Former Guantánamo Prisoner David Hicks Describes His First Two Weeks at Camp X-Ray

18.10.10

As publicity for the newly-published memoir, Guantánamo: My Journey by the Australian David Hicks, who was held at Guantánamo from January 2002 until April 2007, when he was repatriated after accepting a plea deal at his trial by Military Commission, Hicks’ publishers have released three excerpts from the book to the media. All three excerpts were published by Hicks’ local paper in Adelaide (dealing with events before he became interested in Islam and the struggles in Bosnia, Kashmir and Afghanistan, the circumstances of his capture and his first two weeks in Guantánamo), and I have chosen to cross-post the latter, as it captures particularly well the primitive violence of the early days of Camp X-Ray — the open-air cages, resembling animal pens, in which the prisoners were held until the first, more permanent structures of Camp Delta were completed in May 2002.

Hicks’ memoir has prompted some of his opponents in Australia to argue that he should not benefit financially from the book’s publication, because of legislation that prevents anyone from profiting from the proceeds of crime, and the Associated Press reported on Sunday that the Australian police are considering whether Hicks “should be sued for any profits he makes from his autobiography.” This is an interesting argument, and one that I hope will be thoroughly challenged, as Hicks’ status as a former criminal is seriously in doubt. The plea deal that secured his return from Guantánamo (followed by a short prison term in Australia) was not only politically motivated — intended to help John Howard secure re-election (which failed), and, more importantly, to prevent Hicks from revealing the brutal treatment to which he was subjected in Afghanistan and in Guantánamo — but was also of dubious legality.

Hicks accepted a charge of providing material support to terrorism, but as numerous experts, including senior lawyers within the Obama administration, have explained (or conceded, in the government’s case), providing material support to terrorism is an invented war crime, inserted into the Military Commissions Act of 2006 by Congress (when the Commissions were revived, after the Supreme Court ruled them illegal), and retained in 2009 (in spite of the government’s complaints) when the Commissions were again revived. Challenges to the material support convictions are currently being considered by the US courts in the cases of two other prisoners who were tried by Military Commission, and as Hicks’ former lawyer, Adelaide-based Steve Kenny, explained in July this year, “It has always been my position that he never committed any crime. We looked at Australian law, international law and Afghani law, and we were unable to identify any breach of those laws. The law that he eventually pleaded guilty to was not actually an international war crime at all. In fact it was a crime that didn’t exist.”

“A blur of hardships”: an excerpt from Guantánamo: My Journey by David Hicks

I awoke on a concrete slab with the sun in my face. I looked around and saw that I was in a cage made out of cyclone fencing, the same as the boundary fence around my old primary school. Internal fences divided the cage into ten enclosures, and I was in one of the corner-end cells. Around me, I saw five other concrete slabs with what looked like bird cages constructed on top. A fence covered in green shadecloth and topped with rolls of razor wire was wrapped around these six concrete slabs, able to house sixty unfortunate human beings. Hanging on the inside of this fence were signs saying, “If you attempt escape, you will be shot,” complete with a featureless person with a target for a head.

All around the outside of the shadecloth, civilian and uniformed personnel cleared and flattened grass and trees. They poured cement and assembled the wire cages, calling them “blocks.” There was nothing much else around us except guard towers boasting large, painted American flags and manned by armed marines.

My block was only the second to have been built, but that would change over time. As this prison grew out of the grass, more “detainees,” as they liked to call us, rather than POWs, arrived. About a month later, around 360 of us lived in these outdoor enclosures. They were open to the wind, sun, dust and rain and offered no respite. The local wildlife was being disturbed as their homes were bulldozed to make room for the concrete blocks, and scorpions, snakes and 23 centimetre-long tarantulas tried to find shelter in what were now our enclosures.

