Archive for January, 2008

Horror at Guantánamo: Libyan detainee infected with AIDS

It really doesn’t get any worse than this.

Candace Gorman, lawyer for Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan detainee at Guantánamo, reports that her client has been infected with AIDS. Mr. al-Ghizzawi explained to his lawyer in a letter that he was told about his infection by a doctor at Guantánamo, adding that he believes that the infection took place in 2004, when he was given a blood test, which “resulted in alarm amongst the hospital staff,” although he was not given any explanation for the alarm at the time.

The hospital at Guantanamo

The hospital at Guantánamo, where, Mr. al-Ghizzawi said, “the guards that would bring him to the clinic often sat and read his medical file and … would toss the file around for others to read while he sat there.”

On January 28, Candace Gorman filed an emergency motion with the US Supreme Court, asking for the US military to provide urgent medical treatment to Mr. al-Ghizzawi, and also asking for access to her client’s medical records. Yesterday morning, however, Chief Justice John Roberts denied the motion.

While this news is so alarming that it almost defies description, Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s plight is compounded by the fact that he already suffers from tuberculosis, which he also contracted in Guantánamo, and hepatitis B, which was dormant before his arrival at the prison.

In an affidavit filed with the US District Court in September 2006, Dr. Ronald Sollock, the Chief Medical Doctor at Guantánamo, confirmed that Mr. al-Ghizzawi “was subjected to complete medical tests by the military upon his arrival in Guantánamo in 2002,” and that he “entered [the prison] in good health,” although he admitted that “a history of hepatitis B was identified in tests performed in August 2002” (even though Mr. al-Ghizzawi was never informed of this fact), and that he “was exposed to tuberculosis while at the base.”

Dr. Sollock also claimed that Mr. al-Ghizzawi “does not want to be treated for his life threatening illness[es],” although this is strenuously denied by Mr. al-Ghizzawi himself, who insists that he has never been informed about his health problems, and has never been offered any kind of medical treatment whatsoever.

Despite the gravity of Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s condition, the authorities at Guantánamo have refused to either confirm or deny Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s claim that he has been infected with AIDS. When Candace Gorman approached Andrew Warden, the Department of Justice attorney assigned to the case, Warden also refused to be drawn, stating only, “We are not privy to the particulars of what your client may have been told by his doctor, if anything, but Guantánamo provides high-quality medical care to all detainees.”

Even before this latest awful revelation, Candace Gorman had documented the suffering of her client in painful detail, explaining, in a habeas corpus submission to the Supreme Court last August, that during her first visit with him, in July 2006, it was apparent that he was seriously ill. She described him as “very noticeably jaundiced,” adding that he was “constantly rubbing his back, his leg and his abdomen,” and that he appeared to be “in constant pain.”

Mr. al-Ghizzawi confirmed that his health had begun to deteriorate during his first year at Guantánamo, and had “progressively worsened” each year. He explained that he had lost 10-15 kilos since his arrest, that he had “severe pain in his abdomen, left side and back that travels down his legs,” that the pain was “constant when walking or standing,” that his stomach area was “bloated with two black lines appearing horizontal across his stomach,” and that he had “digestive problems including vomiting and diarrhea.” In this first meeting, Mr. al-Ghizzawi also explained that “the increased intensity of the pain in the previous months” had been “so severe that he had been unable to get up from a lying down position.”

During further visits, in September and November 2006, and in February, May and July 2007, Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s health evidently deteriorated further, prompted, in part, by the conditions in which he was held. On one occasion, he was dressed in orange (reserved, in recent years, for “non-compliant” detainees), and had been stripped of all “comfort items,” including a thermal shirt that provided a meager defense against the cold, because he inadvertently had some toilet paper in his pocket when he went for a shower, and in December 2006 he was moved to Camp 6, a new supermax facility designed to hold the “general population” at Guantánamo (including those who have been cleared for release).

Camp 6 at Guantanamo

Camp 6. After unrest following the apparent suicide of three detainees in June 2006, the communal areas have never been used. Photo © Brennan Linsley/AP.

The conditions in Camp 6 are, bluntly, barbaric. Held in severe isolation, the detainees, in contrast to convicted criminals on the US mainland, are only allowed one book a week, are prevented from reading newspapers, watching TV or listening to the radio, and are, of course, completely cut off from their families. Mr. al-Ghizzawi explained that he was “compelled to complain to get so much as clean clothes,” and his health problems are compounded by the fact that, despite Guantánamo’s tropical heat, the solid metal cells, which “admit no natural light,” are air-conditioned and freezing cold. In addition, “the men are not provided blankets but instead are given plastic sheets that are cold and smelly.”

Just as severe is the men’s physical and mental isolation. As Candace Gorman explains, they “cannot converse with anyone … unless they kneel on the floor and attempt to shout greetings through the tiny gap where the food is pushed in,” and, as a result, Mr. al-Ghizzawi, like all the other detainees, “passes his days in tedium and loneliness.” During the July 2007 visit, he told Gorman that, “in his total isolation … he had begun talking to himself.” He added that he “recognized that this was a sign of a fraying mental state” and was “very distraught” about it.

Even if Mr. al-Ghizzawi were one of the “worst of the worst” –- say, a committed terrorist with blood on his hands –- this state of affairs would be deplorable, but as it is, the “evidence” against Mr. al-Ghizzawi, who, like all the other Guantánamo detainees, has been held for years without charge or trial, is so weak that, in his Combatant Status Review Tribunal in 2004 — those pale substitutes for justice, in which the detainees were denied representation by lawyers, and prohibited from seeing or hearing the “classified evidence” against them — his military-appointed panel declared that there was insufficient evidence to declare him an “enemy combatant,” and that he should therefore be released.

We know this because one of the members of this particular tribunal, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, spoke out last year about the systematic failings of the tribunals, deriding them as severely flawed, relying on intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” and concluding that they were designed merely to rubberstamp the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”

Writing of Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s tribunal, Lt. Col. Abraham stated, “On one occasion, I was assigned to a CSRT panel with two other officers, an Air Force Colonel and an Air Force Major, the latter understood by me to be a judge advocate. We reviewed the evidence presented to us regarding the recommended status of [Mr. al-Ghizzawi]. All of us found the information presented to lack substance.” He added, “On the basis of the paucity and weakness of the information provided both during and after the CSRT hearing, we determined that there was no factual basis for concluding that the individual should be classified as an enemy combatant.”

Lt. Col. Abraham also explained — as was backed up in October by a second whistleblower, an Army Major who had taken part in 49 tribunals –- that unfavorable decisions were overruled by those in overall charge of the operation, who then convened a second tribunal to produce the desired result, and added that this is what had happened in the case of Mr. al-Ghizzawi.

Confirming that all he said was true, Lt. Col. Abraham and his fellow tribunal members were prohibited from taking part in any more tribunals, and a second, secret tribunal was held in Washington D.C., at which it was duly decided that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was an “enemy combatant” after all. As mentioned above, this was not the only case in which an unpopular decision was reversed by the authorities, but in Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s case the implications could be fatal, perhaps fulfilling a fear that Lt. Col. Abraham expressed to me in October, when he wrote, “I am saddened by the fact that more detainees, about whom there is no evidence of involvement in terrorism, will likely die before something is done.”

That Mr. al-Ghizzawi is one of these men “about whom there is no evidence of involvement with terrorism” seems abundantly clear from a comparison of his story with the allegations compiled by the administration.

A former meteorologist, Mr. al-Ghizzawi, who was born in 1962, had been living in Afghanistan since the collapse of the last remnants of the Soviet-backed Communist regime in the early 1990s. Married to an Afghan woman, and with a daughter who was only a few months old when he was captured, he and his wife ran a shop in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where they “sold honey and spices and later expanded to include a bakery.”

In October 2001, when US forces began bombing the Jalalabad area, the family fled to the countryside, where his wife’s family lived, thinking that they would be safer there. In December, however, as news that the US authorities were paying handsome bounties for suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members, “armed men came to the home and told the family to turn over ‘the Arab.’” Fearing that his family would be harmed, Mr. al-Ghizzawi complied, and was then sold to soldiers of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who sold him on to the US forces.

US leaflet offering rewards for al-Qaeda suspects

The notorious US PsyOps leaflet offering Afghan villagers money for life in exchange for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. The text on the back reads: “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life – pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

Against Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s story, the administration has struggled to establish a coherent narrative. In his CSRT, in November 2004, all the authorities managed to come up with were claims that he was part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization opposed to the rule of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi (the former terror-backing pariah, who now, of course, is a great friend of the West), and that he had received military training at camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

By the time of his review board in September 2006, this tissue-thin Summary of Evidence had been augmented with additional material, most of which was evidently made by other detainees, either in Guantánamo or in other secret prisons. It was alleged that he had met members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and had stayed at an LIFG house in Jalalabad in 1997. Additional allegations included a claim by a “noted jihadist” that he “was a security leader for Osama bin Laden during a trip to a guest house in Jalalabad,” that “an al-Qaeda operative stated he saw the detainee several times between 2000 and 2001 in Jalalabad,” and that he “believed the detainee was in charge of a guest house for the Libyans,” and that a member of the LIFG “stated the detainee took part in the fighting in Afghanistan.”

