Worker Stranded at Bagram Base Petitions Military for Freedom

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A view of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan from the Air Traffic Control Tower's catwalk.
A view of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan from the Air Traffic Control Tower's catwalk. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Craig Seals)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A government contractor who's been confined for months at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan has asked a U.S. military judge to bring his former employer to court and to order his immediate release.

Kumar Pabitra, an Indian national who had been employed by U.S.-based Fluor Corp., is one of an undisclosed number of foreign workers who have been living in conditions they describe as jail-like on the sprawling base since their jobs were cut earlier this year amid downsizing of the U.S. mission. 

They've been unable to return home because travel restrictions related to the coronavirus have made it impossible to repatriate some of them, a spokesman for their former employer said when Stars and Stripes first reported the situation last month. The military has also said diplomatic efforts were underway to return them.

The workers are being kept in "an illegal state of confinement," said a petition Pabitra filed Thursday with the U.S. Military Magistrate for Afghanistan, a military attorney assigned by the office of the staff judge advocate to make independent judicial decisions. 

"This probably is the first instance in which the Staff Judge Advocate has reviewed a petition to release a civilian accompanying the force, as opposed to a service member," said Sam McCahon, a retired judge advocate general officer who is providing legal counsel to Pabitra.

The military contracts with Fluor for services such as construction, maintenance, security and dining facility operations on overseas bases in war zones.

Fluor officials declined to comment on Pabitra's case Friday.

Pabitra, a former fuel depot worker for the firm, was terminated from another base in Afghanistan in early April and sent to Bagram to await transportation back to India.

For security reasons, he was given a "red badge," meaning that while he waits for a flight out, he must remain in temporary quarters that are constantly monitored by guards. Mobile phones, regular internet access and unescortedtrips to the store are not permitted.

He and other workers there -- many of whom are sole wage-earners for their families back home -- are also not being paid. A Macedonian man who killed himself at the base last month had waited two months under such conditions.

Over the past several months, Pabitra has made repeated requests to Fluor to be released from his room, but those pleas have been rejected, states his petition, which Stars and Stripes has reviewed.

"Mr. Pabitra has not been charged with any offense," it says. "The cause for his prolonged illegal detention of more than four months remains unexplained." 

The petition calls on the magistrate to summon Fluor officials for a hearing. The magistrate is responsible for various judicial functions on bases throughout the country, such as approving search and apprehension warrants, as well as determining whether confinement is legal and warranted. 

Pabitra wants both the president of Fluor Government Group International, Thomas D'Agostino, and the company's country manager, Bryan Owens, a retired Army major general, to explain at a hearing why he has been confined for months and "deprived of his liberty."

McCahon filed a similar petition last week, he said, but it was simply forwarded to Fluor. The foreign worker in that matter, a Kenyan, has since been returned to his homeland. 

In Pabitra's case, McCahon plans to file a petition in U.S. district court seeking to require the military magistrate to make a decision.

Magistrates typically review detentions used by the military to hold soldiers charged with a crime ahead of trial proceedings, but McCahon says the official should still have to make a decision in the contractors' cases.

"Nonetheless, it is still the responsibility of the magistrate to hear these petitions," McCahon said.

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