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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 14   16-31 January 2012

Guantanamo Bay: America’s Shame

Minaret Research Network

The Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba, established by the Bush administration in 2002, represents one of the most shameful acts in the record of human rights violations by the US. The detention centre was established to hold and interrogate detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq. There is overwhelming evidence which suggests that detainees at the Guantanamo prison have been subjected to brutal torture and humiliation by the US military authorities. A number of topmost US authorities, including the former president George W. Bush, former vice-president Dick Cheney, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, appear to be involved in the sordid affair. The most telling evidence has come from George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points, in which he admits that he personally authorized the waterboarding of one of the detainees, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.

The torture inflicted on detainees—including merciless beatings, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, exposure to extreme cold, forced drugging, sexual degradation, waterboarding, unbearably loud music—has been confirmed from a variety of sources, including the testimonies of released prisoners, statements of US officials and reports of human rights organizations. Susan J. Crawford, who was appointed by former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates to review the condition of detainees at the facility, admitted to the media in January 2009 that at least one of the detainees, Mohammad al-Qahtani, was tortured while being held prisoner.

An Associated Press report said that some detainees were turned over to the US military authorities by Afghan tribesmen in return for cash bounties amounting to millions of dollars. One of the detainees, Omar Deghayes, was blinded by pepper spray during his detention. There have been at least four suicide cases and hundreds of suicide attempts. In a confidential report issued in July 2004, which was leaked to The New York Times, the International Committee of the Red Cross accused the US military of using “humiliating acts of solitary confinement, temperature extremes, and use of forced positions” against the detainees.

More than 779 leaked US military files on the Guantanamo detainees, obtained by The New York Times and The Guardian and published in April 2011, reveal the way in which many prisoners were flown to the prison and held captive for years on the flimsiest of grounds or on the basis of confessions extracted through torture. The documents, which were turned over by a US soldier, Bradley Manning, to the WikiLeaks website in 2009, reveal that almost 100 of the detainees are suffering from depression or psychotic illnesses. The detainees include an 89-year-old Afghan villager suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The old man was detained for interrogation about “suspicious phone numbers” found in his compound. One of the inmates was held because “he was a mullah, who led prayers at Manu mosque in Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which placed him in a position to have sufficient knowledge of the Taliban.” The military authorities released him after more than a year’s confinement because he had “no intelligence value.” The documents also reveal that a journalist from Aljazeera news channel was held at the prison for six years for the purpose of extracting information about the channel. Some of the prisoners have alleged that US soldiers and military guards flushed copies of the Quran down the toilet, tore out pages of the holy book and defaced it. Three British Muslim detainees, who were released in 2004 without charge, have alleged ongoing torture, sexual degradation, forced drugging and religious persecution committed by the military guards at Guantanamo.

The United Nations and international human rights organizations have unequivocally condemned the human rights violations perpetrated by the US at Guantanamo Bay. On May 19, 2002 a UN panel said that holding detainees indefinitely at Guantanamo violated the world’s ban on torture and urged the US to close the detention centre. But the plea fell on deaf ears. Following the UN’s unsuccessful attempts to have the detention centre closed, one of the judges observed, “America’s idea of what is torture does not appear to coincide with that of most civilized nations.” In May 2007 the UN released a report which stated that the United States had violated international law, particularly the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In a series of reports, Amnesty International has called the Guantanamo Bay “a human rights scandal.” The organization said the suicides “are the tragic results of years of arbitrary and indefinite detention.” In its annual report released on May 25, 2005, Amnesty International called Guantanamo Bay the “gulag of our times”. The 2008 report of the organization states: “As the world’s most powerful state, the US sets the standard for government behavior globally, but Washington has distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law.”

Lt Col Darrel Vandeveld resigned as a prosecutor for the military commissions which tried terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. He told the BBC that the tribunals used for putting suspects on trial at Guantanamo Bay were “a stain on America’s military”. He said that in the course of his assignment he found that suspects had been mistreated and tortured in order to secure confessions. “I never suffered such anguish in my life about anything,” he said. “It took me too long to recognise that we had abandoned our American values and defied our constitution,” he added. He said, “We should end the shame of Guantanamo now, close it down. The handful of bonafide terrorists, who have been held at Guantanamo for as long as seven years, should be tried in a civilian court.”

The UK has been a key ally of the US in the so-called war on terror. Recent revelations have exposed the implication of the UK government in the illegal detention and torture of innocent civilians and detainees. A high court in London ordered the Metropolitan police on 18 March 2009 to pay £60,000 to Babar Ahmad, a British Muslim who was subjected to “serious, gratuitous and prolonged” attack by the security forces at his house in southeast Binyam Mohammad, an Ethiopian-born resident of Britain, was arrested in April 2002 in Karachi by Pakistani authorities, who later turned him over to American intelligence officials. After his interrogation there, he was taken on a CIA flight to a black site in Morocco, where he spent 18 months in detention and was tortured by the authorities. While in detention in Pakistan, the police hung him up by his wrists and he was not allowed to sleep for days together. In Morocco the torture got worse and they even cut his genitals with a razor blade. From Morocco he was brought to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where he was subject to even more severe torture. British authorities who knew that Mohammad was being held illegally in Morocco did not do anything for him. In February 2009, Mohammad’s former military prosecutor declared that he presented no threat to Britain or America, and all charges against him were dropped. Mohammad subsequently returned to the UK.