My cage, like all the cages, was three steps wide by three steps long. I shared this space with two small buckets: one to drink out of, the other to use as a toilet. There was an “isomat” (a five-millimetre-thin foam mat), a towel, a sheet, a bottle of shampoo that smelt like industrial cleaner, a bar of soap (I think), a toothbrush with three-quarters of the handle snapped off and a tube of toothpaste. When I held this tube upside down, even without squeezing, a white, smelly liquid oozed out.

This bizarre operation was called Camp X-Ray. Our plane was the first to arrive on this barren part of the island, and we remained the only detainees for the first three or four days. We had been spaced apart because of the surplus of cages. Every hour of the day and night we had to produce our wristband for inspection, as well as the end of our toothbrush, in case we had “sharpened it into a weapon.” These constant disturbances prevented us from sleeping. We were not allowed to talk, or even look around, and had to stare at the concrete between our legs while sitting upright on the ground. If we did lie flat on the concrete, we had to stare at a wooden covering a foot or so above our cages, which served as some type of roof. Apart from blocking the sun for about two hours around noon, the roof offered no other benefit.

Sitting or lying in the middle of the cage, away from the sides, were the only two positions we were allowed to assume. We could not stand up unless ordered to, and the biggest sin was to touch the enclosing wire. If we transgressed any of these rules, even if innocently looking about, we were dealt with by the IRF team, an acronym for Instant Reaction Force. The Military Police nicknamed this procedure being “earthed” or “IRFed,” because they would slam and beat us into the ground.

I first witnessed the IRF team a day or two after my arrival. An MP stopped outside the cage of an Afghan, my closest neighbour at the time. The MP demanded to know what the Afghan had scratched into the cement. He had not scratched anything and could not even speak or understand English. I heard the MP read, “Osama will save us.” The detainee had no idea what the guard was on about, yet the MP was furious when he did not respond. “I’ll teach you to resist,” the MP threatened and stormed off. Suddenly six MPs in full riot gear formed a line outside his cage. The first one held a full-length shield. He entered the cage first, slamming the detainee, pinning him to the cement floor with the shield, while the others beat him in the torso and face. The last to enter the cage was a dog handler with a large German shepherd. The dog was encouraged to bark and growl only centimetres from the Afghan’s face while he was being beaten. In later cases, the dogs bit detainees.

When they had finished, they chained him up and carried him out. His face was covered in blood. A few hours later an MP washed the blood off the cement with a scrubbing brush and hose. To add to that injustice, an MP told me some weeks later that he himself had scratched that statement into the cement before any of us had arrived at Guantánamo, while they had been training and awaiting our arrival.

Every two or three days a planeload of detainees would arrive. They were always made to kneel and lean forward on the gravel while being yelled at and struck in the back of the head. They had to balance in this position while one detainee at a time was picked up from the line, escorted into a block and deposited into a cage. Those who were moved first were lucky not to have to endure the stress position for hours. It was around this time that helicopters hovered above, and very large groups of civilians walked through the camp to view us in our cages — specimens in an international makeshift zoo.

The first two weeks of Camp X-Ray was a blur of hardships: no sleeping, no talking, no moving, no looking, no information. Through a haze of disbelief and fear, pain and confusion, we wondered what was going to happen. To pass time and relieve the pressure on my ailing back, I chose to lie down rather than sit up. During the day I would look slightly to my right, focusing my vision just beyond the wooden roof, and lose myself in the sky beyond. It was an escape, so peaceful, so blue and full of sunlight. I gazed at the odd cloud and spied big, black birds circling high above, called vulture hawks. It was never long, though, before a hostile face blocked the view, screaming, “What are you looking at? Look up at the roof.” All I could do was sigh and avert my gaze from the infinite, blue sky to a piece of wood.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

12 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention Former Guantánamo Prisoner David Hicks Describes His First Two Weeks at Camp X-Ray | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, John Lavis and kasha, skdadl. skdadl said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: Former Guantanamo Prisoner David Hicks Describes First 2 Weeks at Camp X-Ray – Excerpt & analysis of Hicks' "crime": http://bit.ly/d9bD8G [...]

