Archive for February, 2011

After Recent Ruling in the Case of Bin Laden’s Cook, Guantánamo Should Close by July 2012

On February 10, it was reported that Ibrahim al-Qosi, a 50-year old Sudanese prisoner in Guantánamo who accepted a plea deal in his trial by Military Commission last July, had the 14-year sentence that was subsequently handed down by a military jury reduced to two years by Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the Convening Authority of the Military Commissions, who has the final say on whether or not to charge prisoners, and how to deal with sentencing.

As a result, al-Qosi, a peripheral figure in al-Qaeda, who “worked as a cook in a portion of an al-Qaeda compound that housed single men in Kandahar, Afghanistan” (as the Miami Herald put it), and also allegedly served on occasion as a bodyguard for bin Laden, should be freed from Guantánamo and returned home in July 2012. As Reuters explained, “Qosi’s lawyers said last year that once he returned to Sudan, he would enter a program run by the Sudanese intelligence service and designed to rehabilitate those with radical views. He would then return to live with his family but would be monitored to ensure he had no contact with radicals.”

The US still claims it has the right to continue holding al-Qosi after his two-year sentence expires, but that kind of injustice would, I hope, be a step too far even for the current administration and Congress, who have abandoned any attempt to close Guantánamo or deal fairly with the men still held, descending into callousness and scaremongering on the part of Congress, and cowardice and capitulation on the part of the administration.

Nevertheless, last Monday, responding to a specific request from the Miami Herald, Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher stated, “Decisions regarding Mr. al-Qosi’s status after he serves his punitive confinement will be made by the detention authorities at that time.” The Herald added that she “called the sentence due to expire July 7, 2012 ‘being punished for past acts,'” explaining that al-Qosi could still be subject to “detention under the law of war” as “a belligerent during an armed conflict.”

This provoked a fierce and entirely justified response from al-Qosi’s military defense attorney, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, who said, “Indefinitely detaining a 53-year-old man who will have served his sentence and been in custody more than 11 years for being a cook serves neither our national security or foreign policy interests.” Instead, she added, “It bludgeons ‘the interests of justice.’”

However, as the Miami Herald also pointed out, another problem for al-Qosi is that Sudan, his home country, is on the State Sponsors of Terror list, and “Congressional limits on Guantánamo detainee transfers [introduced in a military spending bill before Christmas] forbid the Obama administration from sending even cleared captives to states on the list” — although it should be noted that Congress did not insist on interfering with prisoners cleared for release by US courts.

What no one wants to discuss, of course, is how, logically, a two-year sentence for a man who actually met Osama bin Laden and was demonstrably involved, even in the most minor way, with al-Qaeda, means that the majority of the other men in Guantánamo, who never met bin Laden or worked with al-Qaeda, should also be freed by July 2012.

Logic, however, is in short supply when it comes to discussing Guantánamo in the corridors of power in the United States, where, apparently, justice, fairness and respect for international law may never again be of concern to US lawmakers or the administration. Increasingly cast adrift from opinions in the rest of the world, America blithely continues to assert that everyone still in Guantánamo can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, with the exception of al-Qosi, and three other men subjected to trials by Military Commission.

Those already tried are:

Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni, and a self-confessed member of al-Qaeda who produced a propaganda video for the organization, and is serving a life sentence after a one-sided trial in October 2008, in which he refused to mount a defense;

Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, and a former child prisoner who accepted a plea deal last October, and will be repatriated to Canada next October to serve the last seven years of an eight-year sentence in his homeland; and

Noor Uthman Muhammed, from Sudan, a trainer at the Khaldan military camp in Afghanistan, who accepted a plea deal on February 15. On February 18, after a brief sentencing phase, in which prosecutors attempted to persuade a military jury to hand down a punitive sentence to Muhammed, he was given a 14-year sentence, reduced to 34 months as part of his plea deal, in which he has apparently agreed to be a witness in the trials of other men still held.

The absurdity of this is all too obvious to anyone who cares to examine it. Unlike Ibrahim al-Qosi, Omar Khadr and Noor Uthman Muhammed, 89 of the remaining 172 men in Guantánamo have actually been cleared for release for at least a year — and in some cases for nearly two years — after all the cases inherited by the Obama administration were examined by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, consisting of 60 career officials and lawyers in government departments and the intelligence agencies. Some of these men had also been cleared even earlier — in 2006 and 2007, for example — by military review boards under the Bush administration, but had not been freed by the time Bush left office.

Despite this, it’s possible that all of them — or nearly all of them — will still be held when al-Qosi is scheduled for release (and probably when Noor Uthman Muhammed’s date for release comes round in 2014), because 58 are Yemenis, and the release of Yemenis — even those cleared for release by President Obama’s own Task Force — was suspended by the President last January, after a backlash provoked by the discovery that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day plane bomber in 2009, had been recruited in Yemen.

The future is barely less bleak for the 31 other cleared prisoners who are still held because they face the risk of torture if sent back to their home countries (which include China, Libya and Syria), and are waiting for third countries to offer them new homes instead. Although 15 countries have taken in 36 prisoners in this category (between May 2009 and August 2010), it’s possible that other countries’ well of good will has run dry, and that the men will therefore remain at Guantánamo indefinitely, as Congress, lawmakers and the administration itself have all made sure that no cleared prisoner will ever set foot on the US mainland.

As for the other men still held, the Task Force recommended that 33 should be put on trial. As a result, some may be tried by Military Commission before 2012 (the option for federal court trials having been cut off by Congress), and may, like al-Qosi, Omar Khadr and Noor Uthman Muhammed, be offered plea deals. In part this is because the administration is fearful of losing if it proceeds with actual trials, and, in Muhammed’s case, it is because officials were obviously fearful that a trial would expose details of the case of Abu Zubaydah (with whom he was seized in Pakistan in March 2002), allowing room for lawyers to point out that this supposed “high-value detainee” and “al-Qaeda No. 3,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was specifically developed, was no such thing, and was instead a mentally damaged training camp facilitator. A trial in Muhammed’s case might also have allowed exposure for the story of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of the camp, who was flown to Egypt by the CIA, tortured until he confessed to non-existent links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and later returned to Libya, where he died in mysterious circumstances in May 2009.

For 47 others, however, even the option of trial is out of the question, as the Task Force concluded that they were too dangerous to release, but that there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial — in other words, that the supposed evidence is not evidence at all, but unverifiable statements and hearsay, often produced in dubious circumstances.

