The following interview, with the London Bangla free newspaper, was conducted by email and published in two parts, in the most recent issues of the newspaper, which has a print run of 30,000 copies. I’d like to thank Emdad Rahman for coming up with a great set of questions that allowed me to cover all the relevant topics in detail.
London Bangla: Do you believe Guantánamo prisoners will receive a fair trial?
Andy Worthington: That depends. If the Obama administration proceeds with federal court trials, then yes, we have to presume that they will be as fair as possible. Unfortunately, the administration has also revived the Military Commissions, the “terror trials” first introduced by former Vice President Dick Cheney, which are widely viewed as a second-tier judicial system, designed to secure convictions when the evidence is weaker. At present, Republicans, and some Democrats, are so caught up in hysteria that they’re opposing federal court trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. This is in spite of the fact that the Military Commissions only produced three verdicts in seven years, whereas the federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of cases related to terrorism.
London Bangla: For the benefit of our readers please explain the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions?
Andy Worthington: Basically, the Geneva Conventions, developed after the horrors of the Second World War, provide a minimum baseline for humane treatment to anyone — whether a soldier or a civilian — seized during wartime, under Common Article 3. The Conventions also prohibit coercive interrogations, but in its rush to interrogate prisoners coercively in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — in other words, to be able to use torture, which is illegal under any circumstances — the Bush administration decided that prisoners in the “War on Terror” were not protected by the Geneva Conventions.
London Bangla: Why is the term “enemy combatants” used?
Andy Worthington: The term was used to enable the Bush administration to hold prisoners neither as enemy prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, to be put forward for trials, but as a novel category of human being with no rights whatsoever.
London Bangla: Please tell us of any high profile cases?
Andy Worthington: The most high profile cases are those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks. They are among 14 “high-value detainees” who were brought to Guantánamo in September 2006 from secret CIA prisons, where they had been held for up to four and a half years.
However, many other prisoners — 30 to 40 more — arrived at Guantánamo after being held in secret CIA prisons. One is Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was sent to Morocco to be tortured for 18 months, and was then held in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, known as the “Dark Prison,” where prisoners were held in compete darkness, chained to the walls and forced to listen to ear-splittingly loud music for 24 hours a day.
Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantánamo in February 2009, primarily because the British and American governments hoped to bring to a halt a court case in the UK, in which his lawyers were seeking evidence of British knowledge of, and complicity in, his torture by US agents in Pakistan, before he was sent to Morocco. However, the case continued, and on 10 February this year, judges ordered these documents to be released (also see here).
Also caught up in this currently unfolding torture scandal is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who has a British wife and four British children. He now has a court case involving allegations that British agents were present when he was tortured in Afghanistan before he was sent to Guantánamo in 2002, and his lawyers hope that this court case will push the British government to press for his return. He was cleared for release in 2007, but the US is unwilling to release him, and it seems that the reason is that he is a supremely eloquent opponent of injustice, who has persistently opposed the brutal detention policies of the “War on Terror,” and who, moreover, knows more about Guantánamo’s workings than any other prisoner.
London Bangla: How many women are there imprisoned at Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: None, although after many years the US finally admitted that at least one woman had been held in Bagram, in Afghanistan, who may — or may not — have been Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman who was convicted in a New York court in February this year.
London Bangla: Are there minors?
Andy Worthington: There are still a few prisoners who were minors when they were seized: Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was 15 when he was seized in July 2002, and Hassan bin Attash, the younger brother of one of the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, who was 17 when he was seized and rendered to a prison in Jordan, run as a proxy prison for the CIA, before being sent to Guantánamo. Throughout Guantánamo’s history, at least 22 prisoners were held who were under 18 when they were seized.
London Bangla: Are there any prisoners that may have mental / physical / learning difficulties?
Andy Worthington: I suspect that there are many, but it’s impossible, as yet, to know who they are. Some of the prisoners don’t have lawyers, others have refused to see their lawyers — or the authorities have said that they refused to see them, even though this is often not true. And in the cases of prisoners who do have lawyers, all communication is treated as presumptively classified. Lawyers can only speak about, or publicize their client’s cases when this information has been declassified, and it may well be that information revealing mental health problems is being hidden by the authorities. We’ll only know the awful truth when Guantánamo finally closes, and everyone held is either charged or released.
London Bangla: Please describe some torture methods?
