One of the first acts of Barack Obama as president of the United States was to order a review of all Guantanamo Bay detainees. He also announced that the notorious detention camp will be closed in a year. That, however, has not deterred guards at the prison from abusing detainees, as Mohammad al-Gharani revealed in a telephone interview posted on Al-Jazeera television website on April 14. Gharani, a Chadian national, told Al-Jazeera that his beating “started about 20 days” before Obama was sworn in as president and “since then I’ve been subjected to it almost every day.” Guards not only beat him but also used tear gas after he refused to leave his cell in protest.
Gharani’s story is not unique; it is corroborated by others, such as Sami al-Hajj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman who spent six years in Guantanamo before being released last year. Al-Hajj said that while the US did have a new administration, “there has been no change in the administration of Guantanamo.” Burly American soldiers practise their kicking skills on shackled prisoners, all as part of their duty to “defend the homeland” from an illegally US-occupied island since 1898. Water-boarding, denounced even by Obama as torture, has been widely used to extract confessions from detainees. The US has admitted to water-boarding Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the dual Kuwaiti-Pakistani citizen, who is accused of masterminding the 911 attacks. Dick Cheney, the former vice president, said in television interviews both while in office and since leaving it that water-boarding and other forms of torture have been used on detainees.
Among the several hundred detainees released since the notorious camp was opened in 2002 were a 70-year-old Afghan farmer and a 10-year old Afghan boy, caught in the dragnet when the Americans went berserk following the 911 attacks. More than 240 prisoners still remain there, including Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who was captured after being shot twice in the back by American soldiers in July 2002 in Afghanistan. Al-Hajj said “the people managing the detainees there haven’t changed yet. These are the same people who were there during the Bush years and so they use the same methods.” Describing a specific incident, which took place after change in the US administration, al-Gharani said he had refused to leave his cell because they were “not granting me my rights”, such as being able to walk around, interact with other inmates and have “normal food”. A group of six soldiers wearing protective gear and helmets entered his cell, accompanied by one soldier carrying a camera and one with tear gas, he said. “They had a thick rubber or plastic baton they beat me with. They emptied out about two canisters of tear gas on me,” he told Al Jazeera. Al-Gharani has been held in an area where inmates are provided facilities denied others deemed dangerous or accused of involvement in terrorist acts. Al-Gharani won reprieve when US District Judge Richard Leon dismissed allegations against him that were extracted from two other Guantanamo captives whose reliability and credibility were questionable. The judge ruled that the government had failed to show evidence Al-Gharani was part of or supported al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Those accused of serious offences are kept in what is called Camp-6. This notorious section of the prison has tiny windowless cells where inmates are shackled in extremely stressful positions. There is barely enough room to squeeze into the cell. There is an open toilet beside the bed that reeks of urine and feces. Even if not shackled, the cell is so tiny and without a window that it makes life suffocating.
Many inmates have been on a hunger strike in protest against their mistreatment and humiliation. The hunger strike has now stretched into years. Outside each cell, there is a chair into which detainees are strapped for forced-feeding. Al-Hajj drew a picture of how detainees are strapped into the chair and forced-fed. “My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, with no eyes and only giant cheekbones,” Al Haj said in a statement released by the British legal rights group, Reprieve.
Three times daily, six heavy-set special guards enter each cell, drag the detainee out and strap him into the chair. The detainee is blindfolded; his legs and arms are shackled separately so he is unable to move. The head is strapped twice to prevent any movement of the face, and the mouth is taped. A thick feeding tube is then inserted through the nose through which liquid food is poured into the inmate’s stomach. This routine is repeated three times daily. According to information leaked from the camp, many inmates have suffered serious lesions in their nose and food tract because of the forced insertion of a large tube that is pulled out after each feeding. The process is extremely painful and amounts to a form of torture. Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, refused to accept this as torture; his categorization of torture was treatment that led to a person’s death.
The story of one Egyptian detainee is reflective of what happens to inmates in Camp-6. Now weighing barely 100 pounds because of his hunger strike, he attempts to block the cell door with his body. Masked handlers are summoned for each feeding routine; they fire tear gas shells into the tiny cell that knocks the prisoner unconscious. The metal door is then opened and the detainee is dragged out and strapped to the chair for his forced feeding session.
Unable to justify such cruel and barbaric practices, the Americans resort to one tool they are masters at: movies. The Pentagon commissioned National Geographic to make a documentary about Guantanamo Bay. Titled ‘Explorer: Inside Guantanamo’, it is an attempt at whitewashing US crimes. Shown in the US on April 5, Guantanamo’s warden, Colonel Bruce Vargo says in the documentary: “This is still an integral part of the war on terror.” A former inmate agrees, calling Guantanamo a physical and psychological “war zone.” Inmates talk of their years behind steel doors, many held without charges, and denounce their American jailers as “attackers of Muslims … with blood on your hands.”
Former US President George Bush who set up the notorious camp denounces militants as “nothing but a bunch of cold-blood killers, and that’s the way we’re going to treat ’em’.” This clear admission of torture has led to charges that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and a number of other US officials committed war crimes. Since Obama has refused to charge these people, a Spanish court has taken up the cases.
A former Navy defence lawyer, Charles Swift, describes Guantanamo Bay the legal equivalent of outer space –” “a place with no law.” Swift’s client, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, won major Supreme Court rulings giving Guantanamo prisoners rights in US courts. In the documentary, a Guantanamo guard is shown orienting new guards last year: “You can be fair, firm and impartial, without being a dickhead … people know,” he said. In the prison, however, an inmate shouts from his cell: “Never, never. I am here for seven years, I never get my rights. If you believe this propaganda, I am Santa,” he says.
Not only are detainees badly tortured in Guantanamo Bay, the entire prison camp is based on illegality. After it was occupied by the Americans who drove the Spanish out in 1898, they entered into an agreement with Cuba in 1903 for an annual rent of $2,000. The agreement of the victors was so drafted that any changes had to be agreed by both parties. Thus, if the Cubans demanded more rent, that could only happen if the Americans also agreed. As for ending the lease, again both parties must agree. While the current rent stands at $4,085 per annum, since 1960 the Cuban government has refused to cash the rent cheques; to do so would amount to acknowledging the legitimacy of the lease.
Refusing to vacate the base, the US continues to illegally occupy Cuban space and then uses this as an excuse to prevent detainees from challenging their mistreatment in a US court of law because Washington claims the violations were not committed on its territory. American judges have rejected such arguments but the slow pace at which the legal system operates has meant detainees are left in a black hole.
Guantanamo Bay’s notoriety is not new. Until 1993, it was used as the processing station for fleeing Haitians and as a veritable prison for Haitians carrying H.I.V.