Even ignoring the valid presumption that some of these 47 men are almost certainly regarded as less significant than al-Qosi (and yet are to be held indefinitely), the mind reels at the revelation that the surest way out of Guantánamo is to be regarded as so significant that you are put forward for a trial by Military Commission and secure a favorable plea deal.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After all, when Dick Cheney first revived the Military Commissions in November 2001, they were intended to provide a means to swiftly try and execute alleged terrorists after rigged trials in which evidence derived from torture was admissible. The Supreme Court brought this phase to an end in June 2006, ruling it illegal, but when the Commissions were revived by Congress later that year in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, they were still regarded as a poor substitute for federal court trials by legal experts, who were particularly alarmed that they involved prosecutions for war crimes that were invented by Congress. Significantly, the same problems remained when Obama and Congress revived the Commissions again in the summer of 2009.

Ironically, it may be this fundamental weakness, as much as the fear of losing trials, that is driving the Obama administration to seek plea deals rather than proceeding with trials, and which, in turn, is providing the majority of those charged with a better chance of leaving Guantánamo than their fellow prisoners.

Another irony is that we have been here before, but under George W. Bush. In August 2008, when Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had taken a job as part of bin Laden’s car pool, was tried by Military Commission, a military jury gave him a five and a half year sentence, which translated to just five more months in Guantánamo when the judge in his case, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, took account of time served since Hamdan had first been charged.

As with al-Qosi, the administration claimed that it had the right to continue holding him even after his sentence was served, but in the end could not countenance what would, presumably, have been an international uproar. In al-Qosi’s case, it is to be hoped that similar concerns will prevail next July, but it is a sign of how monstrously and unjustly politicized Guantánamo has become in the US that it is by no means certain that the administration will recognize that certain principles — such as freeing prisoners after they have served their sentence — have to be honored if notions of justice are to mean anything at all.

By December 2008, Hamdan was a free man, back home in Yemen, and as I explained at the time of his sentence, and of his release, this should have shattered the supposed justification for holding every other prisoner regarded as less significant than him, although this did not happen then, just as it is not happening now, in the case of Ibrahim al-Qosi.

History repeating itself this way should, of course, be a humiliation for the Obama administration, but I suppose that no one in a position of authority really cares that they are presiding over a prison in which Kafka meets Alice in Wonderland, as, crucially, the American people don’t care in sufficient numbers, and all that matters now is sending out the right messages to try and win the 2012 Presidential Election.

Note: The courtroom sketch above is by Janet Hamlin, and is reproduced courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “Military Commissions and the Case of Bin Laden’s Cook.”

First US Film Festival Date: “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” Screens at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, Washington D.C., March 5, 2011

I’m delighted to report that, on March 5, 2011, at 3 pm (at Letelier Theater, 3251 Prospect Street NW, Upper Courtyard, Washington D.C. 20007), the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash) will be shown at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, which runs from March 3 to 13 at various venues in the D.C. area. Although the film was released 18 months ago, this is its first screening as part of a US film festival.

The timing could not be more appropriate, as, despite promising to close Guantánamo within a year, President Obama spectacularly failed to do so, and is now presiding over a prison that may never close, as either the administration itself, or Congress or one particular branch of the judiciary (the D.C. Circuit Court in Washington D.C.) has made sure that it is almost impossible for any of the 172 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo to be released, even if, as with 89 of them, they were approved for release by a special interagency Task Force convened by the President.

When I first took “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” to the US, in November 2009, only the most dedicated activists — and Guantánamo lawyers — were interested. At that time, many people still believed that Obama had waved a magic wand and had made everything better, but 15 months later the scales have fallen from people’s eyes, and it is apparent that Obama has been a miserable failure on anything to do with national security, and has fundamentally failed to dismantle most of the “War on Terror” apparatus set up by the Bush administration or to hold anyone to account for torture and other crimes. It is also abundantly clear that the Republican party has become an increasingly deranged negative campaigning momster, eschewing all proposals for bi-partisan cooperation, playing on the Democrats’ traditional spinelessness, and swinging further to the right than ever before, and that one of its victims has been the closure of Guantánamo.

Sadly, I won’t be able to attend the screening on March 5, although Polly will be flying out for it, and for the Q&A session that follows the screening, which will also be attended by Tom Wilner, who is also featured in the film. Tom is one of the lawyers for the Kuwaitis at Guantánamo, and was Counsel of Record for the prisoners in the Supreme Court cases that granted them habeas corpus rights in 2004 and 2008, and I was delighted that, last month, he was able to take part in a panel discussion about Guantánamo in Washington D.C. that I had organized on the 9th anniversary of the prison’s opening. Also attending is Debra Sweet, the national director of the campaigning group The World Can’t Wait, who is a stauch supporter of my work, and has been involved in raising funds for my three most recent trips to the US — in November 2009, October 2010 and January 2011.

Here are the full details of the screening:

Saturday March 5, 3 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Polly Nash, Tom Wilner and Debra Sweet.
D.C. Independent Film Festival, Letelier Theater, 3251 Prospect Street NW, Upper Courtyard, Washington D.C. 20007.

This screening is part of the D.C. Independent Film Festival. Tickets ($10/$7 for students and seniors) can be booked here (scroll down — the films are listed alphabetically). Co-director Polly Nash is traveling from the UK to attend the screening and the post-screening Q&A session, and will be joined by Tom Wilner, attorney for the Kuwaiti prisoners at Guantánamo, and Counsel of Record for the prisoners in the Supreme Court habeas corpus cases in 2004 and 2008, and Debra Sweet, national director of the campaigning group The World Can’t Wait.

Reviews of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

“‘Outside the Law’ is a powerful film that has helped ensure that Guantánamo and the men unlawfully held there have not been forgotten.”
Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
Joe Burnham, Time Out

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington. Also see this dedicated page for the UK tour, which will be updated as new dates are added. Below, on YouTube, you can watch the first five minutes of the film via Orchard Pictures, from whom you can also pay to watch the whole film online. You can also pay to watch it online, for just £1, via Journeyman Pictures.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Revolution in Libya: Protestors Respond to Gaddafi’s Murderous Backlash with Remarkable Courage; US and UK Look Like the Hypocrites They Are

“Now people are dying we’ve got nothing else to live for. What needs to happen is for the killing to stop. But that won’t happen until he [Gaddafi] is out. We just want to be able to live like human beings. Nothing will happen until protests really kick off in Tripoli, the capital. It’s like a pressure cooker. People are boiling up inside. I’m not even afraid any more. Once I wouldn’t have spoken at all by phone. Now I don’t care. Now enough is enough.”