In July 2010 British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered an official inquiry into allegations of Britain’s involvement in the torture of detainees. On November 16, 2010 the UK agreed to pay former Guantanamo detainees who are British citizens or residents millions of pounds in damages to settle law suits which allege British complicity in torture.

According to media reports, one of the detainees, Shaker Aamer from south London, who has been held without charge or trial at the prison for nearly nine years, is still holed up in Guantanamo. Despite repeated requests, neither the US nor the British authorities can give a clear reason as to why Aamer is still held without charge, even when the UK has asked for his return. His wife and four children are still denied access to him. Amnesty International is stepping up efforts for the expeditious release of Aamer.

The former chief prosecutor for the US government at Guantanamo Bay, Colonel Morris Davis, has recently lashed out against the continuing torture of detainees at the notorious prison and accused the American administration of operating the prison as a “law-free zone.” Colonel Davis was speaking at a conference on human rights at Bard College in New York State on 30 October 2011.

Colonel Davis who resigned in October 2007 in protest against interrogation methods adopted at the Guantanamo prison, described the methods as torture and said that they were in breach of the country’s own statutes on torture. “If torture is a crime, it should be prosecuted,” he said. He added that the US military had been ordered to use unlawful methods of interrogation by civilian politicians and “to do so against our own will and judgement”. No American court has jurisdiction over Guantanamo. “America is great at preaching to others, but not so good at practicing what we preach. There is a point where enough is enough, and you have to look at yourself in the mirror. Torture has no place in American courts,” Colonel Davis said.

Colonel Davis questioned the notion of a war on terror. “Prisoners of war are supposed to have been captured on the battlefield. Abducting people off the streets of Indonesia and other places far from Afghanistan is pushing the envelope on what is a battlefield” he said.

Professor Thomas Keenan, the head of the Bard College human rights programme, said: “President Obama campaigned on a ledge to close down the jail at Guantanamo Bay and to end the use of military commissions to try its inmates. How is it possible that, two years after he was elected, there are still more than 150 prisoners there, and this November (2010), one of them will go on trial before one of those very commissions?”

One of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi millionaire, who is accused of planning the suicide bombing of the American warship USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, which killed 17 sailors. He has been indicted by the US prosecutors and is likely to face the death penalty. Al-Nashiri’s trial is surrounded by a great deal of machination and controversy because much of the evidence against him is based on his interrogation and torture at secret CIA sites, including one in Thailand. The tapes of the interrogation were later destroyed on the orders of the head of the agency’s clandestine operations.

US President Barack Obama made a number of high-sounding promises in his speech in Cairo in June 2009. He said in his usual high-flown rhetoric, “The existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” He promised to close the Guantanamo prison by January 2010, but the promise remains unfulfilled. Obama administration’s attempt to close down the prison was abandoned after Congress blocked the move to bring the Guantanamo detainees before US courts. As of January 2012, 171 prisoners are still detained at Guantanamo without charge or trial. Notwithstanding international condemnation, there is a glaring absence of the political will as well as public pressure in the US to close the notorious prison.

On January 7, 2011, President Obama, Nobel Peace laureate, signed the 2011 Defence Authorization Bill, which contains provisions preventing the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the mainland or to any foreign country, thereby effectively ruling out the closure of the prison. On March 7, 2011 Obama allowed the resumption of military trials of the Guantanamo detainees by military officers. He also signed an executive order that allows holding the detainees indefinitely without charge.

Meanwhile, the torture and abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan continues unabated. Afghan prisoners have complained of beatings, humiliating body searches and exposure to extreme cold. The Bagram prison in Afghanistan, holds 3,000 detainees without charge or trial. A horrifying online video shown on The Telegraph and other newspapers on January 12, 2012 shows four US Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

President Obama said on January 5, 2012 that the US can no longer afford to fight the world’s battles. It is high time the US stopped behaving like the world’s self-appointed policeman and realized that its unilateralism, reckless interventionism, expansionism and its brazen disregard for international law and human rights have brought it nothing but disgrace and international isolation.

America's Much Abused Moral Authority


Once upon a time, Americans across the political spectrum were united behind efforts to prevent torture and punish torturers. The United States signed the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 1988 when Republican Ronald Reagan was president. A Democrat-controlled Congress ratified it in 1994. The CAT says, "No exceptional circumstance whatsoever … may be invoked as justification of torture," a principle the US endorsed without reservation. The CAT requires nations to enact domestic laws criminalising torture, and in 1994, a torture statute was added to the US criminal code.

A Republican member of Congress sponsored the War Crimes Act in 1996, which made "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions – like torture – federal crimes. He wanted Americans abused by former adversaries to get the justice they deserved but had been denied. The measure passed a Republican-controlled Congress by unanimous consent and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed it into law.

