A closely-held secret of US forces in Afghanistan is secret no more. A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union has forced the US government to release a list of 645 prisoners held in the Bagram prison as of Sept. 2009.

“Releasing the names of those held at Bagram is an important step toward transparency and accountability at the secretive Bagram prison, but it is just a first step," Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in a media advisory.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act suit to obtain the names in Sept. As early as April 2009, the ACLU was claiming that over 600 prisoners were being held at the prison in conditions worse than at Guantanamo Bay, left with little legal recourse to challenge their detention. The group also claimed that an unknown number of the prisoners are foreign nationals captured outside of Afghanistan and taken to the prison.

The Bagram prison has served since 2002 as a holding site for terror suspects captured outside Afghanistan and Iraq. Inmates have had no access to lawyers, no right to hear the allegations against them and only rudimentary reviews of their status as "enemy combatants."

President Barack Obama's administration argued in a filing with the US Court of Appeals in Washington that terror suspects at Bagram should not be allowed to challenge their decision in US courts, a right the Supreme Court has granted to Guantanamo detainees.

US District Judge John Bates ruled in April that foreign prisoners held at Bagram should also be provided that right, enshrined in the writ of habeas corpus.

The Department of Defense said earlier in Sept. that Bagram prisoners would be allowed to defend themselves and call witnesses in hearings before a military tribunal.

Bagram prisoners have claimed that they were subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation and being threatened with dogs while in US custody. "They did things that you would not do against animals, let alone to humans," said one former detainee, identified by the BBC as Dr. Khandan, while another described having a gun put to his head and being threatened with death.

"Hundreds of people have languished at Bagram for years in horrid and abusive conditions, without even being told why they’re detained or given a fair chance to argue for release," ACLU attorney Goodman explained. "The information the government continues to withhold, however, is just as vital as the names of prisoners. Full transparency and accountability about Bagram requires disclosing how long these people have been imprisoned, where they are from and whether they were captured far from any battlefield or in other countries far from Afghanistan."

The list of detainees is heavily censored, with information regarding the length of a detainee's imprisonment and their reasons for being in custody completely blacked out.

A so-called Memorandum of Understanding signed last week could see the controversial facility handed over to Afghan control within months, officials said.

"The Afghan defense ministry will begin in a few days to train a unit which will take responsibility for the prison," it said in a statement.

"President Karzai himself has said detention and prosecution of suspects should be the responsibility of the Afghan government. So that's where this is heading," US military spokesman Colonel Stephen Clutter said.

Recent reports have placed the number of prisoners currently held in Bagram at 750.

Read the full list here (PDF link).

With AFP.