These are the words of a young woman in Libya — a student , a blogger and a member of the youth protest movement in Libya that is part of a growing uprising against the tyrannical 41-year reign of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Speaking to the Guardian by phone from her home on the outskirts of Benghazi, the eastern city where the revolution in Libya began just six days ago, and where hundreds of protestors have been killed by Gaddafi’s security forces, she said, “I’ve seen violent movies and video games that are nothing compared to this. I can hear gunshots, helicopters circling overhead, then I hear the voices screaming. I can hear the screeching of four-by-fours in the street. No one has that type of car except his [Gaddafi’s] people. My brother went to get bread, he’s not back; we don’t know if he’ll get back. The family is up all night every night, keeping watch, no one can sleep.”

Described by the Guardian as “an expert in subverting net censorship,” who “had regularly posted messages online to gather support” for the protests that began last week, the student explained how, since the uprising began, “her internet connection is down, landlines cut off, mobile coverage interrupted, electricity sporadically cut off and the house plunged into darkness.” She added, “There are even stories here that he [Gaddafi] has poisoned the water, so we dare not drink. If he could cut off the air that we breathe, he would.”

Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where there was remarkably litle bloodshed, and the dictators Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak fell from power through the pressure of sheer numbers, there are no signs that Colonel Gaddafi has any intention of relinquishing power without a bloody fight. As the Guardian also reported, sources close to his family told the Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat, “We will all die on Libyan soil,” and it appears that the brutal suppression of the uprising in Benghazi is being led by one of his sons, Khamis, described as “the Russian-trained commander of an elite special forces unit,” and that another of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, is also present, along with Abdullah al-Senussi, the regime’s long-standing head of military intelligence.

For those familiar with Libyan history, the brutal response to the uprising is typical, demonstrating what experts told the Guardian was Gaddafi’s “instinctive brutality when faced with challenges to his rule.” The London-based writer and activist Ashour Shamis explained, “For Gaddafi it’s kill or be killed. Now he’s gone straight for the kill.”

In the 1980s, as the Guardian explained, Gaddafi “sent hit squads to murder exiled ‘stray dogs'” who challenged his dictatorship, and throughout the 1990s he crushed Islamist opposition — and any other political opposition — at home, most notoriously instigating a massacre of at least a thousand prisoners in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in June 1996, as I reported in an article in 2009, entitled, UK protestors mark 13th anniversary of Libyan prison massacre.

An adept survivor, Gaddafi came onside in the “War on Terror” after the 9/11 attacks, prompting the most miserably transparent examples of hypocrisy on the part of Western nations, as their leaders queued up to welcome the former pariah as an ally, and barely managed to disguise their excitement at having access to Libya’s rich oil reserves.

In ingratiating themselves with the dictator, both the US and the UK willingly abandoned former opponents of the regime, who had, until then, been regarded as victims of oppression. The US willingly rounded up exiled Libyans in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sending them to Guantanamo and labeling them as “enemy combatants.” Two of these men eventually accepted voluntary repatriation from Guantanamo, but both were imprisoned on their return, and only one of the two, Abu Sufian Hamouda (transferred in October 2007), has been released, while the other, Muhammad al-Rimi (transferred in December 2006), is still held in Abu Salim.

Both of these men are, however, more fortunate than Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of a training camp in Afghanistan, who was rendered by the CIA to Egypt after his capture in Afghanistan in December 2001, where, under torture, he falsely confessed that two al-Qaeda operatives had been meeting with Saddam Hussein to discuss the use of chemical and biological weapons. Although al-Libi recanted his tortured lie, it was used to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and after al-Libi had been moved around various other secret prisons, he was returned to Libya, where he conveniently died, reportedly by committing suicide, in May 2009, just three days before the US reopened its embassy in Tripoli.

In the UK, meanwhile, Libyan asylum seekers, who had found themselves welcomed as refugees from the terrorist-supporting dictator Gaddafi, suddenly discovered that they had been designated as “terror suspects,” and were imprisoned without charge or trial pending deportation.

When judges went off-script, refusing to allow the government to return any of these men, and ruling that the “diplomatic assurances” agreed between Gaddafi and the UK government, which purported to guarantee that they would be treated humanely, were worthless, the men were then held on control orders, an oppressive form of house arrest that, like the deportation regime, involved them being held without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence.

After the Law Lords — following the lead of the European Court of Human Rights — ruled in June 2009 that the control order regime breaches Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a fair trial, the Libyans had their control orders dropped, either because the disclosure of any information would have demonstrated that they were pawns in a deeply cynical game, or because their liberty was now useful to Gaddafi, who, at the time, was brokering a deal with former political opponents, whereby they would left unmolested if they renounced violence.

As the unrest in Libya spreads to the capital, Tripoli, the Gaddafi regime continues to respond with brute force, using planes to fire on protestors. Whether they can prevail against a people who are overcoming their fear in vast numbers and are apparently prepared to die in an attempt to secure their freedom remains to be seen, but the regime is clearly under threat. Last night, another of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam, the supposed moderate and reformer of the family, embraced by Western hypocrites as a sign of the way forward, was wheeled out to deliver an incoherent speech on TV that was full of threats, hyperbole and lies.

Although he conceded that it was a “tragedy” that Libyans had died and stated, “There were some planning errors,” including “Errors from the police … and the army that was not equipped and prepared to confront angry people and … to defend its premises, weapons and ammunition,” he also warned apocalyptically of “civil war” unless order was restored, telling the TV audience that his father was still in the country and that the regime had the fiull support of the army. “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” he said.

He also claimed, “There is a plot against Libya,” blamed “an Islamic group with a military agenda” for the bloodshed in Benghazi — despite there being no evidence of Islamist involvement in a movement spearheaded by young people, trade unions and lawyers — and said Libya “would see ‘rivers of blood,’ an exodus of foreign oil companies and occupation by ‘imperialists’ if the violence continued.”

At the time of writing, al-Jazeera was reporting that “At least 61 people were killed in clashes in Tripoli,” but that “The protests appeared to be gathering momentum, with demonstrators saying they had taken control of several key towns in the country,” including Benghazi. Ahmad Jibreel, a Libyan diplomat, who confirmed rumors that the justice minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al-Jeleil had resigned because he “sided with the protesters,” also told al-Jazeera that “key cities near Libya’s border with Egypt were now in the hands of protesters, which he said would enable foreign media to now enter the country.”