Americans were solidly against torture when they believed they were beneficiaries of anti-torture laws. But then, the 11 September 2001 attacks occurred – and created an exceptional circumstance used by some as justification to draw new lines between right and wrong.

Susan Crawford had held key posts in Republican administrations dating back to Reagan; then, in 2007, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates appointed her head of the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward published a few days before President George Bush left office in 2009, Crawford explained why she dismissed charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker. "We tortured Qahtani," she said; "His treatment met the legal definition of torture."

US government officials in other detainee cases reached similar conclusions:

• Judge James Robertson, in the case of Mohammedou Salahi, found "ample evidence" that "Salahi was subjected to extensive and severe mistreatment at Guantanamo."

• Military commission judge Colonel Stephen Henley concluded that Mohammed Jawad endured "abusive conduct and cruel and inhuman treatment" and that his abuse "was not simple negligence but flagrant misbehaviour". Judge Henley suggested those responsible "face appropriate disciplinary action." None has.

• In the trial of East Africa embassy bomber Ahmed Ghailani, federal Judge Lewis Kaplan granted a motion to block the testimony of the only witness connecting Ghailani to the explosives used in the bombings. Ghailani said he revealed the identity of the witness while being tortured at a secret CIA site, an allegation US government prosecutors did not dispute. In his opinion granting the defence motion, Judge Kaplan said:

"The court has not reached this conclusion lightly. It is acutely aware of the perilous nature of the world in which we live. But the Constitution is the rock upon which our nation rests. We must follow it not only when it is convenient, but when fear and danger beckon in a different direction. To do less would diminish us and undermine the foundation upon which we stand."

In a memo in early 2003, Jack Rives, the US Air Force judge advocate general at the time and now executive director of the American Bar Association, warned senior government officials that "several of the exceptional (interrogation) techniques, on their face, amount to violations of domestic criminal law and the (military criminal code)" and put "the interrogators and the chain of command at risk of criminal accusation". Bush administration officials ignored the warning.

Philip Zelikow, a state department attorney in the Bush administration, told Congress:

"The US government adopted an unprecedented programme of coolly calculated dehumanising abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake, perhaps a disastrous one. It was a collective failure, in which a number of officials and members of Congress of both parties played a part, endorsing a CIA programme of physical coercion."

In a speech in May 2009, President Barack Obama said that in the wake of 9/11, the US government made some decisions "based upon fear rather than foresight" and the nation "went off course". He rejected the notion that "brutal methods like waterboarding" were necessary to keep America safe and added that such tactics "undermine the rule of law" and "alienate us in the world".

President Obama recently warned Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi that the brutality inflicted on his own citizens was "outrageous and it is unacceptable", saying it violates "international norms and every standard of common decency". He said those responsible "must be held accountable". President Obama ended his remarks by saying "the United States will continue to stand up for freedom, stand up for justice, and stand up for the dignity of all people."

The United States cannot stand up for justice and the rule of law when it sits idly on its own record of torture. It diminishes the weight of its moral authority to influence others around the world when it treats its binding legal obligations as options it can choose to exercise or ignore. If President Obama is sincere about standing up for fundamental values, then America's actions must live up to its rhetoric.

(Source: The Guardian, March 5, 2011)

My Guantánamo Nightmare


ON Wednesday, America’s detention camp at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as “undeliverable,” and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.

Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.

I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad. In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. I served in the Sarajevo office as director of humanitarian aid for children who had lost relatives to violence during the Balkan conflicts. In 1998, I became a Bosnian citizen. We had a good life, but all of that changed after 9/11.

When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily — but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never — for a second — considered this. The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget. I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.

In 2008, my demand for a fair legal process went all the way to America’s highest court. In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusations, have a right to a day in court. The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.”

Five months later, Judge Richard J. Leon, of the Federal District Court in Washington, reviewed all of the reasons offered to justify my imprisonment, including secret information I never saw or heard. The government abandoned its claim of an embassy bomb plot just before the judge could hear it. After the hearing, he ordered the government to free me and four other men who had been arrested in Bosnia.

I will never forget sitting with the four other men in a squalid room at Guantánamo, listening over a fuzzy speaker as Judge Leon read his decision in a Washington courtroom. He implored the government not to appeal his ruling, because “seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” I was freed, at last, on May 15, 2009.

Today, I live in Provence with my wife and children. France has given us a home, and a new start. I have experienced the pleasure of reacquainting myself with my daughters and, in August 2010, the joy of welcoming a new son, Yousef. I am learning to drive, attending vocational training and rebuilding my life. I hope to work again serving others, but so far the fact that I spent seven and a half years as a Guantánamo prisoner has meant that only a few human rights organizations have seriously considered hiring me. I do not like to think of Guantánamo. The memories are filled with pain. But I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me.

About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China — where they would face torture if sent home — or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight — not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.

I’m told that my Supreme Court case is now read in law schools. Perhaps one day that will give me satisfaction, but so long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice.

(Source: The New York Times, January 7, 2012)

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