Mr. al-Ghizzawi countered all the allegations, insisting that he was not a member of either al-Qaeda or the LIFG, denying “receiving any terrorist training or being a fighter,” and explaining that he “had gone to Pakistan originally to find work, not to fight as a jihadist.” He added that “he did not fight at all in Afghanistan and that he did not have the will to fight,” stated that he “was pressured to train as a fighter, but he refused,” and also stated that “the only support he gave the jihad was to teach the children of the mujahideen.” The most glaring contradiction in the allegations against him, however, was provided by another “al-Qaeda operative,” who stated, unambiguously, “the detainee is not a member of al-Qaeda or of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.”

After a detailed study of the statements of Lt. Col. Abraham and the other Guantánamo whistleblowers, and armed with the copious evidence I uncovered, during my research for The Guantánamo Files, of false allegations made under duress, or through bribery, by detainees against their fellow detainees, I know whose story I am inclined to believe.

What matters more, however, is that the correct venue for these allegations and counter-allegations to be tested is in a recognized court of law, not in military tribunals whose integrity has been critically undermined by former officers who served on them. Given that Chris Mackey, a former interrogator at the US prisons in Afghanistan, stated in his book The Interrogators that there was, effectively, no screening process in Afghanistan, because every Arab who ended up in US custody was automatically transferred to Guantánamo, it’s clear that the allegations not only against Mr. al-Ghizzawi, but also against the majority of other detainees still held in Guantánamo, have never been tested in any meaningful way whatsoever.

As I noted at the start of this article, however, compounding six years of lawless brutality with this latest evidence of severe medical malpractice almost beggars belief. As the Supreme Court ponders whether or not to rule that the detainees have a constitutional right to habeas corpus (after their statutory right, granted by the Supreme Court in June 2004, was taken away in 2006’s Military Commissions Act), I can only hope that this analysis of the administration’s disdain for the law and for human suffering will help the justices to rule for the detainees, and that in the meantime Mr. al-Ghizzawi does not die in Guantánamo, scorned by a corrupt administration, and neglected and abandoned by the medical profession.

For further information on the CSRTs, and on evidence obtained through torture, coercion and bribery, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on CounterPunch, the Huffington Post and AlterNet.

Style and substance: Guantánamo lawyers back Obama

The US flag at Guantanamo

Now here’s an interesting development. A close study of the front-runners in the Presidential primaries reveals that all have called for the closure of Guantánamo, with the exception of Mitt Romney, who famously declared, during a televised GOP debate last May, “I am glad [the detainees] are at Guantánamo. I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantánamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is we ought to double Guantánamo.”

Barack ObamaBoth of the Democrat front-runners –- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton –- have made a point of including plans to close the prison on their websites. Senator Obama’s site includes a commitment to restore habeas corpus to the Guantánamo detainees, and a speech he made in Washington D.C. last August, in which he declared, “in the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.”

He added, “When I am President, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again,” and made the following pledge with regard to Guantánamo, “I also will reject a legal framework that does not work. There has been only one conviction at Guantánamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was nine months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America’s courts, and I have faith in our JAGs [the military lawyers of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps]. As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”

Hillary ClintonHillary Clinton’s website also includes a prominent call for the closure of Guantánamo, although she is vaguer on the details, and, as the Miami Herald has pointed out, “she has not prominently included pledges to do it in her campaign speeches.” The following comment was made during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last April: “Guantánamo has become associated in the eyes of the world with a discredited administration policy of abuse, secrecy, and contempt for the rule of law. Rather than keeping us more secure, keeping Guantánamo open is harming our national interests. It compromises our long-term military and strategic interests, and it impairs our standing overseas. I have certainly concluded that we should address any security issues on what to do with the remaining detainees, and then close it once and for all.”

John McCainOf the Republicans, John McCain remains as opposed to the existence of Guantánamo as he is to torture, although he apparently believes in the much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission (and does not appear to have included his opposition to Guantánamo on his website). Speaking to 60 Minutes last April, he declared, “I would close Guantánamo Bay. And I would move those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth. And I would proceed with the tribunals.” He went on to explain, “Guantánamo Bay has become an image throughout the world which has hurt our reputation. Whether we deserve it or not, the reality is Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have harmed our reputation in the world, thereby harming our ability to win the psychological part of the war against radical Islamic extremism.”

Even Mike Huckabee joined in recently, explaining, after meeting a group of retired generals who were urging all the candidates to commit to opposing torture, that he supported the closure of Guantánamo. That wasn’t what he said last June, however, when he conceded that the government’s handling of Guantánamo had come to symbolize “what’s gone wrong” in the fight against terrorism, but concluded that it was better to err “on the side of protecting the American people,” adding, contentiously, that conditions for detainees in Guantánamo –- who are, of course, held without charge or trial –- were better than in US prisons on the mainland.

Talk is fine, of course, and it’s admirable, I think, that any of the candidates mentioned above would go out of their way to pledge the closure of Guantánamo, when it still, sadly, remains a marginal issue compared to the war in Iraq and the usual dominant concerns of the electorate: the economy, healthcare and education.

Given that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed their desire to close Guantánamo in no uncertain terms, it’s a tribute to the substance of Senator Obama’s involvement in the plans to shut the prison (as opposed to the oft-repeated opinion that his visionary charisma is not necessarily backed up by solid policies) that 85 lawyers for the Guantánamo detainees, including many who have become known to me during my research for The Guantánamo Files and its subsequent promotion (plus a judge and two retired rear admirals), have singled out his campaign for their endorsement, citing his “extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue,” and providing concrete examples of his commitment to closing Guantánamo once and for all.

The full text of the lawyers’ letter –- and its signatories –- is reproduced below.

HABEAS LAWYERS SUPPORT OBAMA

January 28, 2008

Dear Friends:

We are at a critical point in the Presidential campaign, and as lawyers who have been deeply involved in the Guantánamo litigation to preserve the important right to habeas corpus, we are writing to urge you to support Senator Obama.

The Administration’s Guantánamo policies have undercut our values at home and stained our reputation around the world. All of us are lawyers who have worked on the Guantánamo habeas corpus litigation for many years, some of us since early 2002, and we were all deeply involved in opposing the Administration’s attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s Rasul decision by stripping the courts of jurisdiction to hear the Guantánamo cases. We have talked with Senator Obama about why the Guantánamo litigation is so significant, and we have worked closely with Senator Obama in the fight to preserve habeas corpus.

Some politicians are all talk and no action. But we know from first-hand experience that Senator Obama has demonstrated extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue. When others stood back, Senator Obama helped lead the fight in the Senate against the Administration’s efforts in the Fall of 2006 to strip the courts of jurisdiction, and when we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough Senators to beat back the Administration’s bill, Senator Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us. Senator Obama worked with us to count the votes, and he personally lobbied colleagues who worried about the political ramifications of voting to preserve habeas corpus for the men held at Guantánamo. He has understood that our strength as a nation stems from our commitment to our core values, and that we are strong enough to protect both our security and those values. Senator Obama demonstrated real leadership then and since, continuing to raise Guantánamo and habeas corpus in his speeches and in the debates.

The writ of habeas corpus dates to the Magna Carta, and was enshrined by the Founders in our Constitution. The Administration’s attack on habeas corpus rights is dangerous and wrong. America needs a President who will not triangulate this issue. We need a President who will restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community. Based on our work with him, we are convinced that Senator Obama can do this because he truly feels these issues “in his bones.”

We urge you to support Senator Obama.

We encourage you to forward this message to anyone who might be interested.