Summing up the spirit of resistance, he said:

Gaddafi’s guards started shooting people in the second day and they shot two people only. We had on that day in Al Bayda city only 300 protesters. When they killed two people, we had more than 5,000 at their funeral, and when they killed 15 people the next day, we had more than 50,000 the following day. This means that the more Gaddafi kills people, the more people go into the streets.

Echoing this spirit, I have just received a message from an exiled Libyan friend, who told me:

Finally and maybe we will be free at last! I am having sleepless nights filled with euphoria about what’s happening in Libya. I am so sick of being in exile and not being able to contribute to my country’s development. Am sick of being ashamed of it and what Gaddafi made of it.

As the situation continues to develop, those words mean much more to me than the platitudes of government representatives in the US and the UK, who have done so little to oppose Gaddafi’s rule, and so much to enrich themselves, and who, in addition, have almost excelled in cynicism when it comes to Libya’s role in the “War on Terror.” As my friend also told me:

All I can say is that we are all so excited about the prospects of change and the ability to have some say in how to manage our wealth of natural resources. The West robbed us of this right earlier, then we allowed our own dreadful leaders do the same and worse.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner David Hicks Gives His First Interview — To Jason Leopold of Truthout

I recently cross-posted a fascinating article by my friend and colleague Jason Leopold, explaining how he had approached former Guantánamo prisoner David Hicks for an interview, after reading his autobiography, Guantánamo: My Journey, and how the encounter had challenged and affected him deeply. As a follow-up, I’m now cross-posting the full interview below, in which David Hicks is revealed as an intelligent and sensitive man with some very perceptive insights into the Bush administration’s detention policies in the “War on Terror.”

In particular, I was impressed by David’s descriptions of the corrosive effects of solitary confinement and indefinite detention, his explanation of the “micro-level psychoanalysis” of the prisoners, used to assess every strength and weakness in an effort to destroy their supposed “resistance,” and his fears regarding the mental health of the 172 men still held, about whom he says, “I shudder to think what state of mind those who are still detained in GTMO must be in, and wonder how damaged they will be upon release.” Please note that this article, as with all Truthout articles, is made available for republication under a creative commons license.

EXCLUSIVE: An Interview With Former Guantánamo Detainee David Hicks
By Jason Leopold, Truthout, February 16, 2011

David Hicks was one of the first “war on terror” detainees to be sent to Guantánamo the day the prison facility opened on January 11, 2002. He is one of the small group of detainees who challenged President George W. Bush’s November 13, 2001 executive order authorizing indefinite detention, which led to a landmark 2004 Supreme Court case, Rasul v. Bush, in which the Supreme Court said detainees have the right to habeas corpus. Hicks spent five-and-a-half years at Guantánamo and was tortured. Last October, he published a memoir, Guantánamo: My Journey. This is his first interview since his release from Guantánamo in 2007.

Jason Leopold for Truthout: Can you describe for me what you felt, emotionally, as you were writing the book and having to relive the torture you were subjected to?

David Hicks: At times I wrote as a third person, as if I was writing a chronological research report as part of my day job. At other times I had moments of vivid clarity. I would stop typing, sit back, and stare into nothing. The smells, sounds, the feeling of actually being there came flooding back as if had been transported to the camps of Guantánamo, clearly remembering what it was like to have actually been there.

Jason Leopold: Solitary confinement appears to be among the worst of all the terrible experiences prisoners faced at Guantánamo. Can you explain what it does to you in a way that Americans, with no experience of such things, can understand what such isolation, especially with no knowledge of how long it will last, does to a person?

David Hicks: Solitary and indefinite detention are two different things and are devastating when combined. Isolation has a powerful impact on the mind, especially when coupled with incommunicado detention as in GTMO. Everything outside the four walls is quickly forgotten. With no mental stimulation the mind becomes confused and dull. That state of mind is an advantage to interrogators who manipulate every aspect of your environment. They create a new world reality. Time ceases to exist. Talking becomes difficult, so when conversations do take place, you cannot form words or think. Even when hostility is not present such as during a visit with a lawyer or International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit, coherent sentences become elusive and huge mental blanks become common, as though you are forgetting the very act of speaking. Everything you think and know is dictated by the interrogators. You become fully dependent with a childlike reliance on your captors. They pull you apart and put you back together, dismantling into smaller pieces each time, until you become something different, their creation, when eventually reassembled.

Indefinite detention is draining and cruel. Only after five and a half years when I had been promised a date of release did the intense battle with insanity subside, and that I started to feel a little more normal again. I finally had some certainty and felt a glimmer of control return. I began to remember that another world existed and could once again dream about what that world used to feel like. Indefinite detention is draining because you are taken prisoner and thrown into a cage. No reason is given or any relevant information or explanation offered. There are no accusations, no court rooms or judges. Nobody informs you, “you will be here for X amount of time.” It’s an impossible situation to accept and every minute is spent silently asking and hoping, “this cannot last forever, I will have to be released soon‚”. But when the mind is so desperate, when you are on your last legs, you can’t let go of the thought that you could be released any moment, even if all seems lost and hopeless. In a strange way it is one of those things the mind latches onto for a source of strength, a reason to keep going: false hopes and dreams are better than nothing.

Jason Leopold: What do you believe gave you the strength to survive in such terrible conditions? Have you sought medical or psychological help since returning? If so, has it helped you?

David Hicks: I survived because I had no choice, as many of us may unfortunately experience at some time in our lives. It was a psychological battle, a serious and dangerous one. It was a constant struggle not to lose my sanity and go mad. It would have been so easy just to let go: it offered the only escape. I have attended regular counseling since being released. It has helped but the passing of time has been just as helpful. Being exposed to such a consuming environment for five and a half years leaves a stain that cannot be removed overnight. It will take longer to reverse the consequences but even so, some experiences, especially ones so prolonged, can never be entirely forgotten. I shudder to think what state of mind those who are still detained in GTMO must be in, and wonder how damaged they will be upon release. If they are released. At the time of writing, the US government is seriously considering enacting indefinite detention into law. It is hard to comprehend that they will effectively sentence someone to life in prison, without ever being charged, accused of breaking a law, or not even being told why they are being held. As with medical experimentation, indefinite detention on its own is a form of torture which causes mental anguish.

