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Obama needs to live up to promises on human rights

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U.S. President Barack Obama had a good first day on the job.

Within 24 hours of his inauguration, he signed orders calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, banning torture and closing black prisons run by the CIA. With the stroke of a pen, the new President turned his back on some of the Bush-era's most offensive policies

That was day one. As we approach day 365, the President has admitted he won't meet Gitmo's January deadline.

That's not really the concern. As Democratic Rep. John Murtha put it, "The problem with Guantanamo was never about the bricks and mortar. The problem with Guantanamo is that its very existence stains and defies the moral fiber of our great nation."

Rather than the building itself, it's what went on inside Guantanamo that was so offensive. As allegations of torture, abuse and lack of access to international law come out of the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility, a detention centre in Afghanistan, it's clear the issue isn't closing Guantanamo Bay. It's guaranteeing human rights.

The Bagram detention centre lies in a secret location north of Kabul and is currently estimated to hold 600 prisoners - three times that of Guantanamo - without charge. Bagram was not included under a 2004 Supreme Court decision that extended habeas corpus, the right to challenge detention, to Guantanamo. Now, there is evidence that a number of prisoners are in need of that contest.

The United States contends because the prison is in a battle zone, it's not possible to conduct investigations into individual cases. That means prisoners lack access to lawyers.

But recently, two teenaged Afghan boys told the Washington Post that this year in Bagram "they were beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement for at least two weeks," clear violation of Obama's torture ban. Further, former detainees told the New York Times that some prisoners are kept hidden from the Red Cross, the only civilian organization allowed access to the centre

These are not the only allegations of misconduct. The British government recently revealed that two men were captured in Iraq in 2004, transferred to Afghanistan by the Americans and have been held in Bagram ever since. Reprieve, a London-based legal charity, have identified the men as Amanatullah Ali and "Salahuddin," and says this transfer amounts to extraordinary rendition, a violation of international law.

Through investigations, Reprieve says it found that Ali may have been captured mistakenly. He is being held as a member of a Sunni extremist group when in fact he is a Shia Muslim. Reprieve also says the other man is said to be in "catastrophic mental and physical shape" due to torture he has suffered since arriving in Bagram.

Still the detention center is shrouded in secrecy. The exact number of prisoners it holds is an official secret. Obama rarely mentions its existence. Journalists and lawyers are banned from the premises.

In response to allegations of abuse, the Pentagon stated simply, "Department of Defense policy is and always has been to treat detainees humanely."

This isn't the kind of transparency Obama promised on his first day.

As the President told Congress in February, "There is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America...Living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger."

These are fine words, but ones Obama must act on. If the allegations of abuse at Bagram are true, Obama must clearly distinguish between state-sanctioned torture and individual actions. Further, they must bring perpetrators to justice.

Without doing so, Obama's efforts to eliminate abuse at Guantanamo are only superficial if they are not applied to Bagram.