Gary A. Isaac (Chicago, Illinois)
Elizabeth P. Gilson (New Haven, Connecticut)
Joshua Colangelo Bryan (New York, New York)
Thomas B. Wilner (Washington, DC)
Ismail Alsheik (Chicago, Illinois)
Diane Marie Amann (Berkeley, California)
Elizabeth Arora (Washington, DC)
Baher Azmy (Brooklyn, New York)
Scott Barker (Denver, Colorado)
Douglas Behr (Potomac, Maryland)
G. Michael Bellinger (Glen Ridge, New Jersey)
Amanda Shafer Berman (Washington, DC)
Catherine A. Bernard (Chicago, Illinois)
Carolyn Patty Blum (New York, New York)
Patricia A. Bronte (Chicago, Illinois)
Carol Elder Bruce (McLean, Virginia)
Charles Carpenter (Washington, DC)
Jennifer Ching (Brooklyn, New York)
George M. Clarke (Washington, DC)
Jerry Cohen (Boston, Massachusetts)
John J. Connolly (Baltimore, Maryland)
David J. Cynamon (Chevy Chase, Maryland)
Joshua W. Denbeaux (Westwood, New Jersey)
Mark P. Denbeaux (Newark, New Jersey)
James Dorsey (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Rebecca Dick (Arlington, Virginia)
Wells Dixon (New York, New York)
Heather Lewis Donnell (Chicago, Illinois)
Buz Eisenberg (Ashfield, Massachusetts)
Marc Falkoff (Chicago, Illinois)
Tina Monshipour Foster (Queens, New York)
Murray Fogler (Houston, Texas)
Matthew Freimuth (New York, New York)
Hon. John J. Gibbons (Newark, New Jersey)
Jared Goldstein (Providence, Rhode Island)
R. David Gratz (Westwood, New Jersey)
Eldon Greenberg (Washington, DC)
Dean Donald J. Guter, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Gitanjali Gutierrez (Ithaca, New York)
Jonathan Hafetz (Brooklyn, New York)
Osman A. Handoo (Falls Church, Virginia)
Sarah Havens (New York, New York)
Gaillard T. Hunt (Silver Spring, Maryland)
Kristine Huskey (Austin, Texas)
Varda Hussain (Arlington, Virginia)
Dean John D. Hutson, Rear Admiral, JAGC, USN (Ret.)
(Concord, New Hampshire)
Thomas R. Johnson (Portland, Oregon)
Stephen J. Kane (Chicago, Illinois)
Zachary Katznelson (San Francisco, California)
Michael Y. Kieval (Bethesda, Maryland)
Daniel Kirschner (New York, New York)
Jan Kitchel (Portland, Oregon)
Eric Lewis (Bethesda, Maryland)
Ellen Lubell (Newton, Massachusetts)
Lawrence S. Lustberg (Newark, New Jersey)
J. Triplett Mackintosh (Denver, Colorado)
Emi MacLean (New York, New York)
Brian D. Maddox (Brooklyn, New York)
Neil McGaraghan (Boston, Massachusetts)
Brent Mickum (Bethesda, Maryland)
Nicole M. Moen (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Daniel P. Moylan (Baltimore, Maryland)
Richard G. Murphy, Jr. (Washington, DC)
William J. Murphy (Baltimore, Maryland)
Brian J. Neff (South Orange, New Jersey)
Stephen H. Oleskey (Boston, Massachusetts)
Charles H.R. Peters (Chicago, Illinois)
Kit A. Pierson (Washington, DC)
Jason Pinney (Boston, Massachusetts)
Wesley R. Powell (New York, New York)
Robert D. Rachlin (Burlington, Vermont)
Jana Ramsey (Brooklyn, New York)
Michael Ratner (New York, New York)
David H. Remes (Silver Spring, Maryland)
Jeffrey D. Robinson (Laurel, Maryland)
Brent Rushforth (Washington, DC)
James C. Schroeder (Chicago, Illinois)
Jessica Sherman (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Michael J. Sternhell (Brooklyn, New York)
Jeffrey M. Strauss (Chicago, Illinois)
Mark Sullivan (Bedford Hills, New York)
Danielle R. Voorhees (Denver, Colorado)
Vincent Warren (New York, New York)
Carolyn Welshhans (Arlington, Virginia)
P. Sabin Willett (Boston, Massachusetts)
Jill M. Williamson (Takoma Park, Maryland)
Elizabeth A. Wilson (Washington, DC)
Jeff Wu (Rockville, Maryland)

For further information, contact Gary A. Isaac at (312) 701-7025.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this article was published on the Huffington Post.

The Guantánamo Files and Jose Padilla: We The People interviews Andy Worthington

The Guantanamo FilesYesterday evening, I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Karen Kwiatkowski for the first hour of her “American Forum” show on We The People Radio Network (WTPRN), which is available here (it’s the show listed “Mon., January 28, 2008,” available here as an MP3).

In a wide-ranging discussion, Karen and I talked in detail about my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and in particular about the failures of intelligence that led to so many innocent men being detained. We also talked about the responsibility of senior government figures, including Vice President Dick Cheney, his advisor David Addington, and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for the systematic torture that was implemented at Guantánamo between 2002 and 2004.

While pointing out the valiant attempts by senior officials, including Alberto J. Mora, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), to resist the introduction of torture as official, if semi-covert government policy, I had the opportunity to explain that, in effect, it resembled nothing less than the witch hunts of centuries past. The administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” –- torture by any definition other than the deliberately narrow one chosen by the administration –- were introduced in a horrendously misguided attempt to produce “actionable intelligence” from detainees who, for the most part, had nothing to offer, as they had mostly been sold to US forces by their Afghan and Pakistani allies for substantial bounty payments. The witch-hunt analogy is particularly appropriate because, when detainees had nothing to offer and proclaimed their innocence, it was presumed that they had been trained by al-Qaeda to resist interrogation.

We also spoke about the recent sentencing of Jose Padilla, and its potentially horrendous implications for the rights of all US citizens, and Karen read out an excerpt from my article, Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans, which had inspired her to get in touch with me in the first place.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim

Adel Abdul HakimAdel Abdul Hakim, an ethnic Uighur, is one of five former Guantánamo detainees from China, who were cleared of all wrongdoing after a military review board, but who could not be repatriated because of fears that they would be tortured on their return. After trawling the world looking for countries that would accept former Guantánamo detainees, the US State Department could find only one –- Albania –- that was prepared to help them.

In May 2006, Mr. Hakim and the other four men were freed from Guantánamo and sent to a UN refugee camp in Albania’s capital, Tirana, where, as I reported here, they were grateful for their freedom, but had struggled to establish a new life, as there was no Uighur community, no work and no prospect of being reunited with their families.

In November 2007, as I reported exclusively here, Mr. Hakim was granted a visa to visit Sweden, to speak at a human rights conference and to visit his sister, who had also fled repression in China, and is a recognized refugee in Sweden. He promptly applied for asylum in Sweden, where, in addition to the presence of his sister and her children, there is a sizeable Uighur community.

The following letter, compiled by a number of lawyers and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve, has just been sent to the Swedish government in support of Mr. Hakim’s asylum claim.

I reproduce it in full, as it lucidly explains why Sweden fulfils the United Nations’ requirements for the treatment of refugees more adequately than Albania, and why Mr. Hakim’s application should be accepted. The letter’s authors also suggest that, as a country with “a commitment to the torture prohibition and the rule of law,” Sweden is ideally placed to accept the other four Uighur detainees in Albania, and hint that Sweden may also have a key role to play in providing new homes for other cleared detainees in Guantánamo.

As many as 70 cleared detainees (including another 17 Uighurs) remain in Guantánamo, and their presence remains a major obstacle to the closure of the prison. Whoever steps in to help the Americans with this intractable problem (which they are unwilling to do themselves, by providing asylum to cleared detainees on the US mainland) will, presumably, be well regarded by the US administration, and will also be able to view themselves, unequivocally, as a major champion of human rights.

January 25, 2008

Mr. Dan Eliasson
Director General
Migrationsverket
601 70 NORRKÖPING
Sweden

Dear Mr. Eliasson,

We, the undersigned nongovernmental organizations, are writing in support of the application of Adel Abdul Hakim for a residence permit on humanitarian grounds in Sweden. Our organizations respectfully request that the Swedish Migration Board evaluate the totality of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Hakim’s claim for resettlement and consider that the rights of recognized refugees, the right to family reunification, and the prohibition against torture so clearly implicated in his case strongly favour a positive decision on his application.

Refugee Status

Adel Hakim is a recognized refugee. He is an ethnic Uighur who was persecuted in China and fled that country due to increasingly repressive actions by the Chinese authorities targeting Uighurs in the aftermath of a February 1997 demonstration in Ghulja. He was imprisoned in China in 1997 and again in 1998, and was tortured and ill-treated both times. After fleeing China in 1999, Mr. Hakim traveled to Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, arriving in Afghanistan in 2001. In October 2001, the village where he was staying was bombed, and he fled with a group of Uighur men back to Pakistan. Members of that group, including Mr. Hakim, were handed over to the Pakistani authorities in December 2001. They later learned that a bounty per head had been paid to local tribesmen for their capture.

The Uighurs were detained briefly by the Pakistani army and were interrogated by US personnel in civilian clothing. Subsequently, they were handed over to the custody of US forces and flown to Afghanistan. The Uighurs remained in military detention in Kandahar until June 2002 when they were transferred to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. During the entire time he was held at Guantánamo, Mr. Hakim was not permitted to phone or to speak directly with any of his family members. He was in complete isolation from his family and the outside world, with the exception of his US-based lawyer, Sabin Willett.

In March 2005, a Combatant Status Review Tribunal ruled that Adel Hakim was not an enemy combatant. The US government determined that he could not be repatriated to China due to the risk of torture upon return. On May 5, 2006, Adel Hakim and four other Uighurs were transferred to Albania, which had agreed to offer protection to the men. Adel Hakim was granted asylum by the Albanian government in July 2006.

Mr. Hakim secured a visa to travel to Sweden to attend a human rights conference in November 2007. Upon arrival, he submitted an application to the Swedish Migration Board seeking permission to remain in Sweden and be permanently reunited with his sister, who is his only relative outside of China and a political refugee residing in Sweden.

Mr. Hakim learned subsequently that two of his wife’s brothers had died since he fled China. His brother-in-law, Abdumijit Abdurahman, was executed in China in 2001 at age 29. A second brother-in-law, Abduhalil Abdurahman, died in a Chinese prison in 2007 at age 41 from lack of adequate medical attention.

Local Integration Prospects

Adel Hakim was released from Guantánamo Bay and sent to Albania without the knowledge of his lawyer and without any choice regarding the country to which he would be transferred. Given the risk of return to China, he had no other option but to apply for asylum in Albania.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) outlines three scenarios that signal a “durable solution” for a refugee: voluntary repatriation, local integration into the country of refuge, or resettlement in a third country. As noted above, it is impossible for Mr. Hakim to be repatriated as he will be at risk of persecution, including torture and other ill-treatment, in China. The US and Albanian governments have openly acknowledged that risk.

While the Albanian government has generously provided Mr. Hakim with legal protection, its capacity to ensure him meaningful local integration in Albania is extremely poor. According to the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook (2004), resettlement as a durable solution must be accompanied by meaningful prospects for local integration, characterized in part by access to work that provides a living wage; education; fundamental medical (including necessary psychological) services; property; and family support or the support of a similarly situated refugee community.