Jason Leopold: At what moment in your mind did you begin to realize or understand that you were being tortured?

David Hicks: I was beaten by US forces the first time I saw them and realized straight away that torture was going to be a reality. It was very scary. As I say in my book, I could not help thinking of the saying, “like trying to get blood from a stone,” and I was afraid of becoming that stone.

Jason Leopold: What do you think makes a human being torture another human being?

David Hicks: In Guantánamo torture was driven by anger and frustration. It seemed like a mad fruitless quest to pin crimes on detainees, to extract false confessions, and produce so-called intelligence of value. The guards were desensitized and detainees dehumanized. Soldiers were not allowed to engage us in conversation. They were told to address us by number only and not by name. They were constantly drilled with propaganda about how much we supposedly hated them and wanted them dead and how much they needed to hate us. On occasion, when some groups of soldiers jogged around the camp perimeters I heard them sing lyrics such as, “you hate us and we hate you.” One time in the privacy of Camp Echo a male soldier broke down when we were alone repeating, “what have I become?” after having arrived from an interrogation of a detainee in another camp.

Jason Leopold: Can you describe for me the facial expressions of the interrogators and/or the guards as you were being abused? How did they react to your pain?

David Hicks: Usually the guards seemed cold and indifferent. They deployed a “just doing my job” attitude, such as when they chained me to the floor in stress positions or made me sleep directly on a metal or concrete floor in a very cold air-conditioned room in only a pair of shorts. However some soldiers displayed discomfort and embarrassment. Usually guards were only used to restrain detainees, move them about, or help in the background with equipment. It was the interrogators who did the dirty work, expressing, hatred and frustration. At times soldiers did participate directly in beatings however, such the beatings I received before I arrived in GTMO (in Afghanistan, in transit, or when I was rendered to the two naval ships before being sent to Guantánamo). These soldiers made a sport of it.

Jason Leopold: Did any US soldier or any US official present at Guantánamo during your interrogations ever speak out about your torture or the torture of other detainees?

David Hicks: If you mean protest during the act of torture, never. Many soldiers in private, however, apologized for what their government was doing to us and emphasized that not all Americans were like that or agreed with such treatment.

Jason Leopold: Were you ever interrogated by anyone from the CIA?

David Hicks: Some interrogators stated which agencies they represented, some didn’t, while others lied about who they worked for. To the best of my knowledge I was seen by the CIA, FBI, US military intelligence, MI5 from the UK, ASIO and the AFP from Australia. There were other organizations working in GTMO, some I had never heard of before.

Jason Leopold: In your book you write: “These beatings and other activities were systematic and ordered from above, not the result of low-ranking MPs looking for ways to have some fun.” Did anyone ever state who from above ordered the beatings?

David Hicks: The soldiers were very open about where their orders came from and interrogators never allowed us to forget that they controlled every aspect of our lives; whether it was torturing us, allowing us a shower, clothing, or a letter from home. Then there were examples such as when General [Geoffrey] Miller took over camp procedures in early 2003. He unleashed a new wave of interrogation techniques upon us. Each new General, and wave of interrogators who were accompanied by experts from various professions, brought newly signed orders from Department of Justice employees allowing ever harsher techniques.

Jason Leopold: Have you read the torture memos written by former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee? Were you ever subjected to torture techniques described in those memos?

David Hicks: I have read them but it was some time ago and I cannot currently recollect all that they contained. Some of the techniques I was subjected to from the memos was being chained to the floor, known as “stress positions.” Sleep deprivation was an everyday occurrence during all of the years I spent in GTMO. Noise manipulation also happened often depending on what camp I was in. They used chainsaw motors and loud music in Camp Delta. They used temperature extremes on me, which meant subjecting me to the freezing cold because they knew I have a low tolerance to the cold. Sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation and other psychological manipulation techniques were also used on me (injecting me with substances, giving me cold and sometimes green food such as eggs, putting cameras up on the ceiling). They also used techniques that exploited my fears.

Jason Leopold: You write that, at Camp Echo, guards were placed to observe you constantly and that they wrote notes about your every behavior. Did you ever ask these guards what their instructions were, or if they knew what their superiors did with these notes? Did they ever tell you?

David Hicks: We were observed in all camps. Guards always carried a pen and note book having been ordered to write down everything we did, including the trivial such as what we did to pass the time and what we spoke about when other detainees were around. They even recorded how we went to the bathroom, i.e. did we shield ourselves from neighboring detainees or guards and if so, how? Nothing went un-noted. This information was combined with personality traits learnt from interrogations, ranging from how we spoke to how we responded to the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The end result was the US government compiling files on each of us, including a micro-level psychoanalysis. They knew our likes and dislikes, fears and weaknesses. These files were then used against us in interrogation and in daily camp life. It was about crushing and defeating us, to make us become so desperate that we would do and agree to anything to escape.

Collecting this information and what they used it for was no secret and some guards explained this program when in private. In Camp Echo guards who sat outside our cages staring at us twenty four hours a day had to write what we were doing every fifteen minutes night and day. The interrogation rooms of Camp Delta had an entire wall as a one way observation glass. Behind these walls sat teams of so-called experts: Intelligence officers, behavioral scientists, psychologists; people who made conclusions upon which they decided what techniques were to be employed. By this I mean what programs the detainee would be subjected to in his cage such as sleep deprivation, noise or food “manipulation.” There was no shortage of ideas, resources, expertise, or personnel. A lot of effort went into these customized interrogations. Nothing was private. We were violated internally, psychologically, spiritually. They probed and tinkered in recesses so deep; parts of ourselves we are not conscious of or in touch with in our daily lives and may not even connect with and discover in our lifetimes.

Jason Leopold: Did you ever meet separately with a psychologist or psychiatrist when at Guantánamo, for ostensibly psychological reasons, either a psychological test or assessment, or for supposed treatment of any sort?

David Hicks: No, but they did approach me occasionally during the last year or so I spent in GTMO to see if I would talk and cooperate. Apart from their contributions in interrogations they were always lurking in the back ground, waiting to “help a detainee,” but to really act as another prong to interrogation. If a detainee even whispered for such medical intervention a “mental health expert” would appear with a pocket of unknown medication and a long list of probing questions. They were not there to help, but to harm. We knew this and so I always refused to speak with them when they offered. If I did speak with them, such as the period when I eventually, after two years, had limited access to a lawyer, for example, the questions would have been centered on how I intended to defend myself and any court actions I was considering. All they wanted was information, or to find a new way to defeat you.

