and reduce it by distinguishing which detainees posed the greatest threat and which could be rehabilitated and released.

Prisoners at Bagram have been refusing privileges like recreation time and family visits arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross to protest their lack of legal rights since July, according to U.S. military and humanitarian officials.

Human rights campaigners have argued that the prisoners should be given the same rights as those at Guantanamo, but the U.S. military argues that Bagram detainees should be treated differently because they are being held in an active theater of war.

Their status is the subject of lawsuits in the United States. A federal judge ruled in April that several Bagram detainees have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, and the Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to overturn the decision.

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York and attorney for one of those Bagram detainees, said the move is just "window dressing."

"The whole thing was meant to pull the wool over the eyes of the judicial system," he told The Associated Press late Saturday, responding to the newspaper reports. "These changes don't come anywhere near an adequate substitute for a real review."

Kassem said the changes appear to mean the appointment of a military representative to help guide a detainee's case through a review process. The representative would not be bound by confidentiality, thus making this system similar to one already rejected by the Supreme Court in 2008.

"These improvements are really just smoke and mirrors," Kassem said.

Kassem represents Amin al Bakri, a Yemeni national who was taken to Bagram after being detained in Thailand in 2002.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the development was encouraging, but also was concerned about the level of secrecy that the group said surrounds Bagram.

"The public remains uninformed of basic facts such as who is imprisoned there, how long they have been held, where they were captured and on what grounds they are being subjected to indefinite detention," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.

She also expressed disappointed at the administration's "continued efforts to block Bagram prisoners' access to U.S. courts."

Efforts to get responses from administration and military officials were not immediately successful.

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Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this story.