Mr. Hakim’s prospects for meaningful integration in Albania are poor to non-existent for the following reasons, well-documented in his formal application:

· There is no significant refugee population in Albania, and thus extremely limited infrastructure, services, and support for Mr. Hakim;
· No Uighur community exists in Albania, nor is there a significant, similarly situated refugee community to offer long-term, culturally appropriate social support;
· Mr. Hakim has no family members in Albania, and there is no realistic possibility that his wife and children, currently under surveillance in China, will be able to join him in Albania;
· Besides Mr. Hakim’s four compatriots, there are no Uighur-speakers in Albania, and no Uighur interpreters who regularly work there;
· Mr. Hakim’s attempts to learn Albanian have failed due to problems with retaining and adequately paying language teachers;
· Mr. Hakim’s prospects for continuing his education or attending vocational school are poor, particularly given the language deficit;
· Mr. Hakim is unemployed in Albania and, given dire economic conditions in that country, his prospects for employment are extremely poor;
· No consistent counselling and/or mental health services for torture victims are available in any language in Albania, let alone in the Uighur language.

We believe that Mr. Hakim’s situation in Albania, characterized by the lack of opportunities and genuine obstacles to integration detailed above, qualify him for resettlement in a country that not only will provide him with refuge from persecution, but with the cultural, social, educational, and economic support essential for him to lead a full life.

Family Reunification and Refugee Community Support

A key indicator of meaningful integration in the country of refuge is family support and integration into the refugee community. If it can be concluded that family or community support is absent, then resettlement to a country where such support is available should be considered (UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, Section 4.9.2.3(d)).

Adel Hakim’s wife and children remain in China. There is no prospect for Mr. Hakim to be reunited with them in Albania. The only family that Mr. Hakim has left outside China is his sister, Kavser Hakamjan and her family, who currently reside in Sundbyberg, a suburb of Stockholm. Ms. Hakamjan is a refugee in Sweden. She thought for many years that her brother was dead and was shocked and relieved to discover that he was alive and at Guantánamo Bay.

In recent years, UNHCR has encouraged governments to expand the criteria for family reunification, recognizing that the principle of “dependency” underpinning familial relations should lead to “flexible and expansive family reunification criteria that are culturally sensitive and situation specific” (UNHCR Background Note: Family Reunification in the Context of Resettlement and Integration, June 2001):

“[R]efugee families are often reconstructed out of remnants of various households, who depend on each other for mutual support and survival. These families may not fit neatly into preconceived notions of a nuclear family (husband, wife and minor children) … A broad definition of a family unit – what may be termed an extended family – is necessary to accommodate the peculiarities in any given refugee situation” (Ibid., I.1.c).

An expanded notion of what constitutes a family has also been acknowledged by the European Union as reflected in the Council Directive on the Right to Family Reunification (2003; entry into force October 3, 2005). The directive permits member states to authorize the entry and residence of “first-degree relatives in the direct ascending line of the sponsor … where they are dependent on them and do not enjoy proper family support in the country of origin” (Ibid., article 4.2.a).

Adel Hakim has no family outside China other than his sister and her family in Sweden. Moreover, there is a sizeable Uighur community in and around Stockholm that numbers over 500 and actively engages its members in a culturally appropriate manner with various forms of social, emotional, and economic support.

The “peculiarities” of Mr. Hakim’s situation are evident in the details of his flight from China and the odyssey that led to his incarceration at Guantánamo Bay, his arrival in Albania, and his presence now in Sweden. He is totally dependent on his sister and her family for social and emotional support, and on the Uighur community in Sweden for various forms of ongoing community support.

Torture Victims and Treatment Issues

Mr. Hakim is currently the recipient of services from the Swedish Red Cross Centre for Torture Victims. His engagement with the Centre reflects the need for psychological counselling with a view to rehabilitation for the abuses he suffered in China and during his detention at Guantánamo Bay.

It is well-established, in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law, and taking account of individual circumstances, that victims of serious human rights violations, including torture, should be provided, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, with reparations, including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition and prevention. (United Nations, Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, 2005).

While the prospects of Mr. Hakim receiving reparation in the form of compensation from either the Chinese or US governments are virtually nil, he is currently in the care of a world-class torture rehabilitation centre in Sweden. No such centre exists in Albania and even routine psychological services, not geared to the specific needs of torture victims, are few.

Resettlement of former Guantánamo Bay Detainees

A number of European governments, including the Swedish government, have stated that it is primarily the responsibility of the US to offer resettlement on the US mainland to those detainees at Guantánamo Bay who cannot be repatriated to their home countries due to their fear of risk of torture and ill-treatment upon return. Our organizations believe that the US government should close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay immediately and in principle agree that the US should offer protection in the US to those detainees who fear torture and ill-treatment if repatriated.

The practical reality, however, is that the US government has indicated that no detainee will be transferred to the mainland and that none will be offered asylum or any other form of protection. The detainees themselves thus become pawns in a stalemate: they cannot go home for fear of abuse, but no country will commit to offering them resettlement.

Three former Guantanamo detainees in Albania

Ahmed Adil, Adel Abdul Hakim and Abu Bakr Qassim, three of the Uyghurs released from Guantánamo, speaking to the BBC from Tirana in January 2007.

Such a “no win” situation requires that governments with a commitment to the torture prohibition and the rule of law step up and in the spirit of their dedication to human rights offer protection to vulnerable Guantánamo Bay detainees cleared for release and, as in the present case, to those former detainees in Albania who cannot be integrated in a meaningful way into the local community. In particular, detainees and former detainees with a family or other link to a specific country should be considered for resettlement in that country.

In the case of Adel Hakim, whose sister is a recognized refugee in Sweden, that link is clear.

Conclusion

Sweden can reaffirm its compassion as well as its commitment to the torture prohibition and the rule of law by acknowledging the injustices that Adel Hakim has suffered and permitting him to settle in Sweden, reunite with his family, receive treatment, and generally enjoy the support of the Uighur community.

Sincerely,

AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe), London
Amnesty International – Swedish Section, Stockholm
Center for Constitutional Rights, New York
Human Rights Watch, New York
International Commission of Jurists, Geneva
Fédération Internationale des ligues des Droits de l’Homme, Paris
Redress, London
Reprieve, London
Swedish Helsinki Committee, Stockholm
Swedish Network of Refugee and Asylum Support Groups, Stockholm

For more on the plight of the Uighurs, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía

Road From Ar RamadiEvery war produces its own iconic protestors. Vietnam, for example, had Ron Kovic, disabled in combat, and part of the campaigning group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, whose memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, was eventually made into a movie by Oliver Stone. One day, if the United States ever gets to look back on the occupation of Iraq, rather then being embroiled in a seemingly endless calamity of its own making, the story of Camilo Mejía, the Iraq war’s first conscientious objector, may also get the Hollywood treatment.

An immigrant from Nicaragua, Mejía, like many immigrants, joined the US army shortly after arriving in the United States in 1994, at the age of 19, and after working in a succession of badly-paid menial jobs with which he attempted to put himself through college. “The army,” he explains, “offered financial stability and college tuition, two benefits that seemed tough to find anywhere else.” He also felt that the military “held out the promise of helping me claim my place in the world.”

After three and a half years of active duty service in the infantry, mostly at Fort Hood in Texas, Mejía decided to return to college. It was only at this point that he was informed that anyone entering the military actually signs up for eight years’ service. After three years of active duty service, the remainder can be served in the regular army, or in the Reserves or the National Guard, but “soldiers are always subject to being called back to active duty until the eight-year contract is fulfilled.”

Mejía signed up with the Florida National Guard, returned to college, and had a daughter, Samantha, who was born in 2000, although the relationship with her mother did not last long. He explains that, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, his feelings about the military had “changed radically.” Although he still regarded the army as family, and was familiar with “the lifestyle, the food, the mentality, the discipline and structure, the language, and even the sense of humor,” he had become disappointed by the manner in which the system “preyed on the vulnerability of people, exploiting their lack of options to get them to sign up, and subsequently tied them into service with the promise of benefits that were just around the corner.”

It was then, just months before his contract expired, that the Florida National Guard was “activated in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Shockingly, as he explains, “Those of us who were due to get out of the military soon had just been extended until the year 2031,” following a “stop-loss order” passed by Congress.

In Kuwait, as he prepared to be deployed to Iraq, Mejía was forced to put aside his misgivings –- that the government had not “made a strong case for military action,” that there was no proven connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and that the war “had more to do with oil and geopolitical power than with defense of the United States” –- and to ignore his wish that he had had the courage to express his “doubts about participating in a war that I believed was unjustified.”

His company –- in which he was a platoon squad leader –- was flown to the ruins of Baghdad’s international airport, and after a brief deployment to al-Assad, an air base near the capital, they ended up in ar-Ramadi, a city in the heart of the Sunni triangle. Six of the book’s 13 chapters deal with what happened over the following months to turn a skeptical soldier into a full-blown opponent of the war.

As a portrait of the realities of combat –- punctuated by the development of Mejía’s inner journey –- this, the heart of the book, provides a grim and powerful indictment of the conflicts (which are supposed to be suppressed at all costs) between the bonding of soldiers at risk of death and their obligation to fulfil orders, and the often ludicrous demands placed upon them by their superiors.

As the narrative unfolds, Mejía vividly brings to life the often conflicting personalities of the soldiers, the futility of their mission –- largely composed of road blocks, security details and foot patrols –- and, in particular, the increasingly dangerous intransigence of their commanders, whose lack of vision –- and desire for glory –- led them to subject their men to avoidable danger, resulting in the deaths of several soldiers. As Mejía notes, “We continued to stay longer than we should in a single place and made it easy for the enemy to predict our movements by following the same routes over and over. It was as if our leadership was trying to get us attacked.”