Jason Leopold: Were psychologists and/or medical professionals present at all interrogations? Were the interrogations ever stopped to check your heart rate and/or pulse?

David Hicks: The major physical beatings I endured occurred in Afghanistan, during transportation and en-route to GTMO. During those sessions, one was around 10 hours, my vital signs were checked often. In GTMO medical personnel were not in the same room as me during actual interrogations but from my understanding they were monitoring my interrogations from behind the one-way glass in Camp Delta. For other detainees, such as those being shocked or water boarded, medical personnel were present, or if drugs were being administrated during interrogation, as I describe in my book when they extracted false confessions from one of the UK detainees. They were present when I was injected in the spine, but that experience is one that I don’t like to talk about.

Jason Leopold: Have your attorneys tried to get a copy of your medical records?

David Hicks: Yes, but with no luck. We gave up thinking we might be allowed to see them long ago. Even upon return to Australia, where I was forced to spend the first seven months in isolated detention as part of the agreement to get out of GTMO. My family requested an independent blood test be taken on my return to Australia. They were refused without an excuse. It was nearly eight months since GTMO and about a year since being given medication before I was allowed to have my first blood test. I was informed that too much time had passed to see what I had been given.

Jason Leopold: During your interrogations, did the interrogators ever ask you questions about Iraq?

David Hicks: No, the policy of incommunicado was strictly enforced. For years we knew absolutely nothing about the outside world. We weren’t even meant to know the time of day, let alone our location, especially any news. The first time I learnt about the war in Iraq was the end of 2003. A guard was kind enough to allow me to read his copy of FHM magazine and it contained an article about the US invasion, otherwise I would not have known. Rumors of a war in Iraq did not begin to circulate amongst the detainees until 2004 and were viewed with skepticism by most. The military did not inform us officially of the Iraq invasion until late 2006 by placing large posters of Saddam hanging from a noose around the camps with slogans splashed across the front like, “this could be you.” It was only then that detainees believed that the war had taken place.

Jason Leopold: You have written eloquently of your terrible experience with what you say was medical experimentation, calling it the worst and darkest of your experiences there. Have you talked with any other detainees about whether they had similar experiences? How do you think about it now?

David Hicks: When I was injected in the back of the neck I was being held in isolation, so I was unable to discuss what had happened with other detainees. A year passed before I was eventually able to see and communicate with fellow detainees, and I am unable to remember today if I discussed that particular personal experience with them. We did discuss medical experimentation in general, however. A detainee with UK citizenship described being injected daily, resulting in one of his testicles becoming swollen and racked with pain. Along with these daily injections he was subjected to mind games by interrogators, medical personnel, and guards who worked as a team. Under these conditions they were able to extract written false confessions from him. How I experienced the injection at the base of my neck is described in detail in my book. In a nutshell, I felt my soul had been violated. That is just one experience I had with medication. There were many pills and injections, plus constant blood tests over the years. Everybody regardless of their citizenship should acknowledge that medical experimentation, whether on human beings or animals, is unacceptable. As with animals, we were held as prisoners when these procedures were forced upon us against our will. And as with animals, we were voiceless.

Jason Leopold: Did any interrogator or other official working for the US government ever use the word “torture” or “experiment” as you were being interrogated?

David Hicks: I don’t remember the word torture being used but there were many ways to imply it. After a torture session for example an interrogator would just say, “the treatment you have recently endured can always be repeated,” and threats were often made referring to past treatment or what was happening to other detainees. Guards often alluded to GTMO as being a big laboratory where we were subjected to their government’s well-honed techniques. I remember in the early days while being held aboard a US ship when a soldier said, “be strong man no matter what they do to you, just keep your head in God man.” It didn’t leave me with much confidence.

Jason Leopold: Did you ever sign any document stating that you consented to the medications/injections you received? Did anyone ever ask you to sign such a document?

David Hicks: I had two surgeries while in GTMO. One was for a double hernia, while the other was to remove painful golf ball size lumps on my chest. The cause of the lumps or what they were was never explained to me but research since my release indicates that it was either the mediations I was forced to take or the extreme stress levels may have been responsible. On the two occasions I was operated on I was asked to sign a consent form, which I did. However, my permission was not sought nor had I any choice when it came to being force fed tablets, or the numerous injections that we were all given. Many blood tests were also taken consistently over the years I was detained.

Jason Leopold: How typical was it, do you think, that interrogators attempted to get prisoners to become agents for their government?

David Hicks: Interrogators attempted to bribe detainees with food, bed sheets, toilet paper and other “luxuries‚” to become spies and to give information about other detainees. On occasion some detainees in GTMO became so drained and broken that they would succumb to the temptation. Interrogators tried everything to make detainees “confess,” including being asked to lie via imagination or simply to agree to an interrogator’s theories. Interrogators became desperate with the passing of time to find and pin actual crimes on detainees, and paper trails have shown they were willing to manipulate evidence in their favor. There was one time in 2003 when we were all asked if we would work for the US government performing secret operations off the island, somewhere abroad. Nearly every detainee laughed at this question and word quickly spread so we knew we weren’t alone. Apparently the proposition was a part of their profiling system. Interrogators worked around the clock to break us. Once broken, detainees were asked to agree to anything by interrogators, to repeat after them, to sign confessions, to be false witnesses, or to sow discord amongst detainees.

Jason Leopold: When did you become aware that journalists were writing about torture at Guantánamo and at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan?

David Hicks: Not until the photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq had become public. I found the public debate interesting. At first it was, “are they being tortured or not?” Then once torture was confirmed, the debate evolved to, “is it acceptable, is it justified, is it legal?” I am surprised by how many people still try to justify torture and support it as government policy, as an extra “necessary” tool to tackle terrorism.

Jason Leopold: Do you know if any prisoners ever died at Guantánamo while you were there?

David Hicks: Four died during my time in Guantánamo.

Jason Leopold: Have you heard about the three prisoners who allegedly committed suicide in June 2006? Do you know anything about them? Do you believe they committed suicide?

David Hicks: Suicide is possible in that situation, but evidence has emerged in various forms and from various sources suggesting foul play. Some witnesses are soldiers and have said that they believe that the detainees were “accidentally” killed during an interrogation at a secret camp on the island called “Camp No‚” as in no, it doesn’t exist. It seems they pushed their dangerous techniques too far. The fact that the organs were removed from the bodies so that an independent autopsy could not be carried out raises more questions than answers. This topic is covered in detail in my book with researched references pointing to foul play.