  2. Norwegian Shooter says...

    Powerful stuff. I’d assumed that Hicks had signed away his right to tell his tale in order to get released. Glad to see he is sharing his outrageous experience.

    On material support for terrorism, does the charge have origins in the AUMF? And for domestic “targets”, the FBI raids and confiscations in Minneapolis and Chicago a month ago were based on the 1997 material support for groups labeled terrorists by the State Department. How does that tie into the detainees’ cases?

  3. Shane Tonks says...

    I don’t get it.
    If Australian David Hicks can be prosecuted for joining a foreign terrorist army, why aren’t the Australian Jews who go overseas to join and fight and commit crimes in the terrorist army (IDF) of the terrorist Zionist state of Israel also prosecuted ???
    It just doesn’t make sense.
    I think this needs to be addressed. No Australian cirtizen should be allowed to fight in a foriegn army, especially one that is famous for committing such atrocious war crimes as the IDF.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, I have been waiting for this one — RE-POSTING. After inventing the offence of providing material support to terrorism the prosecutor desperately cobbled together to charge David Hicks, the Australian media and government reminded him that they have laws against criminals prospering from the proceeds of crime, well!! John Howard had better not publish his memoirs!!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Eugene Hernandez wrote:

    and they call this country the just one

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach replied:

    Eugene, yes, just one more acolyte

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Betty Molchany wrote:

    I will be sharing. Thanks.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Sihaam Khan wrote:

    Thanks Andy, will share.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Cheshire Cat wrote:

    I want it – badly – but I can’t possibly do $49.95 in my wildest dreams right now. Phooey. They have kindle too, but I don’t. Anyway great job Andy!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Norwegian Shooter.
    Good questions. The AUMF only authorizes capture and detention. The charges in the Military Commissions came from Congress, and are invented war crimes, as David Frakt has pointed out , and as senior officials in the Obama administration have conceded: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/05/03/david-frakts-damning-verdict-on-the-new-military-commissions-manual/
    The irony is that material support is a mainstay of federal court prosecutions for terrorism, and the problem there is that it is, arguably, far too easy to convict on material support charges in federal court.

  11. Nick Caruso says...

    Do the Bad Guys Always Get the Press? Turning the Table on a Terrorist

    http://strategicbooksigning.posterous.com/do-the-bad-guys-always-get-the-press-turning

    In April of 2010, the Strategic Book Group published a non-fiction work by US Army Reserve Major Montgomery J. Granger, entitled Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay – A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior. Major Granger found himself the ranking Army Medical Department officer in a joint military operation that was like no other before it; his job was taking care of alleged terrorists, just months following 9/11. His autobiography of that time provides not only insights into what life was really like at Gitmo, but a moving portrayal of how he kept his dignity and morality intact, and despite hatred felt on both sides, preserved the same for the detainees. Not much notice was taken by the media. But when Random House Australia decides to publish a book by self-proclaimed terrorist David Hicks, it is front page news.

    What’s a publicist to do? Strike back. Strategic Book Group has issued a series of press releases, on behalf of Major Granger, calling out Mr. Hicks and Random House’s decision to publish the work of a man who landed on the tarmac at Guantanamo and vowed to kill an American soldier during his detention. Admittedly, this was done from the dual prongs of moral outrage and a bid to claim equal attention for our author’s more worthy work. Our headlines therefore included: It appears Random House does think crime pays. Is Random House supporting terrorists? Can you believe a book written by a convicted terrorist? Incendiary? We hoped so. Response was immediate, and overwhelmingly positive, in support of Major Granger’s stance, and his book.

    The ensuing articles, Twitter discussion and posts on facebook have put Major Montgomery and Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay in the spotlight, where he belongs.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Montgomery-J-Granger-Fan-Page-Strategic-Book-Group/112539632143226?v=wall

    Publisher’s website: http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/SavingGraceAtGuantanamoBay.html

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t agree with everything above, but I don’t block anything unless it’s offensive. However, I’d like to point out that I don’t believe that David Hicks was ever a terrorist against America.

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