In military circles, the camp at Bagram is well known, but it gets little publicity. Still, there are three times as many prisoners held there as at Guantanamo -- though the figure of 650 is more an estimate than a fact. Only the Red Cross has been allowed to visit the camp and it has not made anything public about its mission there. Human rights campaigners and journalists are strictly forbidden.
Almost all the prisoners are Afghans or Pakistanis who are suspected of being terrorists. Most have been detained by US soldiers during battles in Afghanistan. Unlike the Guantanamo inmates, those held at Bagram have almost no rights. Although there have recently been some hearings before a military judge, none of the prisoners have access to lawyers.
The prisoners differ in another important aspect from those in Guantanamo: In legal terms they were arrested in a war zone, thus making martial law applicable. The Bush administration consistently argued that the Bagram prisoners could thus be held indefinitely -- or at least until the war in Afghanistan was over. Obama now has to decide if he wants to continue to follow the policy set by the hardliners in the military and the intelligence services.
There is little known about the conditions in Bagram. "Bagram is still a black hole," says Carroll Bogart from Human Rights Watch. "The camp is more isolated than Guantanamo."
Former inmates who were subsequently transferred to Guantanomo speak of maltreatment and torture during interrogations. In December 2002 two Afghan prisoners died as a result of blows from US soldiers.
The case of taxi driver Dilawar, allegedly a courier for al-Qaida, is described in detail in the impressive documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side." The filmmakers spoke with the US soldiers and the prisoners involved and showed terrible images of the interrogation room -- with hooks on the wall from which prisoners could be hung up and tortured. A few soldiers were punished after the case came to light but their commander was not reprimanded.
At the beginning of the war the prison in Bagram was a kind of transit station -- a "screening point" in military jargon. Any suspects detained in Afghanistan were flown there and most quickly ended up on another plane to Guantanamo. That changed in the autumn of 2004 when the US government decided not to send any more prisoners to the Cuban base. Since then the number of those held in Bagram has risen steadily.
The camp was also an important station in the CIA's "extraordinary renditions" program. All the important masterminds behind the Sept. 11 attacks were funnelled through Bagram after their arrests. Other suspects were briefly held at the camp on the way to secret CIA prisons elsewhere. When the CIA arrested suspected terrorists in Somalia in 2007, for example, they were brought to the secure base in Afghanistan first.
German diplomats got a brief look at the camp last year. After the US army detained an Afghan-born German citizen in January 2008 and held him for months before establishing his innocence, the German deputy ambassador went to the base to pick him up.