Jason Leopold: Did you ever interact with Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held at Guantánamo?

David Hicks: I saw him on the odd occasion over the years and exchanged greetings, otherwise I never had the chance to talk or interact with him. The military has often kept him separated from other detainees and I believe subjected him to horrific treatment. When I left GTMO in early 2007 I knew that he was being held in isolation in Camp Echo because that is where I was. Whenever I saw him he always looked so skinny, weak, and tired. I cannot understand why they continue to hold him and the nearly two hundred men still detained there.

Jason Leopold: Were dogs ever used to invoke fear in you? You describe the use of chainsaws in your book. What was the purpose of this?

David Hicks: Not personally. Dogs were mainly used against detainees known to have a fear of them. Our individual fears and weaknesses were used against us as customized interrogations. The chainsaw engines kept at full revs were used as part of their noise manipulation program. It prevented detainees from communicating with each other, prevented sleep, and basically drove us mad.

Jason Leopold: Can you tell me whether you have any flashbacks and if so what triggers it? When that happens, what do you start to feel?

David Hicks: Daytime flashbacks consist of those moments of vivid clarity as I described previously, but it is the dreams that are the worst. I see myself having to begin the long process of imprisonment again accompanied with vivid feelings of hopelessness and no knowledge of the future or how long it will last. The other dreams consist of gruesome medical experimentations too horrible to describe. Losing my personality, my identity, memories and self is much more frightening to me than any physical harm. It is these dreams that are the most common and terrifying.

Jason Leopold: Do you remember former Guantánamo guards Brandon Neely and Albert Melise?

David Hicks: Unfortunately, I don’t remember Neely from Camp X-Ray, it was a very confusing time for me. We established contact last year, but I became aware of Neely some time ago when he flew to the UK and publicly met some of the former UK detainees. He apologized for what he and his government had done. He is a brave man and I admire his courage and moral values so it was an honor to speak with him. I remember the polite and respectful soldiers, and the bad, but especially the good men and women I spent time with privately, such as in Camp Echo.

One of those good men is Albert Melise who made contact with me to apologize, to offer help, and to see if I was alright. I remember him well because he did what he could in that controlled high security environment to help slow the deterioration of my sanity for the few months I spent with him. He is another brave man that I respect and admire, to add his voice to the growing number of witnesses that are coming forward to publicly share the truth and expose that shameful time in our history. Melise did a lot to help me in those dark times, and it was a joy to hear his voice that first time as a free man. I hope to gather enough funds so I can fly these two men to Australia to thank them personally and show my gratitude for their friendship and trust. I’d like to show them my hospitality and my country, and to show them how much I appreciate their past kindness and current bravery.

Neely and Melise were not alone in covertly showing humanity to myself and other detainees whenever they had the opportunity. A handshake, an apology (though that responsibility shouldn’t have to have been shouldered by them), even a simple hello and a smile goes a long way in an environment drowning in hostility and hatred. There were other soldiers who helped me in their own way and apologized for what was happening when no one else was around. As bad as that place was, and some of the people who worked there, they were all human and there is good in all of us. A good percentage of the soldiers were very young and most were only reservists who had never expected to be deployed. It was always interesting to watch the shock on their faces when they first entered the camps, a scene they had often seen only in old war movies and the realization that their government “did torture.” Some of these poor souls suffered greatly as they experienced the “other” America and struggled to carry out questionable orders. It is not just the tortured who suffer.

Jason Leopold: What do you think should happen, if anything, to the individuals who tortured you and the government officials who sanctioned it?

David Hicks: As for the soldiers I don’t think “following orders” is an excuse. Interrogators should be disciplined and charged if found to have acted illegally. All medical personnel who participated in interrogations, whether doctors, nurses, corpsmen, psychologists and psychiatrists should be investigated and banned from practicing, even if they only gave advice or kept silent if aware of what was happening. I also think that the highest ranking military officials, politicians, and lawyers who created and supported the system need to go in front of an international court.

But these are not the only issues. GTMO should be closed, torture abolished, military commissions scrapped, renditions ceased, indefinite detention should be a thing of the past, and people (including children) should no longer be made to “disappear” into unknown black site prisons.

Justice is coming slowly, however. Former Guantánamo soldiers, translators, FBI and other US employees, even prosecutors, have gone public to expose the truth of GTMO and many documents have made it into the public realm. Spain and Germany had begun the process of prosecuting former president Bush and members of his regime but after being pressured by the US they dropped the proceedings [note: two cases in Spain are ongoing]. The latest country said to be exploring the possibility of prosecuting US officials is Poland for the US using its soil in its rendition program. Last year Italy convicted [22] CIA agents [and a US Air Force Colonel] in absentia for their involvement in kidnapping an Italian [resident, Abu Omar]. The former UK detainees were recently paid just over a million pounds in compensation and the Australian government has just paid compensation to the other Australian [Mamdouh Habib] who was held in GTMO after being tortured in Egypt. In both instances these men were required to drop their court cases against the state. WikiLeaks has been another vehicle shedding light on what took place at GTMO and beyond, exposing those responsible for illegal acts. Sometime this year about thirteen hundred diplomatic cables are to be released concerning Australia. I have been told to look out for information concerning my case. Especially cables that talk about the treatment I was receiving, and who was involved with the political interference and creation of the plea deal that I was forced to sign if I was ever to come home. I will be watching with great interest once all that information comes to light.

Jason Leopold: Is there anything the US government or the Australian government told you that you can never speak about?

David Hicks: There was a one-year gag order upon my release and I had to sign a plea agreement that said I had never been mistreated by US officials or their employees while in US detention. I am also not allowed to challenge or “collaterally attack” my conviction, seek compensation or other remedies, or sue anyone for my illegal imprisonment and treatment. I have been advised that no court would uphold the plea agreement.

Jason Leopold: There aren’t many Caucasians at Guantánamo. How were you treated by the other detainees? And now that you’ve been released, how have you been treated by the public?

David Hicks: There weren’t many Caucasians at GTMO but I wasn’t the only one. Before the release of detainees began there must have been close to forty European citizens spread between eight or nine western European countries. Usually most detainees treated each other the same regardless of their geo-political or cultural background. The Australian public has been wonderful; very welcoming, glad to see me home and very helpful. I often have people approach me to say hello.