US Marines on patrol in Ar-Ramadi, 2006

US Marines on patrol in ar-Ramadi, 2006. Photo: Todd Pitman/AP file.

Largely absent –- to Mejía’s dismay –- are the Iraqis themselves, dismissed as “hajjis” by many of his overtly racist colleagues, and mostly encountered as ciphers at checkpoints and in house raids. Mejía was fascinated by Iraqi culture, but was aware, from his limited meaningful contact with Iraqi civilians, that the joys of liberation had rapidly turned to ashes. “Even those who had been initially happy to see the US military’s arrival and who despised Saddam were now saying it was time for Americans to leave Iraq,” he notes, as the insurgency rises.

What distressed him even more, however, was his complicity in the death and destruction of war. Numerous grim events are described, including the soldier mocking the corpse of a dead Iraqi, shot during one of the book’s many violent confrontations, as his relatives, hooded and bound, were unloaded off a truck, within earshot of this vile humiliation, and the “mistaken killing of civilians,” which, over time, “ceased to arouse much interest or even comment.”

Also included are chilling examples of Mejía’s own actions under pressure. On one occasion, at a road block, in a homicidal trance induced by fear, he was only prevented from shooting dead a wounded, unarmed civilian in a car because a colleague intervened. On another occasion, which comes to haunt him, he struggles to recall whether he shot another man in a car:

“I don’t remember his face. I fired at him but he was probably dead by then. It was an automatic decision –- I did not tell my body to point the rifle at him and squeeze the trigger; it just happened. He was meters away from me, and I shot him, knowing just that he was guilty. Of what? I don’t know, of being shot, perhaps. How come I don’t remember his face? He was so close. I just don’t remember it. No images, none at all? Yes, there is an image, the image of a very brief moment. Flesh. Yes, flesh and blood. It wasn’t a face; it was the flesh and blood of what once was his face. He was dead when I shot at him. He must have been dead, he had to be. He was dead.”

After this fraught journey to self-awareness, Mejía’s transformation into a resolute pacifist occurred when he was granted leave, ostensibly to sort out his status. As a US resident, rather than a citizen, he was supposed to be discharged from the military because his residency was about to come to an end, but the army was dismissive of the rules, and insisted –- while dangling the possibility of citizenship before him –- that he returned to Iraq after his leave was over.

Initially paralyzed by a kind of existential inertia, Mejía missed his flight back to Iraq, and then made his way to New York, where his new life –- as a prominent critic of the war, who would have to face a court-martial for his actions –- crystallized in the offices of Citizen Soldier, an anti-war organization run by Tod Ensign, a lawyer whose roots lay in the resistance to the Vietnam war. “As soon as I spoke with Tod,” Mejía writes, “the door to a new world opened up before my eyes. I went from feeling powerless and alone to realizing that there was a whole network of people and groups, from women’s rights organizations and antiwar veterans to military families and religious groups, who all felt as I did about the war.” Ensign, in turn, introduced Mejía to Louis Font, a West Point graduate who had refused to serve in Vietnam and had “accused US Army generals of war crimes against the people of Vietnam.”

For five months, with the help of Ensign, Font, activists from Military Families Speak Out, and Lewis Randa, a conscientious objector from the Vietnam war who had founded an extraordinary retreat called the Peace Abbey in Massachusetts, Mejía lived an underground life, conducting media interviews anonymously. In these, as he gained ever greater exposure, he explained his decision to resist what he described as a “criminal, illegitimate war for empire.”

In March 2004, at a press conference at the Peace Abbey, Mejía gave a brief speech, declaring that he was a conscientious objector, and that the war in Iraq was “oil-motivated,” and, after explaining that “if you want to support the troops, you cannot support the war,” he handed himself in to the military at a nearby army base, where he was held for two months before his court-martial for desertion.

This, it transpired, was a farce, stacked in favour of the prosecution, in which Mejía was prevented from expounding fully on the reasons for his resistance to the war. Although he was convicted, however, the maximum sentence available to the court was one year in prison. “As I walked out of the courthouse,” he explains, “I was not sad or bitter, nor was I afraid. Instead, I experienced a deep sense of empowerment on that beautiful day.”

This measured account of one soldier’s journey to redemption is required reading not only for committed peace activists, but also for anyone prepared to acknowledge the sometimes considerable tension between a soldier’s requirement to obey orders, and his or her doubts about doing so. Camilo Mejía crossed a line –- a critically important line, I believe, which involved betraying the military to protest against an unjust and illegal war –- but in doing so he stood up unequivocally for justice.

Curiously, however, the elements of the book that have lived on with me the most do not concern the anti-combat narrative that drives it forward. The first –- unconnected with Iraq –- concerns Mejía’s own background, as the son of prominent Sandinista activists in Nicaragua, who resisted the US-backed Contras. This alone illuminated for me an essential conflict within the United States. On the one hand, I was impressed yet again by the country’s openness, accepting refugees from all backgrounds, but on the other hand I was also aware, as was Mejía, of how many are then funnelled into the military as cannon fodder.

The second concerns Mejía’s experiences at al-Assad, the air base he visited before his deployment to ar-Ramadi, where he witnessed the everyday abuse of Iraqi prisoners –- referred to, of course, as “enemy combatants” –- who had, for the most part, been picked up in random raids. In scenes that are shockingly familiar from the research I conducted for my book The Guantánamo Files, in which the Guantánamo detainees described their treatment in US-run prisons in Afghanistan, the Iraqis, hooded, bound, and initially held naked, were subjected to sleep deprivation as a matter of course, were yelled at incessantly (without even the assistance of a translator), and were subjected to mock executions, as guns were held to their heads.

A suspected Iraqi insurgent

A suspected “enemy combatant” in Iraq, hooded and bound.

Just as familiar, sadly, are the pathetic excuses for “intelligence” that were used to justify the men’s imprisonment. In a passage that could have come straight out of The Interrogator’s War, a book by Chris Mackey, a former US interrogator in Afghanistan, who was critical of the unaccountable actions of the CIA and Special Forces, an interrogator wondered why a particular group of prisoners was being held. “Were there any weapons in their belongings?” he asked. “I don’t know,” came the reply. “The guys who dropped them off didn’t give us anything, no belongings, no paperwork, not even an explanation; they just dumped them and left.”

Another man was detained because he was “caught with a sniper rifle.” “Of course, he claims to be a shepherd, and that he needed the rifle to protect his sheep from thieves,” a soldier told Mejía. “He says he loves America. But, you know, they all got a story, and they all fucking love America.” As Mejía notes, “Later in the deployment we learned that most Iraqis own rifles and pistols, often from the decade-long war with Iran,” adding, with considerable restraint, that it “took awhile before the US military stopped viewing every Iraqi who possessed a weapon as an armed insurgent.” The same process, I can confirm, also took place in Afghanistan, and, for many men, led inexorably to Guantánamo.

One of the notorious images from the Abu Ghraib scandal

Dogs and forced nudity: “setting the conditions” for interrogation in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

With up to 20,000 “enemy combatants” imprisoned in US prisons in Iraq –- and many tens of thousands more who have been subjected to similar treatment –- it’s hard to see an end to an insurgency that is so often blamed on anything other than American injustice and incompetence. As well as describing an important personal odyssey, Camilo Mejía’s account of his journey from war to peace also shines a light on the wider failures in the conduct of the “War on Terror.”

Road From Ar Ramadi, by Camilo Mejía, is published by The New Press.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Nth Position.

For other articles on Iraq, see Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

For articles on Abu Ghraib, see Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007),  Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal) (July 2008), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 2009).

Sudanese ex-Guantánamo detainees demand release of fellow citizens and compensation for “mental and physical torture”

From Sudan, Reuters reports on a conference held in the capital, Khartoum, to demand the release of seven Sudanese detainees still held in Guantánamo. Organized by local human rights groups, the conference’s speakers included the wife of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who is still held in the much-criticized prison, and several released Sudanese detainees, who also “demanded cash payouts and an apology from the United States” for the “mental and physical torture” they suffered during their imprisonment.

Adel Hamad and Salim Adem

Adel Hassan Hamad and Salim Muhood Adem, after their release. They are standing in front of posters showing some of the other Sudanese detainees still held in Guantánamo. Photo © Mohamed Nureldin Abdalla, Reuters.

“We have asked for compensation and an apology,” aid worker Adel Hassan Hamad told the conference, adding that his American lawyers would seek compensation in the US courts, and that two other former detainees were also seeking compensation. Released in December, Mr. Hamad, whose story was explained at length here, wore orange overalls to identify his sympathy with those still held in Guantánamo. Unknown to me, until this article was published, was the distressing news that one of his daughters had died during his imprisonment because his wife could not afford medical treatment.

Sami al-HajAs reported by Reuters, many of those attending the conference “broke down in tears” when addressed by Aygol Ismailova, the Azerbaijani wife of Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj, whose story was reported here –- accompanied by his latest letter from Guantánamo. Mr. al-Haj has been on hunger strike for nearly 400 days, and, like all the other hunger strikers in Guantánamo, is force-fed twice a day in a manner that, as described by his lawyer, is “tantamount to torture.”

