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Guantánamo's shameful anniversary

January 26, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

NICOLE COLSON reports on the terrible record of torture and barbarism at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

JANUARY 11 marked a shameful anniversary for the U.S. On that day, five years before, the first prisoners from the U.S. "war on terror" began arriving at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

In all, more than 750 men and boys (some as young as 13) from 40 countries have been brought to Guantánamo. Approximately 400 remain imprisoned there today. None has been tried or convicted of any crime. Only 10 have even been charged with a crime.

The Bush administration says these detainees are the "worst of the worst"--and has fought to keep them in a legal no man's land. But human rights and civil liberties activists around the world say that the lack of legal rights, combined with abysmal conditions and even torture, has made Guantánamo a potent symbol of the worst abuses of the Bush administration.

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"IN THE old and now quaint U.S. system of justice, one was held to be innocent until found guilty. In the Bush Co. system of justice anyone can be held guilty for an indefinite amount of time without due process or basic human comforts." Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan wrote these words after traveling to Guantánamo in January with a delegation calling for the prison camp to be shut down.

What else to read

Moazzam Begg's book Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram and Kandahar is a powerful indictment of the hidden U.S. prison system around the world and the "war on terror." Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray detail the facts about the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo: What the World Should Know.

For more information on Guantánamo and the legal challenges against it, see the Center for Constitutional Rights' "Guantánamo Action Center." The American Civil Liberties Union also maintains an archive of documents related to torture, detention and rendition of prisoners.


Sheehan gathered along with former prisoner Asif Iqbal, relatives of others still in Guantánamo and other activists to demand justice for detainees of Bush's never-ending "war on terror."

The protest was an important attempt to shine a spotlight on the five-year legacy of human rights and civil liberties abuses that continue each day that the U.S. prison camp is allowed to remain open.

Despite the Bush administration's idea that parading prisoners for the media would be a slam-dunk photo opportunity, the first images of prisoners of the U.S. war in Afghanistan arriving at Guantánamo in early 2002 shocked the world.

The men were clothed in orange jumpsuits; shackled at their feet, hands and waists; fitted with masks, blacked-out goggles and heavy earphones to ensure total sensory deprivation; and made to kneel on rocky ground after enduring flights of up to 36 hours. Photos showed prisoners housed in cages that were exposed to the elements, including punishing heat, insects and rats.

Soon after these pictures appeared in the media, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scoffed at suggestions that conditions were less than idyllic. "To be in an 8-by-8-foot cell in beautiful, sunny Guantánamo Bay is not inhumane treatment," he told reporters at the time.

He continued to insist that prisoners in Guantánamo were the "worst of the worst"--hardened terrorists and ruthless al-Qaeda members bent on attacking the U.S. But Rumsfeld's remarks have been proven to be lies.

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LIKE MANY detainees brought to Guantánamo, Moazzam Begg was innocent. In his case, the British citizen--a charity worker at a school in Afghanistan--was picked up in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the CIA in early 2002, presumably because of his ties to Muslim charities.

After a year in detention at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Begg was transferred to Guantánamo. By the time he arrived at the camp in 2003, the outdoor cages had given way to more permanent indoor facilities--built by Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton--to house detainees in various levels of security. Still, deprivation on all levels continued to be the norm.

"What could be more bleak, or grimmer, than being in a cage like this?" Begg wrote of his arrival at Guantánamo in the book Enemy Combatant. "Here in Guantánamo, in this steel cage with mesh sides, steel roof and floor, steel toilet, all inside a white, new-looking brightly lit room, I felt despair returning as I took in my surroundings for the first time.

"All I had in the cell was a sheet and a roll of toilet paper, not even my glasses. I asked for something that I could use as a prayer mat, and they brought a thin camping mat, which became my mattress for the next two years."

Begg was finally released in 2005--with no explanation and no charges ever filed against him. In addition to Moazzam Begg, over the past five years, the U.S. has quietly released more than 350 other detainees without charging them.

We now know that many Guantánamo detainees simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frequently, detainees have turned out to be not al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders, but peasants captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S.-allied Northern Alliance forces or warlords--and sold to the U.S. as "terrorists." Others may have been low-level conscripts fighting in the Taliban forces.

As Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many detainees, explained in 2004, "The United States was dropping leaflets all over [Afghanistan] offering rewards of anywhere from $50 to $5,000 for members of al-Qaeda or Taliban officials...Among those who have been released are taxi drivers and even a shepherd in his nineties."

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FOR MANY detainees, the horror of detention in Guantánamo has been magnified by the legal limbo that the Bush administration has consigned them to.

