November 22, 2009
The US military has allowed journalists into its newly expanded secret detention centre at Bagram air base in Afghanistan this week.
The base has been described by campaigners as Guantanamo Bay's "more evil twin" and the allegations of torture and murder within its secretive walls continue to this day.
The US claims this is proof of its determination to provide greater transparency and openness in its policy of extraordinary rendition and detention without trial.
The claim was somewhat undermined by the fact that the touring journalists had no access to the hundreds of inmates held at the facility.
Omar Deghayes is one man who has personal experience of both Bagram and Guantanamo. He was not impressed by US grandstanding.
He had seen it all before and has strong reason to doubt the announcement of improved conditions at Bagram.
Having suffered hellish torture there himself, he has now discovered that his brother-in-law has been detained at Bagram for the last two months and, if anything, he appears to have been treated even more brutally.
Deghayes was born in Libya in 1969. He was forced to flee the country with his mother and siblings after the torture and murder of his father by the Gadaffi regime.
Arriving in Brighton as a teenager, he went on to study law in Wolverhampton. The family were granted refugee status here in 1987.
In 2002 Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan and was "sold" to the US for a bounty. He was taken first to Bagram and then Guantanamo, where he was imprisoned without trial for five years.
During his time at Guantanamo he was blinded in one eye, which was already damaged since childhood, after guards repeatedly rubbed pepper spray in it.
The only "evidence" against him was a clip from an Islamic propaganda film showing Chechen fighters, one of which the US authorities claimed was him.
It later transpired that the image was not of Deghayes but of an Abu Walid, a Chechan rebel who had been killed some time in 2004.
Deghayes had in fact never been to Chechnya and had always maintained as much.
Speaking to the Morning Star, he gave his opinion on the US press tour of Bagram.
"This is how they manipulate things," he says.
"I have experienced it personally at Guantanamo. They gave guided tours of the camp like it was a tour of the Himalayas or something."
In 2002 a group of congressmen were given a guided tour of "Gitmo," albeit a much sanitised one.
Following his tour of the facility Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe told CNN: "We are giving very good treatment to these people.
"Quite frankly, I personally think better than they deserve. We're dealing with terrorists here."
As if to complete the bizarre theme park atmosphere, each congressman was given a souvenir cap, a Guantanamo flag and a DVD of their visit to take home with them.
Select journalists were also given guided tours, reminiscent of this week's at Bagram.
Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who represented Deghayes and many other Guantanamo prisoners, notes in his invaluable book Bad Men that, for one tour, "there was a show block in camp four ... there was a show interrogation cell in camp five, designed to make solitary confinement look like a private suite."
He goes on to say that "various military personnel were wheeled out for interviews about one humanitarian highlight of the prison or another.
"Whenever an inconvenient question might arise, they could shelter politely behind the barricade of institutional security."
Deghayes agrees. "Those on the tour, the congressmen and reporters were not allowed to meet the prisoners. They were shown all the new facilities and it was like a nice party for them.
"Then they went back and gave glowing reports about how good it all was there," he says.
"It was only when a whistle-blower told the real story that they became aware of what it was really like.
"The Obama administration is just copying the same policy as Bush. It is the same bureaucrats giving the same camouflage and using the same deceptions."
Asked what credence he gave to the US claims of improved conditions at Bagram, he stated: "My brother-in-law is in Bagram now.
"He was just picked up a few months ago. He went to visit his in-laws in Afghanistan and they arrested him.
"My sister was finally able to visit him and she said the conditions were even worse than when I was there.
"She said he was in very bad condition. His eyes and face were battered and bleeding. It is worse there now than it ever was.
"They are saying there are all these new facilities, but that is not the issue," says Deghayes.
"The real issue is that they are subjecting people to brutal and inhuman torture."
Perhaps the most perfidious aspect to the situation in Bagram is that the US has stated that Afghan nationals held there have no legal rights.
Foreign nationals held there are said to have "some" legal rights, but those imprisoned in their own country by an invading foreign power have none.
The only way to ensure the freedom of those who still suffer torture and indefinite imprisonment is for the people of the US, Britain and elsewhere to continue to campaign and vocally criticise the policy. This is something Deghayes is keen to emphasise.
"When Obama came into power it was under a mandate of closing Guantanamo and stopping these abuses, but he has not done it. He has not come up with any new system," says Deghayes.
"There is no legal system, no court system in Guantanamo or Bagram.
"Everyone who has been released from either Guantanamo or Bagram has been released due to campaigning and pressure brought on their behalf, not by any legal system or by being found innocent. Many people have been told they should have been released but are still there.
"I know from personal experience that campaigning is the only thing that works and we will continue to campaign for the release of my brother-in-law and all the others."
Bagram's brutal record
Bagram air base is located 27 miles north of Kabul and is estimated to house in excess of 600 prisoners. The recent extension will bring the number of prisoners it can hold to over 1,000.
The reason for this extension of the facility is seen by many to indicate an intention to increase US troop numbers and presumably therefore prisoners in the region.
The base was originally used to process prisoners during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
But since then Bagram has been filled with detainees held for years without charge, trial or legal rights.
Unlike Guantanamo where, after a hard-fought struggle, US lawyers have been granted access to detainees, those incarcerated in Bagram remain in a legal black hole.
Since 2002 there have been numerous reports of torture and at least two cases of murder.
In one of the worst cases a taxi driver by the name of Dilawar was beaten to death there in December 2002. His body was found to have suffered over 100 savage blows to the legs, apparently for the sadistic amusement of guards.
The autopsy report said that his legs had become "pulpified" and that he had died from blunt force trauma.
Omar Deghayes described his time at Bagram as follows: "Lying on the floor of the compound, all night I would hear the screams of others in the rooms above us as they were tortured and interrogated.
"My number would be called out and I would have to go to the gate. They chained me and put a bag over my head, dragging me off for my own turn.
"They would force me to my knees for questioning and threaten me with more torture."