Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obama passes the real test--or does he?

Ever since his inaugration, I have been saying that the real test on human rights for the Obama administration will not be what he does in Guantanamo Bay--which he had committed to close down as a campaign promise. The real test will be what he and the administration do in Bagram, which is much bigger, and from the Pakistani point of view, much closer to home.

I have been meaning to write something about this. And my point really isn't to just take a "Marg bar Amrika" point of view; to imply that America is always evil or that no American President can do any good. I really do feel that Obama has a chance to change the actual policies and procedures of the American presence around the world in all its forms, and to set a new tone.

But, as I have said repeatedly since before the last presidential elections (in the US), what Pakistanis remember from the 2008 presidential election cycle is Obama making his foreign policy chops by saying, in effect, that "we will bomb Pakistan, and its sovereignty be darned". And in the last month or two, the influx, or rumoured influx, of a thousand or two each of marines and mercenaries (oh, okay, Xe/Blackwater "consultants") in Pakistan, that image has been reinforced many fold. (See this story in the News Observer.) And in the mean time, the other story being followed and, very frankly, used to whip up anti-American fury in Pakistan is that of Dr. Afia Ahmed, "Prisoner Number 650". (Just google her name for a taste--or search, the main Pakistani blog aggregator.)

And just a night or two ago, I heard the Obama Administration's General Counsel of the Department of Defense tell the American Bar Association (on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, no less) that Bagram was completely different from Guantanamo, and that what was happening there was okay, and so on. (The event is on CSPAN.)

But, suddenly, now I see the following story, which actually reverses, or substantially changes what the General Counsel said. Is Obama actually doing better than even his own team expected--and keeps thinking it should be doing? Or am I missing something? I would love to hear from our legal friends--and anyone else who has a real thought on this:

U.S. Gives New Rights To Afghan Prisoners

Challenging Detention to Be Allowed

These detainees were released from Bagram in June 2006. About 600 people remain in the prison.
These detainees were released from Bagram in June 2006. About 600 people remain in the prison. (By Musadeq Sadeq -- Associated Press)

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hundreds of prisoners held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan will for the first time have the right to challenge their indefinite detention and call witnesses in their defense under a new review system being put in place this week, according to administration officials.

The new system will be applied to the more than 600 Afghans held at the Bagram military base, and will mark the first substantive change in the overseas detention policies that President Obama inherited from the Bush administration.

(Full Washington Post at

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