From the day prisoners began arriving, the White House has insisted that the rule of law would not apply at Guantánamo. It refused to classify detainees as "prisoners of war," which would confer legal rights to trials and against cruel and inhumane treatment under the Geneva Conventions.

Instead, the Bush administration insisted that the detainees fall under the classification of "unlawful enemy combatants." According to the Bush administration, "enemy combatants" are not entitled to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts; aren't protected under the Geneva Conventions or other international law; and can be subjected to any "intelligence-gathering" process their U.S. captors see fit.

The everyday humiliations of life in Guantánamo reported by detainees are numerous--the so-called "Guantánamo haircut" (soldiers forcibly holding detainees down to shave their heads and beards); restrictions on speaking; months in isolation for no reason; limited contact with lawyers and interpreters; excessive violence and threats from guards; and more.

"At the beginning, we were terrified that we might be killed at any minute," Shafiq Rasul, a British detainee released from Guantánamo in March 2004, said in a statement to the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The guards would say to us, 'We could kill you at any time,' They would say, 'The world doesn't know you're here, nobody knows you're here, all they know is that you're missing, and we could kill you, and no one would know.'"

Moazzam Begg recalled: "The dogs and handlers alternated, but there was one especially volatile dog that was always barking, even at the soldiers. Once, his handler, a young, heavyset, blond soldier, said to it, 'Hey do you want to chase some orange meat?' He must have assumed I didn't speak English, as he added, 'It's just like watching a mouse run around in a cage.'"

Rhuhel Ahmed, a British detainee who was released from Guantánamo in March 2004, described the vicious attitude of some guards toward prisoners' religious beliefs. "I saw a guard walk into a detainee's cell, search through the Koran and drop it on the floor," he said. "The detainee told him to pick it up and put it into its holder. I remember the guard looked at the Koran on the floor, and said 'this,' and then kicked it."

Such policies set the stage for abuse--and in some cases, outright torture--of detainees by CIA and military interrogators.

Asif Iqbal, for example, said that he finally confessed to the having met with Osama bin Laden--despite the fact that he was in a British jail at the time--after being subjected to repeated interrogations, extreme high and low temperatures, music at excessive volumes, bright flashing lights, and three months in isolation.

Other detainees reported being threatened with dogs, or sexually humiliated and abused by their interrogators.

Major Gen. Geoffrey Miller--who was in charge of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq during the systematic abuse of prisoners--had been in charge of Guantánamo first.

According to Rasul, when Miller arrived at the end of 2002, "that is when short-shackling started, loud music playing in interrogation, shaving beards and hair, putting people in cells naked, taking away people's 'comfort' items, the introduction of levels, moving some people every two hours depriving them of sleep, the use of A/C air...

"We didn't hear anybody talking about being sexually humiliated or subjected to sexual provocation before General Miller came. After that, we did."

Not surprisingly, extended detention combined with physical and mental abuse has driven three prisoners to commit suicide, and more than 40 others to attempt to do so.

Hundreds of prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes in protest of their conditions--and the U.S. military has responded with brutal force feedings, that include strapping detainees into "restraint chairs" for hours at a time to prevent them from vomiting, and violently inserting feeding tubes into noses until detainees bleed and scream in pain.

"The level of hopelessness in the camp has reached a point where our clients are literally vowing they have no other choice but to die," lawyer Julie Tarver told Democracy Now! in 2005.

As of the fifth anniversary, 14 detainees were officially listed by the military as being on hunger strike--with five being force-fed.

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TODAY, JUST 10 Guantánamo detainees have been charged with any crimes at all, while hundreds more continue to languish.

And as Michael Ratner and others have pointed out, the damage from Guantánamo isn't limited only to the rights of the detainees at the camp, but to all of us.

Last fall, as part of an effort to circumvent Supreme Court rulings affirming prisoners' right to trial, Congress overwhelmingly passed, and the Bush administration promptly signed, the Military Commissions Act--which not only legalized abusive interrogation practices, but expanded the definition of "enemy combatants" to include anyone who provides "material support" to groups that the U.S. has labeled terrorist.

Additionally, the final legislation gives the president and secretary of defense the right to define who is an enemy combatant, and restricts the right of green-card holders and other legal residents to challenge their detentions.

In the end, Guantánamo hasn't made us safer from terrorism. It's simply given a green light to government torture and attacks on our civil liberties. That's why standing up to these attacks is so crucial.

As Michael Ratner told journalists on the camp's fifth anniversary, "A place without rights has no place in a democratic system that claims it adheres to human rights.

"The burden of Guantánamo is still there," Asif Iqbal agreed as he protested against the camp where he lost years of his life. "Until the prison is closed down, I cannot get on with my life."

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