His wife, as Reuters explained, “wept as she told the gathering how [her husband] has been urinating blood and [is] suffering from other health problems.” She added, “His son Mohamed always asks me, ‘Where is my father? Who took him? What is prison? What do they do there?’ And I don’t know how to answer him. Do people know that I have no way to contact my husband other than letters that reach him late and are censored? For more than six years I’ve not heard his voice, not seen him. This is torture.”

She also said that all the Guantánamo detainees deserved compensation and an apology, and, in the only upbeat moment of the whole speech, noted that Sudanese government officials had told her that they hoped that her husband would be released by the end of March.

Adel Hamad and another former Guantánamo detainee set up mock prison cells in the conference hall to demonstrate the cramped conditions in which they were held. Repeating claims familiar from other released detainees, Mr. Hamad explained, “Often they’d leave prisoners tied up in very, very cold rooms and refuse to allow them to go to the bathroom so they’d wet themselves.” Speaking of his imprisonment in Afghanistan, before he was transferred to Guantánamo, he added, “I was beaten, made to stand for long periods of time, deprived of sleep for three nights.”

13 Sudanese detainees have been held at Guantánamo. Two were released in April 2004, one in July 2005, and another two –- Adel Hamad and Salim Adem, another aid worker –- in December 2007. None of the seven men who remain –- including Sami al-Haj –- has been cleared for release, but it is to be hoped that some, at least, will be released during the course of this year. As Mr. Hamad’s lawyers have explained, both their client and Mr. Adem had been cleared for release in November 2005, but remained at Guantánamo for another two years because of inexplicable stonewalling on the part of the US State Department.

With this obstacle now, hopefully, overcome, it is clearly time for some of the other Sudanese detainees to be repatriated. Only one of the seven –- Ibrahim al-Qosi –- has ever been formally charged. Regarded as a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, al-Qosi was put forward for trial by Military Commission in July 2003. The charges were dropped when the Commissions were judged to be illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, but Congress reestablished the Commissions in the Military Commissions Act in autumn 2006, and it is expected that the charges against al-Qosi will be reinstated.

For more on the Sudanese detainees in Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

BBC torture experiment replicates Guantánamo and secret prisons: how to lose your mind in 48 hours

On Tuesday, the BBC screened a Horizon programme, Total Isolation, which sought to recreate a controversial sensory deprivation experiment that was conducted 40 years ago. In a series of isolation cells, constructed in a former nuclear bunker in Hertfordshire, a group of six volunteers –- three left alone in dark, sound-proofed rooms, the other three in goggles and foam cuffs, with white noise piped into their ears –- were monitored to see what effect 48 hours of sensory deprivation would have on their mental and physical health.

Images from the BBC programme

Images from the BBC programme.

Professor Ian Robbins, head of trauma psychology at St George’s Hospital, Tooting, who has treated some of the British Guantánamo detainees and other victims of torture who come to the UK from around the world, oversaw the experiments, and stated, “It is important to look at the impact of sensory deprivation because of the number of places around the world where it is used as a weapon or to aid interrogation. We know that stimulating the brain helps increase connections in the brain that speeds up information processing, but we wanted to find out if the reverse occurs.”

Professor Robbins and his team were aware that the risks involved in the experiment were considerable. When it was carried out in the 1950s, by Canadian psychologist Professor Donald Hebb, it had to be abandoned after 48 hours, because the volunteers were unable to endure the conditions for a longer period of time. One subject described the sensory deprivation as being “as bad as anything Hitler had ever done to any of his victims,” and afterwards Professor Hebb reported that the “very identity” of his subjects had begun to disintegrate within two days.

One of the volunteers for the Panorama programme was comedian Adam Bloom, who explained, “I’m a very busy person, with a mind that is always racing with thoughts and ideas. My job involves coming up with new jokes all the time and I work by constantly observing my surroundings for anything that I could use on stage. I reckoned 48 hours wasn’t that long and I was sure I could cope.”

What happened instead came as a shock to the comedian. “I spent the first half an hour in the bunker talking, singing and making jokes, but that quickly got boring. So, I took to sitting on my bed, staring in front of me,” he told the Daily Mail. “My mind filled up with thoughts of my life outside, and I started to worry about my fiancée and family. What if something happened to them while I’m in here? Would anyone let me know? It didn’t take me long to feel more anxious that I usually would.”

Within a few hours, Bloom fell asleep, but when he woke up, he realized that the familiar anchors of reality had deserted him. “In the absence of a watch or sunlight, I’d totally lost track of time,” he said. “I dozed on and off for what I thought was a few hours, but when I woke up I had no idea whether it was day or night. It was really unnerving. Even eating the meals I was handed didn’t help me reset my body clock. I felt horrendously bored, and completely out of touch with everything.”

Just 18 hours after entering the bunker, Bloom began experiencing paranoia. “At one point, I started singing and then I burst into tears,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I cried, and I felt my emotions were beginning to run out of control. Then, I found myself suspecting the whole experiment was a trick. How did I know who these people really were? What if they’d gone home and I was trapped down there forever? I knew I was being ridiculous, because setting up the experiment had taken months and involved lengthy meetings and e-mails, but I couldn’t shake the sense of paranoia.”

After 24 hours, Bloom felt that his brainpower was flagging. “Without light,” he explained, “it was almost impossible to stimulate myself and my brain felt as though it was going to sleep.” By 30 hours, he responded by pacing his room endlessly in a bid to keep himself occupied, prompting Professor Robbins to comment, “This behaviour is often seen in animals, as well as people, when they are kept in confinement. It’s a way of providing input into your life physically.”

Finally, after 40 hours, Bloom began to hallucinate. He said that he saw a pile of 500 oyster shells, and described them in detail. “I could see the pearly sheen on the oyster shells as clear as day,” he explained, adding, “Then I felt as though the room was taking off from underneath me. For the first time, I realized that the lack of stimulation was driving me close to insanity. I felt nothing but numbness, as though I was losing the will to live. I considered pulling out, but I told myself that at least I could comfort myself with the thought that my ordeal was soon going to be over. Some prisoners have had to endure these conditions for months, or even years.”

Artist Barney Ashton, one of the volunteers

Artist Barney Ashton, one of the six volunteers. Two other volunteers experienced hallucinations, according to the BBC. Mickey, a postman, was frightened when he saw mosquitoes and fighter planes buzzing around his head, and Claire, a psychology student, didn’t mind the little cars, snakes and zebras, but was scared when she suddenly felt that somebody else was in the room.

Unlike most reality shows, “Total Isolation” at least had a valid point to make, and it is, I think, tremendously important that the terrible effects of sensory deprivation can be demonstrated, on mainstream TV, in the space of just 48 hours. When Bloom undertook psychological tests, after the experiment ended, the results showed that his ability to process information had been impaired, that his memory had been reduced, and, perhaps most significantly, given the programme makers’ stated intent to compare their experiment with the suffering endured by those facing “enhanced interrogation,” his suggestibility had increased.

I hope that the show was widely seen, and that it helps people to overcome the widespread delusion that sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, and the prolonged use of noise and darkness (or permanent light) are somehow inconvenient rather than examples of torture. By a curious coincidence, the programme screened on the same day that Jose Padilla, an American citizen who was once accused of plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” in a US city, was sentenced instead for supporting terrorist activities abroad. For the three and a half years that the “bomb plot” allegations persisted –- before they were dropped, either because they were groundless or because exposing them would have revealed rather too much about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the intelligence services –- Padilla had been held as an “enemy combatant” in a US military brig, where he had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.

Last September, in an article for the Christian Science Monitor, Warren Richey described in detail how Padilla was cut off from all external stimuli: “Padilla’s cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress. He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla’s lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years. For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on.”

Richey added, “Those who haven’t experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, [which] makes it a potential instrument of torture.” When approved by [former US defense secretary] Donald Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo, Defense Department lawyers warned that isolation was “not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days.” This echoed the CIA’s findings, in a declassified 1963 handbook, when the agency warned of the “profound moral objection” of applying “duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”

According to Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and “an expert on the debilitating effects of solitary confinement,” who conducted a detailed examination of Padilla for his lawyers, it was “clear from examining Mr. Padilla that that limit was surpassed.” After studying the daily activity logs relating to his incarceration, particularly during the period from November 2002 to April 2003, which Padilla himself described as the “terrible time,” Grassian discovered that it was “not unusual for Mr. Padilla to go four, five, or six days without even brief [visual checks] by the brig staff, who were, in any event, under instruction not to converse with him.” Richey added, “Other than the brief checks by brig guards, Padilla went through stretches of 34 days, 17 days and 15 days without any human contact,” and Grassian concluded that “when he did have such contact, it was inevitably with an interrogator.”

Given that two days of isolation induced paranoia, hallucinations and increased susceptibility in volunteers who knew that they were free to leave, it was not surprising, in Padilla’s case, that the results were rather more harrowing. As Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic scientist who spent 22 hours with him last year, explained to Democracy Now, “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind.”

Because of his recent conviction, Padilla is the most topical example of a real-life prisoner whose experiences relate to the themes touched upon by the BBC last week, but he is not the only one. At Guantánamo, at the US prisons in Afghanistan where prisoners were “processed” for Guantánamo, and at secret, CIA-run prisons in Afghanistan and other countries, such techniques were widespread, and, as with Padilla, were applied well beyond a 48-hour time limit. Many of these cases are discussed in depth in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, but another example, which I came across recently, also springs to mind. In a recent interview, Damien Corsetti, a former interrogator at Bagram, one of the US prisons in Afghanistan, where several prisoners were murdered by US forces, explained the failures of an institutional policy of sleep deprivation, which also involved the allied evils of prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.

