KABUL, Afghanistan - The Red Cross criticized the way the United States handles prisoners at the highly secretive Bagram military base, urging reforms yesterday that would allow detainees to introduce testimony in their defense.
The criticism of the prison, which few outsiders have seen, goes to the heart of the system the Bush administration uses to justify holding detainees outside the United States.
Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said many of the 600-plus detainees at Bagram complain they do not know why they are being held. Kellenberger spent a half-day at the prison during a one-week visit to Afghanistan that ended yesterday.
"They do not know what the future brings, how long will they be there, and under which conditions will they be released," Kellenberger told a news conference.
While Kellenberger's comments were aimed specifically at Bagram, Red Cross chief spokesman Florian Westphal said there was "a strong parallel" with the US military detention centers in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We've talked about the absence of a clear legal framework and of sufficient procedural safeguards with regard to Guantanamo, in particular, as we have done for Bagram," Westphal said in Geneva.
In Iraq, the US military holds about 23,000 detainees and schedules review hearings every six months to decide on release or continued custody. But new evidence is rarely - if ever - introduced, and the panel mostly assesses a detainee's conduct and statements while in custody.
Unlike Afghanistan, the United States asserts that a UN Security Council resolution gives it the authority to detain prisoners in Iraq. US forces can recommend a detainee be put on trial in an Iraqi court, but they are not bound by the court's ruling, military spokesmen have said.
Kellenberger welcomed the establishment of "enemy combatant review boards" in Afghanistan that examine every six months whether a detainee can be released. But he called yesterday for expanded prisoner rights, including allowing detainees to introduce outside testimony.
"I do consider the establishment of this body as progress, but I think it was high time," Kellenberger said. "This body should also get evidence from the persons outside, . . . evidence which can speak in favor of those who are detained . . . Evidence of people who know them, so that this evidence is brought into the process."
US military officials at Bagram declined comment yesterday. The prison is highly secretive, and unlike the US prison in Guantanamo, the military does not allow journalists to visit. It also does not reveal who is detained there.
"If you are [an] interned person for security reasons, one of the rights you have is to have a regular review by the body which is seriously examining if you are still a security problem or not," Kellenberger said. "We want to see that in this review process you get in as much evidence as possible, also from the outside."