Andy Worthington: In Guantánamo, between 2002 and 2004, torture methods and other methods of cruel and inhuman treatment included prolonged sleep deprivation (moving prisoners from cell to cell every few hours, for weeks at a time), prolonged isolation, 20-hour interrogations in a 24-hour period (repeated for long periods), the use of extreme heat or cold, forced nudity, shaving of hair and beards, religious abuse, exploitation of phobias (dogs, for example), sexual humiliation, and short-shackling for long periods in painful positions. In CIA custody, a handful of prisoners were also subjected to waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning.
London Bangla: What can be done further to highlight the torture of prisoners?
Andy Worthington: Education is the key to publicizing the crimes of the “War on Terror.” Everything described above is illegal, but in the post-9/11 world, it has become fashionable to claim that torture works and is necessary, and also that it is necessary to hold people without charge or trial. These are all lies. Torture is illegal, and those who order it are liable for prosecution under the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which all supposedly civilized countries — including the US and the UK — are signatories. Moreover, torture doesn’t work. Skilled interrogators have always known that “rapport-building” is the only way to extract useful information, and that torture only induces its victims to tell interrogators what they want to hear. In addition, there is no excuse for holding anyone without charge or trial. If you have evidence, try them in a court of law. If you don’t, release them. It really is a simple as that.
London Bangla: How many prisoners or “enemy combatants” have been found guilty of any charges?
Andy Worthington: Three, in the Military Commissions. David Hicks, an Australian, accepted a plea bargain in March 2007, receiving a nine-month sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to providing “material support to terrorism.” Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni and a driver for Osama bin Laden, received a five and a half month sentence in August 2008 for providing “material support to terrorism,” and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni who made promotional videos for al-Qaeda, received a life sentence in November 2008 for conspiracy and material support, but only after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defence. Hicks and Hamdan are now free men, and lawyers for al-Bahlul are currently appealing his conviction.
London Bangla: What is the charge most commonly attributed to prisoners?
Andy Worthington: There is no common charge, but most of the men have been accused of supporting al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, even though the former is a terrorist group and the latter was, in 2001, the government of Afghanistan. This deliberate blurring of the distinctions between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has been a profound problem, and remains so to this day.
From my research, I have no hesitation in saying that only around 35 of the prisoners, at most, had any connection to terrorism, and that, of the other 740 or so prisoners, around half were involved with the Taliban, but only as recruits in an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan that began long before 9/11 and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and the other half were completely innocent men, seized because the US was offering bounty payments, averaging $5000 a head, to its Afghan and Pakistan allies, who seized the majority of the prisoners held at Guantánamo.
London Bangla: How long did your book take to write and did you meet prisoners / detainees?
Andy Worthington: My book took 14 months to write, because I had to piece together a narrative and a chronology from over 8000 pages of Pentagon documents, from news reports, from lawyers’ accounts, and from the accounts of released prisoners. I didn’t actually meet any released prisoners until after I had completed the book (although, as mentioned, I drew on some of their accounts), but have now met most of the released British prisoners, and am in touch with some former prisoners in other countries. On the tour of “Outside the Law,” I’ll be traveling with Omar Deghayes, who features in the film and was released from Guantánamo in December 2007.
London Bangla: Who will speak for the 774 men who have been held in Guantánamo?
Andy Worthington: Well, I do obviously (and that line is taken from the publisher’s blurb for my book), through the book, the film, and the 500+ articles that I’ve written in the last three years, which can all be found on my website.
But in a wider sense, the answer to your question is, “We all do.” It should scare all of us that, in the name of combating terrorism, our fundamental values have been eroded to the extent that so many people now regard indefinite detention without charge or trial and the use of torture as somehow acceptable. Habeas corpus — the right not to be held without charge or trial — was invented in England nearly 800 years ago, and many fine and principled people struggled for centuries to outlaw the use of torture. For all this to be swept away is extraordinary, and extraordinarily worrying.
London Bangla: Please briefly explain the process of “extraordinary rendition” that underpins the US administration’s “War on Terror.”
Andy Worthington: Basically, it’s a form of international kidnapping. “Rendition” existed long before 9/11, and involved kidnapping wanted criminals and bringing them to justice in the US. With “extraordinary rendition,” the whole part about bringing prisoners to justice was dropped, and hundreds of men were rendered to foreign prisons, where proxy torturers did the CIA’s dirty work for them, or to secret prisons run by the CIA, where torture was, as directed by senior officials in the Bush administration, and sanctioned by lawyers, brought “in-house.” It remains the most disgraceful period in modern American history.
London Bangla: How long did you study the released Pentagon transcripts?
Andy Worthington: I spent about four months transcribing and collating the transcripts, and am still amazed that no major media outlet did the same. It’s an achievement that I’m very proud of, and it still informs my work on Guantánamo to this day.
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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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