“We had those people going without sleep for a whole week,” Corsetti said. “After two or three days with no sleep, you believe anything. In fact, it was a problem. The interpreters couldn’t understand what they were saying. The prisoners were having hallucinations. Because, of course, this is not like if you or me go three days without sleep when we’re partying. I’ve gone five days without sleep when I’ve been partying. But this is different. You’re in a cell where they let you sleep only a quarter of an hour every now and then. With no contact with the outside world. Without seeing sunlight. Like that, a day seems like a week. Your mental capacity is destroyed.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

London Guantánamo Campaign: report on sixth anniversary actions

The following report –- on actions across London by the London Guantánamo Campaign and Cageprisoners to mark the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo as a lawless “War on Terror” prison –- was published on the website of the National Guantánamo Coalition. I reproduce it here because it covers, in detail, the range of events on the day, and because it gives me the opportunity to post more of the fine photos taken by photographer Richard Wolff, who can be contacted at: rkwolff@googlemail.com. Thanks to Aisha for the report.

Friday 11 January 2008 marked the sixth year since the American Guantánamo Bay detention facility opened up to accommodate “enemy combatants” in the “war on terror”. Opened to detain and interrogate those deemed to be “dangerous men” involved in the 9/11 attacks, and attacks on the US in Afghanistan, no one held there has ever been charged in connection with the attack on the twin towers, and only one person has ever been convicted of a minor charge. Of the over 800 men who have passed through in the past six years, the vast majority have been released and returned home without charge or conviction. Five men, including three in their early twenties, have returned home in coffins –- four having died in uninvestigated, suspicious circumstances –- and the fifth died recently of cancer.

Deemed “enemy combatants” and thus not held under recognised international law, the detainees have sustained years of arbitrary detention with no real sign of an end in sight, and have been subjected to a regime of torture, sensory deprivation, and abuse of their human rights. They have also been deprived of adequate medical and legal assistance and access to their families –- all without any evidence of culpability or wrongdoing.

To mark this sad anniversary, on a damp Friday across the UK, demonstrations and actions were held in many towns, including Edinburgh, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and London. A variety of actions took place in London.

Campaigners in London from the London Guantánamo Campaign and Cageprisoners focused their actions on the British government, calling on it to act to bring the two remaining British residents in Guantánamo –- Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha –- back to the UK, to urge the American government to close down Guantánamo Bay and to urge action by safe, third countries to accept innocent detainees who have nowhere to go upon release. In 2007, the British government took positive actions, resulting in four British residents being returned to the UK. The government must continue this course of action and back up its verbal declarations that Guantánamo must close down with concrete action.

At 11.30am, former Guantánamo Bay detainees Moazzam Begg (now a spokesman for Cageprisoners), Bisher al-Rawi, and Taher Deghayes, brother of recently released Brighton resident Omar Deghayes, headed a contingent of well-known activists to present a letter signed by prominent individuals and organisations calling for the British government to work to close down Guantánamo Bay. The letter also urged the government to take action to seek the release and return to the UK of British residents Ahmed Belbacha and Binyam Mohamed, the latter for whom the government has made representations but whose return was blocked by the US authorities. Having been cleared for release in February 2007 and deemed to pose no threat at all, the former has languished in Guantánamo Bay for almost a year for want of a safe country to be released to.

Guantanamo petition at 10 Downing Street

Outside Downing Street on a rainy morning, Messrs. Begg, al-Rawi and Deghayes were joined by Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, actors Joanna Lumley, Corin Redgrave and Kika Markham, Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at Reprieve, the legal charity representing several dozen Guantánamo detainees, and journalists Yvonne Ridley, Victoria Brittain and Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files. After handing in the letter, those present held interviews with the press including ITV, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Press TV, Reuters TV and the Islam Channel.

Joanna Lumley (centre)

Simultaneously, the London Guantánamo Campaign organised a “statues” event at various sites all over London throughout the day. Starting off at 8am in the cold and wet at Liverpool Street Station in East London and Paddington Station in West London, groups went around various parts of east, west, north, south and central London, with one or two people dressed in the orange jumpsuits now symbolic of Guantánamo Bay, and sometimes with their heads covered in black hoods posing as human statues, as other members of the group handed out leaflets and spoke to the public. Overall the public response from Londoners was positive, with many people expressing surprise that Guantánamo Bay had been open for so long and showing sympathy with the plight of the detainees. Some hostility was shown by City-working folk at the ever-busy Liverpool Street Station who showed little sympathy for victims of torture.

Politicians took part in the day’s events too with Martin Linton MP (Battersea) joining the South London group as they raised awareness about local man Shaker Aamer, who is still held in Guantánamo Bay, and other detainees outside the Asda supermarket in Clapham Junction.

In East London, after attending the handing in of the letter to Downing Street, Green MEP Jean Lambert joined the East London group outside the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, where the public were very receptive to the campaigners and the message they were putting across. Ms. Lambert stated, in a press release issued for this event, “The British government must aid the closure of the Guantánamo Bay facility and other illegal prisons and help repatriate detainees. It is outrageous that so many have been imprisoned for so long without charge. That America has allowed this situation to continue for six years represents a complete disregard for human rights”.

The Central London group visited various sites of historic and touristic interest, taking in Downing Street, Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the City of London, the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern, mingling among both Londoners and visitors to the capital.

Campaigners on the West London route met Karen Buck MP outside her constituency office in North Kensington where she called Guantánamo Bay “an abomination and [it] should be closed down”. Karen Buck, MP for Binyam Mohamed, who lived and worked in the West London area for over seven years, has agreed to meet campaigners from the London Guantánamo Campaign to work towards his release. In West London, campaigners also met individuals at the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in Westbourne Park, who knew Mr. Mohamed.

In North London, campaigners were joined outside Brent Town Hall by several Liberal Democrat councillors. Brent, home to three former detainees –- Martin Mubanga, Jamil El-Banna and Abdelnour Sameur –- has been particularly supportive of the Guantánamo detainees, with local MPs taking positive action, including a sustained campaign by MP Sarah Teather to have her constituent Jamil El-Banna released, and the local council passing several motions in support of the detainees and the closure of Guantánamo Bay.

Outside Paddington Green

Outside Paddington Green police station.

The North London and West London groups joined forces outside Paddington Green Police Station, where many of the British nationals and residents have been detained upon their return to the UK, although none have been charged in Britain, before joining a demonstration outside the American Embassy organised by London Catholic Worker at 4-6pm.

Around 20 people attended this vigil, which included a candlelit vigil for the five men who have died at Guantánamo Bay. At 5pm, the names of all the men at Guantánamo Bay were read out, including their ages and their nationalities. This was a particularly poignant and effective moment and many passers-by stopped to watch for a while at least; reading the names of those the US has effectively sought to gag and make vanish was all the more relevant outside its own embassy, showing that the injustice and repression suffered at Guantánamo Bay has not gone unnoticed elsewhere.

Outside the US embassy

Vigil outside the US embassy.

Over 150 people braved the weather and joined the London Guantánamo Campaign at 6-8pm in Parliament Square for a demonstration opposite the Houses of Parliament calling on the British government to act to close down Guantánamo Bay. Demonstrators were addressed by Victoria Brittain, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Andy Worthington, Gareth Peirce, Moazzam Begg, Jean Lambert MEP, Bruce Kent, Yvonne Ridley, Hugo Charlton from CAMPACC, Stewart Halforty from the Stop The War Coalition, Jackie Chase from the Save Omar Campaign in Brighton and Chris Chang, an investigator from Reprieve.

Gareth Peirce

Gareth Peirce.

All the speakers raised important points about the continuing regime of arbitrary detention at Guantánamo Bay. Baroness Sarah Ludford stated that the detainees must be released or tried and that there could be no third way out for the US. Speakers also emphasised the point that over the last six years, it is not just the lives of the detainees that have been destroyed, but also those of their families and all those who knew them. Several speakers drew parallels with the current situation in the UK and Britain’s own Guantánamo-style regime of arbitrary detention in Belmarsh and Long Lartin as well as through control orders. Gareth Peirce and several others addressed the hypocrisy of this country in its acquiescence to what is happening in Guantánamo Bay. Prisoners at other secret prisons in the “war on terror” were also remembered as well as those Guantánamo detainees who are now effectively refugees –- innocent men who cannot be released because their safety cannot be guaranteed in their countries of origin and need to find a safe third country to be sent to.

Bruce Kent

Bruce Kent.

The demonstration was sung out by Chris Chang performing his rap version of Guantanamera and chanting led by Daniel Viesnik from the London Guantánamo Campaign.

The message from this day of action in the UK and other protests in other parts of the world clearly got through to the American government as, on 13 January, during a visit to Guantánamo Bay, the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that he favoured the closure of Guantánamo due to the damage it had done to the US’s reputation.

While continuing to call for the closure of Guantánamo Bay and the return of Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha to the UK, campaigners hope that there will be no anniversary to mark on 11 January 2009 and that, by then, Guantánamo and other American secret prisons will be confined to the waste bin of history.

Jackie Chase with picture of Binyam Mohamed

Jackie Chase (left) of Brighton’s Save Omar campaign, with a picture of Binyam Mohamed, and Andy Worthington (right).

