Bagram: The other Guantanamo?

There are currently 18 times as many detainees at Bagram than at the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
CBS News

Updated 11/15/11

KABUL, Afghanistan - The former prisoner of the American military in his native Afghanistan entered the office leaning on a crutch. He said he had trouble walking after spending a year confined to a 35-square-foot jail cell at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, about an hour's drive north of the capital, Kabul.

He agreed to speak with us only if we kept his identity hidden. We agreed to call him just "Mohammed."

"Our cells were like cages," Mohammed spoke in Dari through a translator. "We couldn't see anything outside."

The cage-like cells for some Bagram detainees were part of a $60 million renovation in 2009. Mohammed, who was detained that June, believes disgruntled neighbors tipped U.S. troops about him following a land dispute. His family did not learn for six months why he had disappeared.

"Somebody had reported that I was helping the Taliban, which would be the last thing in the world I would do," Mohammed said. "I build this country. What Taliban are doing is destroying this country."

The Taliban is the militant Islamic group allied with al Qaeda that ran Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001, until it was toppled by the U.S. invasion.

Mohammed, a father of 10 children, said he is a trained engineer and educator who teaches girls. He said he would never support the Taliban, which was infamous for its oppression of women.

Mohammed said he never saw any evidence against him and did he not get an attorney. Instead, a U.S. military officer was appointed to represent him at status review hearings.

"I was innocent. I hadn't done anything wrong," Mohammed said. He was never physically mistreated, but he was woken up at all hours to be interrogated, he said.

Today, there are more than 3,000 detainees at Bagram, or five times the number (around 600) when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. There are currently 18 times as many detainees at Bagram than at the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base, whose prisoner population has dwindled from a peak of 780 to 170.

While Guantanamo has been the subject of legal wrangling and international controversy since the U.S. started sending terrorism suspects there in 2002, the explosive growth of the detainee population at Bagram has largely escaped international or domestic scrutiny.

When CBS NEWS asked to visit Bagram three months ago, the U.S. military first approved our visit, and then canceled it. Our request to interview any U.S. military official in Afghanistan or at the Pentagon about detainee procedures was rejected.

Neither William Lietzau, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, nor Brigadier General Mark Martins, who oversaw detainee affairs in Afghanistan as the first commander of Joint Task Force 435, were available for an interview. Gen. Martins is now in charge of prosecutions at Guantanamo.

Earlier this year, Daphne Eviatar, an attorney for Human Rights First, interviewed nearly 20 former detainees in Afghanistan and was permitted to observe several detainee hearings at Bagram.

"It's worse than Guantanamo," Eviatar said in an interview, "because there are fewer rights."

Eviatar's report, "Detained and Denied in Afghanistan: How To Make U.S. Detention Comply With the Law," documented stories of detainees held from seven months to seven years.

"There was no evidence presented," she said, "there was no questioning of the government's evidence, whether this person had done anything wrong, whether he deserved to be in prison. So that's a real problem -- you have a complete lack of due process."

Unlike Guantanamo, the Department of Defense won't release the names of its Bagram detainees or its reasons for holding them indefinitely. Eviatar said Mohammed's story is typical.