The collective rejoice over the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was supposed to last a few months; the current political climate isn’t prone to optimism, and every ray of light is welcome and worshipped. There was so much to say about Barack Obama’s commitment to human rights and international law; however, the struggle to wipe the Bush slate clean is a long journey into light, one light at the end of a very long tortuous and pitch black tunnel. After the controversy provoked by a more than vague position on rendition, the new thorn in Obama’s side has a name: Bagram. This US-air base in Afghanistan is currently holding 600 detainees (over twice more than Gitmo, which inmates count is at 245) in a $60 million prison complex also defying the laws of international decency.

Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. Abandon all constitutional rights, ye who enter here.

Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan. Abandon all constitutional rights, ye who enter here.

Following the decision on Guantanamo, President Obama ordered a report on the Bagram prison with a June deadline; yet, four Bagram inmates filed a suit against the United States government for unlawful emprisonment, and US District Court Judge John Bates has demanded of Obama a clear-cut and quick decision on the status of the detention facility. Everyone expected a swift answer following into Guantanamo Bay’s footsteps, but it has yet to happen. Truth is, Obama is dragging his feet. The Justice Department responded briefly this friday (February 21) by claiming the detainees could not question their detention in a US court. In short, those inmates have no constitutional rights. This shocking decision is being interpreted as a support to Bush’s human rights violations in Afghanistan, and challenged by human rights attorneys counselling the four plaintiffs.

In a remarkable show of self-containment, Tina Monshipour Foster, a human rights attorney representing one of the detainees, told the Associated Press: “The hope we all had in President Obama to lead us on a different path has not turned out as we’d hoped. We all expected better.” The irony lies in that the Supreme Court granted Guantanamo Bay detainees the right to sue for their release; with over 600 inmates, Bagram Airfield Base prison could be causing a serious legal traffic in US courts should they be allowed the same status as Gitmo prisoners.  The four Bagram detainees filed for internment (imprisonment without charges) and unlawful interrogations (interrogations conducted without the presence of an attorney). According to the Justice Department, those claims are not valid since they are not protected by the Constitution. All detainees – Afghan citizens – relied on their relatives to make the claim as none of them have access to any legal help from the prison.

Human rights groups are criticizing the Obama Administration for continuing the controversial Bush policies of considering himself beyond the law when it came to the “war on terror”. John Hafetz, an attorney working for the ACLU and representing several detainees, explained that “They’ve now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law”. In a response to this accusation, the Justice Department attempted to prove the difference between Guantanamo and Bagram, arguing the latter “is in an overseas war zone and the prisoners there are being held as part of a military action”, adding that “releasing enemy combatants into the Afghan war zone, or even diverting U.S. personnel there to consider their legal cases, could threaten security.” This rethoric being dangerously close to the one used with Guantanamo, those claims hardly had any effect on the plaintiffs and their representatives. Barbara Olhansky, lead counsel for three of the four detainees and visiting professor at Stanford Law School, declared that the Obama Administration had just made clear it wanted to “adhere to a position that has contributed to making our country a pariah around the world for its flagrant disregard of people’s human rights.”

Indeed, several decisions issued by US courts lately have confirmed that the Administration’s support to human rights law worldwide had its limits. Continuing on the Bagram case, the Justice Department ended up confessing that allowing those four detainees to challenge their detention would become contagious among all the “enemy combatant” detainees worldwide, an afflux of suits that the US courts could probably not afford. Judge Bates is now expected to rule on whether those courts have effective jurisdiction in the matter. Concerning the CIA’s “ghost planes”, a case in which a Boeing Co. subsidiary was accused of illegally transporting prisoners (actually abducted and tortured outside of US airspace) the infamous Bush argument of “state secrets privilege”, supposed to help state officials escape any conviction of human rights violations in the name of national defense, has been invoked.

Justice Department attorney Douglas Letter approved of this argument.

AP and Reuters report through Allison Kilkenny’s blog