Special thanks to the Green Party, Wandsworth Stop the War, We Are Change, Barnet, Enfield and Palmers Green Amnesty, Peace and Justice in East London and all the volunteers on the day. For more photos of the petition at 10 Downing Street and the rally in Parliament Square, see this Cageprisoners page.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans

Jose PadillaThe news that US citizen Jose Padilla has received a prison sentence of 17 years and four months should provoke outrage in the United States, although it is unlikely that there will be much more than a whimper of dissent.

The former gang member and convert to Islam –- whose arrest in May 2002 was trumpeted by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as that of a “known terrorist,” who was “exploring a plan” to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in a US city –- was once regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists ever apprehended on American soil. Almost six years later, as he received his sentence, he was not actually accused of lifting a finger to harm even a single US citizen.

While this is shocking enough in and of itself, Padilla’s sentence –- in what at least one perceptive commentator called “the most important case of our lifetimes” –- is particularly disturbing because it sends a clear message to the President of the United States that he can, if he wishes (and as he did with Padilla), designate a US citizen as an “enemy combatant,” hold him without charge or trial in a naval brig for 43 months, and torture him –- through the use of prolonged sensory deprivation and solitary confinement –- to such an extent that, as the psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty explained after spending 22 hours with Padilla, “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind.”

Jose Padilla's visit to the dentist

The photo of Jose Padilla’s sensory-deprived trip to the dentist that caused a shock when it was published by the New York Times in December 2006.

Padilla’s warders had another take on his condition, describing him as “so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for ‘a piece of furniture,’” but the most detailed analysis of the effects of his torture was, again, provided by Angela Hegarty in an interview last August with Democracy Now:

Juan Gonzalez: And have you dealt with someone who had been in isolation for such a long period of time before?
Dr. Angela Hegarty: No. This was the first time I ever met anybody who had been isolated for such an extraordinarily long period of time. I mean, the sensory deprivation studies, for example, tell us that without sleep, especially, people will develop psychotic symptoms, hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, suicidality within days. And here we had a man who had been in this situation, utterly dependent on his interrogators, who didn’t treat him all that nicely, for years. And apart from –- the only people I ever met who had such a protracted experience were people who were in detention camps overseas, that would come close, but even then they weren’t subjected to the sensory deprivation. So, yes, he was somewhat of a unique case in that regard.

As if this were not worrying enough, it was what happened after Padilla’s 43-month ordeal that sealed the President’s impunity to torture US citizens at will. When it seemed that his case was within reach of the US Supreme Court, the government transferred him into the US legal system, deposited him in a normal prison environment, dropped all mention of the “dirty bomb” plot, and charged him, based on his association with two alleged terrorist facilitators, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, with participating in a Florida-based plot to aid Islamic extremists in holy wars abroad. When the case came to court last summer, the judge, Marcia Cooke, airbrushed Padilla’s torture from history, insisting that it could not be discussed at all, and, after a trial regarded as farcical by many observers, Padilla and his co-defendants were duly found guilty.

Today’s sentencing, after an unusually protracted two-week debate, has apparently brought the whole sordid saga to an end, with Padilla’s torture only mentioned briefly in passing by Judge Cooke, who noted, “I do find that the conditions [for Padilla as an enemy combatant] were so harsh that they warrant consideration.” Nevertheless, he received a longer sentence than either of his co-defendants (who were sentenced to 15 years and eight months, and 12 years and eight months, respectively), even though two jurors admitted to the Miami Herald that the jury as a whole “struggled to convict Padilla because the panel initially viewed him as a bit player in the scheme to aid Islamic extremists, unlike his co-defendants.”

They certainly had a point. While the conviction of Hassoun and Jayyousi was based on coded conversations in 126 phone calls intercepted by the FBI over a number of years, Padilla was included in only seven of those phone calls. Groomed by his mentor, Hassoun, he had traveled to the Middle East and, in 2000, had applied to attend a military training camp in Afghanistan, using the name Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir. His application form, which, according to a government expert, bore his fingerprints, was apparently discovered during a CIA raid on an alleged al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan, but although the prosecution presented an alleged al-Qaeda graduation list with his Muslim name on it during the sentencing, they had been unable to provide any evidence during the trial that he had actually attended the training camp in Afghanistan.

In the end, Padilla’s conviction hinged on the jury’s determination that he had “joined the terrorism conspiracy in the United States before leaving the country.” This was based on a single recorded conversation, in July 1997, in which he stated that he was ready to join a jihad overseas.

17 years and four months seems to me to be an extraordinarily long sentence for little more than a thought crime, but when the issue of Padilla’s three and half years of suppressed torture is raised, it’s difficult not to conclude that justice has just been horribly twisted, that the President and his advisors have just got away with torturing an American citizen with impunity, and that no American citizen can be sure that what happened to Padilla will not happen to him or her. Today, it was a Muslim; tomorrow, unless the government’s powers are taken away from them, it could be any number of categories of “enemy combatants” who have not yet been identified.

For more on Jose Padilla and other US “enemy combatants,” see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on AlterNet, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and American Torture.

See the following for updates on Padilla: US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009).

Also see related articles on Ali al-Marri: The Ordeal of Ali al-Marri (June 2007), The torture of Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland (November 2007), Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008), Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009), Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

“US torture chamber”: a review of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison

The Guantanamo FilesThis bleak but honest review, by Mike Phipps, appeared in Labour Briefing.

Who are Guantánamo’s detainees? They are generally not al-Qaeda members or other terrorists but aid workers, economic migrants or politically naïve Taliban foot soldiers –- mostly sold to the US by their allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some were known to be innocent of any involvement with the Taliban or al-Qaeda but were probably arrested to persuade them to turn informer.

The stories of some of those captured in Afghanistan are harrowing –- people buried alive or suffocated by the score in giant metal containers, or barricaded in buildings and set on fire. Those detained in that country faced horrific brutality from their captors –- including US soldiers. One [Northern] Alliance general said he saw US soldiers stabbing prisoners in the legs and cutting their tongues. Many were beaten to death, sometimes just for pleasure.

In Pakistan too, detainees complained of “beatings and harsh torture” in the presence of US military personnel. When transporting prisoners, US soldiers blindfolded them and bound them hand and foot, regularly throwing them from the planes on arrival: many were badly hurt. In detention, sleep deprivation was commonplace and whole groups of prisoners were collectively punished for any individual non-compliance. Detainees report routine humiliation, including being urinated on: and that the Red Cross did nothing. Some were blinded with glass or made to walk barefoot on barbed wire.

The US Administration had decided the Geneva Convention did not apply to detainees in its “war on terror”. Its interrogations were accompanied by violent beatings and death threats. CIA operatives allegedly stubbed cigarettes out on prisoners’ bodies, administered electric shocks to the genitals and carried out mock executions. At Bagram, detainees were suspended by their wrists for days on end, subjected to forced nudity, had petrol injected in their anuses and were threatened with rape by dogs. Two men were killed there, beaten to death.

When Guantánamo opened, prisoners were dragged in on their knees, wearing orange jumpsuits, blacked out goggles, surgical masks and headphones. They were housed in two metre square, floodlit cages, open to the elements, branded by the Administration as “among the best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth”. They were asked the same questions repeatedly, told they would never see their families again and subject to vicious beatings –- for praying, for shouting, for anything. One man had his leg broken in interrogation, another his back –- he is now using a wheelchair. Another was permanently blinded in one eye. Many have kidney problems, due to being forced to lie without blankets in freezing cold air conditioning. Men were denied toilet facilities, forced to soil themselves, then used as human mops to clean up cells and left in the same clothes for days. One man suffered a stroke after a soldier jumped on his head –- he received no medical attention for ten days.

Sexual humiliation was used on the most religious detainees. Some were wrapped in the Israeli flag, others were given a “mock baptism”. Some were medicated against their will, causing bodily collapse and mental distress. Others were denied vital medication by their interrogators. These abuses all met with warm approval from the Pentagon.

Worse was reserved for those rendered by the US to third countries, where they were brutally tortured by local interrogators and the CIA. Mutilation, electric shocks and permanent sleep deprivation were routine. Some prisoners went insane; others died.

Alongside the brutality there is the US ineptitude. Afghan men were detained for wearing olive green jackets, supposedly the Taliban uniform, but in fact widely on sale in the shops. Others were arrested for firing warning shots in the night at what they thought were burglars, who turned out to be US raiding parties. Such “aggression” was dealt with extremely harshly –- not even juveniles escaped the cruelty.

Legal challenges to the detentions in Guantánamo led to a gradual release of some prisoners, not because they were obviously innocent, but as a result of deals with their home countries. Conversely, British residents who lack UK citizenship continue to languish there because the Foreign Office has only just raised their cases with the US, after years of washing their hands of them.

Three detainees have been driven to suicide, described by the US Administration as “a good PR move”. One was just 17 at the time of his capture. There have been many more attempted suicides and hunger strikes. The 2005 hunger strike was dealt with extremely viciously: feeding tubes the thickness of a finger were shoved up detainees’ noses without anaesthetic, resulting in prisoners “vomiting up substantial amounts of blood”, according to declassified documents. As doctors watched, soldiers used the same bloody tubes, uncleaned, on different prisoners, who remained heavily shackled throughout the ordeal.

This book is one of the grimmest I have ever read. Its subtitle, The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, underlines just what a thorough job Andy Worthington has done in piecing together this shocking tale of depravity.

The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison is published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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The Guantánamo Files

The Battle of the Beanfield book cover

The Battle of the Beanfield

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion book cover

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

Outside The Law DVD cover

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

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