(CBS News) KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- The unpredictable fate of more than three thousand detainees held by the United States in Afghanistan will take another twist in the next 18 months as the U.S. military prepares to turn over control of its controversial prison at Bagram Air Base.
While the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been a flash point for a decade since the military response to the September 11th terrorist attacks began, Bagram currently holds nineteen times more detainees than Guantanamo. There are more than 3,300 detainees at Bagram -- double the number one year ago and five times the number when President Barack Obama took office. Only 171 detainees remain at Guantanamo.
An agreement signed Friday by General John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, should give the Afghan government control of the detainees by 2014, when the last of some 90-thousand American troops still deployed in Afghanistan are expected to leave the country.
The U.S. won't begin to relinquish control of the detainees until an Afghan commander is in place at Bagram and a subsequent six month transition period. Then, the U.S. military will still provide "technical assistance" for one more year.
"This is a step forward in our strategic partnership," Gen. Allen said at the signing ceremony. "It is yet another example of the progress of transition and our efforts to ensure that Afghanistan can never again be a safe haven for international terrorists."
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan began in October 2001 following the the terror attacks directed by al Qaeda, which was sheltered by the Taliban, which then ruled the country.
Gen. Wardak said, "The transfer of the Bagram detention center to the Afghan authority is an extraordinarily important step in recognizing the sovereignty of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
The Bagram detainees are mostly Afghan citizens who are accused of conspiring against U.S. forces, such as by aiding the Taliban. Though their cases are reviewed every six months, a detainee can be held
indefinitely as "enduring security threat," though the military has not released the criteria for that label.
The detainees don't get access to a lawyer or to view the evidence against them, which is typically consider "classified," or secret. Some detainees have been held for years. The military has never released a complete list of who is inside Bagram.
"There was no due process being provided for those detainees" said Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer for Human Rights First who was permitted by the military to observe detainee review hearings last year. She documented the cases of around twenty former Bagram detainees in her report, "Detained and Denied in Afghanistan."
Eviatar is now concerned the remaining detainees could be treated less humanely under Afghan control. "Afghan security services have a history of using torture to elicit confessions, and that was found just within the past year by the United Nations, so it's not clear from this agreement how the United States will make sure that's not happening," she said.
After copies of the Koran that once belonged to Bagram detainees were mistakenly burned by NATO troops last month, protests erupted across Afghanistan for a week, resulting in the deaths six U.S. soldiers.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said defacing the Muslim holy books never would have happened if Afghans had been in charge of the prison.
The hand over agreement requires Afghanistan to consult with the U.S. before releasing any detainees, a move the U.S. could block if it deemed specific detainees too dangerous.
U.S. soldiers will continue to train Afghan prison guards for at least another year. But how Afghanistan's fledgling judicial system might handle detainee reviews is still an unknown.
Eviatar said, "It's not clear who, if anyone, will be allowed to observe hearings or if they'll even get hearings under the new administrative detention law in Afghanistan."
Clark reported from Kabul. Hirschkorn reported from New York. John Bentley also contributed to this story.