Camp Bastion, a vast expanse of prefabricated buildings and razor wire so ugly that it defaces an ugly stretch of scrubby Helmand desert, is the operating base for almost 30,000 British troops in Afghanistan. It is also a holding facility for Afghan prisoners, “80, 90, in that order,” as Philip Hammond, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Defence, confirmed in a May 29 interview with the BBC’s flagship morning news show, Today. Phil Shiner, the lead attorney at British law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) that is acting for eight detainees, told Today that his clients have been held for over a year, without charge, “completely off the radar.” He added: “It is reminiscent of the public’s awakening that there was a Guantánamo Bay.”
A British Gitmo? “The assertion that this is a secret facility is patently ridiculous,” said Hammond, interviewed separately after Shiner; Parliament had been informed, although the Defence Secretary was “not so confident that the numbers have been given.” The scale of the detention center within Camp Bastion emerged amid court challenges this spring by PIL and another British law firm, Leigh Day, to the legal basis of the detention and to the U.K. authorities’ refusal to grant detainees access to lawyers. Hammond told the BBC that such access had been blocked because “these people are being held pending transfer to the Afghan national security system. Within that system they would have access to Afghan lawyers.” Britain “would like nothing more than to hand these people over to the Afghan authorities,” he said, and he had only halted handovers in the absence of “cast-iron guarantees” about the prisoners’ future treatment.
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In April 2012, Britain called a moratorium on sending detainees to Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security after allegations emerged of torture in its detention centers. In November, Leigh Day successfully applied to the U.K. High Court to block a resumption of such transfers. That left Hammond and the British government damned if they did the transfers, damned if they didn’t. British troops are part of NATO’s multilateral International Security Assistance Force, whose rules of engagement restrict detentions to 96 hours in most cases and do not give rights of internment. “Our job is to make sure things aren’t done wrong,” says Richard Stein of Leigh Day. “We don’t see a lawful basis for transferring these detainees or for holding them.”
Hammond, in his BBC interview, rejected the third option — of releasing the prisoners “back to the battlefield,” potentially endangering British troops — a point sharpened by the national sense of outrage and grief over last week’s killing on a London street of soldier Lee Rigby. Within hours of the Today show broadcast the Ministry of Defence announced that it had “identified a safe route” for the Afghan prisoners to be funneled into Afghan custody and “once the policy and legal obligations have been met, direction will be given to restart transfers.” Leigh Day’s Stein says he and his colleagues “will look carefully at the new arrangements.”
However fast the U.K. moves to clear the logjam of detainees at Camp Bastion, the revelations have left fresh dings in Britain’s battered self-image as a nation that triumphs by doing things by the book. In the postcolonial era, British diplomats have tended to represent their country as a role model for the observance of international law and human rights. Of course there were questions over Britain’s record in some conflicts, most notably in Northern Ireland, but British forces embarked for Afghanistan and Iraq convinced that their accrued experience there and in the Falklands, Bosnia and Sierra Leone equipped them not only to operate effectively in those environments but to advise the U.S. on how to do so too. But more than a decade of messy interventionism has continually challenged British assumptions. In 2008, the Iraqi army turned to the U.S. for support after the British, who had strolled unhelmeted into Basra, lost control to Shi‘ite militias. The same year, the British authorities, who had denied all involvement in extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects, admitted that CIA flights had refueled in a British overseas territory. Each successive year has chipped away at the idea of Britain’s irreproachable gray eminence. In March, the U.S. handed the Parwan Detention Facility to Afghan control, leaving the U.K. as the only foreign power still to hold Afghan prisoners on Afghan soil.
The detention facility at Camp Bastion is no Gitmo. There’s no suggestion the British authorities planned to maintain a prison there or to operate it outside British laws. But like Bastion itself, the detention facility Britain has erected within its walls has become a blot on the landscape.
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