Jason Leopold: How did you and your wife Aloysia meet?

David Hicks: Aloysia has been involved in human rights activism for years and in her efforts for social justice became involved in the Australian campaign to see me released from Guantánamo Bay. Over the years she came to know my dad quite well, and he played a part in our relationship.

Jason Leopold: You have a long life ahead of you. What would you like to accomplish? What are your hopes and dreams?

David Hicks: When I was released I wondered if refugees newly arrived in a country felt similar. I had to begin a new life from the beginning, from collecting a set of identification papers to such privileges as a vehicle license and obtaining a Medicare card. Despite long-term plans such as owning a home I have been taking a day at a time, receiving treatment for physical and mental injuries, finding employment and working, and when I get the chance or I’m in the mood, fishing or socializing. Writing my book for two years took up a lot of my time, as does keeping abreast of all the continuous developments regarding GTMO, the so-called war on terror and its related policies, and those whose lives (detained or not) they continue to effect, including my own. Life is very busy for me. Finding the love of my life has been my biggest accomplishment, of course! And then writing my book. Otherwise there is a lot of work left to do and in the years to come I will continue to rebuild my life, seek normality, and to live in peace with the hardships of the past far behind me.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

New London Date for “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” at LSE, Tuesday February 22, 2011

As part of my ongoing UK tour of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash, I’ll be attending a screening at LSE this Tuesday, February 22, after a last-minute request for me to come along as a speaker.

Here are the details:

Tuesday February 22, 7 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
LSE, Room NAB.2.13, New Academic Building, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2.

This event is organized by the LSESU Amnesty International Society.
For further information, please contact Oliver Sidorczuk. Also see the Facebook page, and see here for a map.

The screening is hosted by LSE’s Amnesty International Society, and, like the majority of dates on the 2011 tour, which are also hosted by Amnesty International student groups, it has the support of Amnesty International UK. As well as providing me with support on the logistics of the tour, AIUK has provided copies of the DVD to student groups, and is also providing publicity materials, including posters and, most importantly, postcards for audience members to send to Daniel Fried, the US Special Envoy on Guantánamo. This is part of an ongoing Amnesty campaign to secure the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, whose story features prominently in the film, and anyone who wants to help secure the relase of Shaker can also write to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton via the Amnesty page here.

At the LSE, as at other venues, I will also be making available postcards prepared by the indefatigable campaigner Maryam Hassan (of the Justice for Aafia Coalition) addressed to foreign secretary William Hague, and to Shaker himself, in Guantánamo, which I’ll be encouraging audiences to send. You can also find a letter to Wlliam Hague here, a letter to your MP here, and information here about an Early Day Motion tabled by Caroline Lucas MP, which you can ask your MP to support.

The LSE was one of the first places I visited last year, with former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, on the 2010 tour of the film, and I’m delighted to be returning, to raise awareness of the human stories behind the enduring myth that Guantánamo held “the worst of the worst,” to explain to people why, nine years after Guantánamo opened, President Obama has failed so thoroughly to close the prison, and why it is, therefore, more important than ever to press for its closure, and also, of course, to explain why it is crucial that people continue to campaign loudly and incessantly for the release of Shaker Aamer.

Despite being cleared for release in 2007, Shaker is still held for a variety of reasons that cast a poor light on both the US and the UK governments, as I’ll be explaining to the audience at LSE (and to audiences everywhere else on the tour), while also encouraging them to believe that, with concerted action, Shaker’s long and unjust imprisonment will come to an end, and he will be reunited with his British wife and his four British children.

Reviews of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”

“‘Outside the Law’ is a powerful film that has helped ensure that Guantánamo and the men unlawfully held there have not been forgotten.”
Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
Joe Burnham, Time Out

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington. Also see this dedicated page for the UK tour, which will be updated as new dates are added. Below, on YouTube, you can watch the first five minutes of the film via Orchard Pictures, from whom you can also pay to watch the whole film online. You can also pay to watch it online, for just £1, via Journeyman Pictures.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Another Desperate Letter from Guantánamo by Adnan Latif: “With All My Pains, I Say Goodbye to You”

Regular readers will know that the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo, where 172 men remain, is so severe that President Obama’s promise to close the prison has, instead, turned into a concession by defense secretary Robert Gates, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, that “the prospects for closing Guantánamo, as best I can tell, are very, very low given broad opposition to doing that here in the Congress.” In fact, the options for any of these men leaving anytime soon have been so severely diminished not only through the actions of Congress, but also through the actions of the judiciary (specifically, the D.C. Circuit Court) and through policy decisions taken by the administration itself that it is now, sadly, appropriate to consider that the majority of those held should be regarded as political prisoners.

Those who fit this category in particular are the 89 prisoners cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, a sober collection of career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence services, who reviewed all the Guantánamo cases throughout 2009, and concluded that 28 Yemenis should be released — and that another 30 should be released when the security situation in Yemen improves. This latter category of prisoner — held in what the Task Force described as “conditional detention” — were particularly unfortunate, as “conditional detention” is clearly one of those disturbing novelities invented in post-9/11 America, which, to all intents and purposes, may well mean, in reality, that they will be held indefinitely.

However, for the other 28 Yemenis, there appeared to be no obstacle to their release until, on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, tried to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. When it emerged that Abdulmutallab had apparently been recruited in Yemen, the backlash in the US against releasing any Yemenis was so ferocious that President Obama immediately caved in to the criticism, announcing an open-ended moratorium on releasing any Yemenis, even though, by doing so, he was consigning them to “guilt by nationality,” and was sending a message to the Yemeni people that they were all regarded as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

With one exception — Mohammed Hassan Odaini, a patently innocent man who won his habeas corpus petition last May, and was released in July — the administration has refused to break its moratorium, providing additional safeguards to ensure that no Yemenis are released by appealing every successful habeas corpus petition (except that of Mohammed Hassan Odaini), including that of one particularly unfortunate individual, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif.

Latif, who was cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board in 2007, under the Bush administration, and has verifiable mental health problems, possibly including schizoprehia, which have led to him attempting suicide on several occasions, was nevertheless required to wait another three years in the prison until, on July 21 last year, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. granted his habeas petition, evidently believing his story that he had traveled to Pakistan, and then Afghanistan in search of cheap medical treatment for the injuries he suffered in a car crash — the pre-existing condition that has been so ruinously exacerbated after nine years of abuse in Guantánamo. Even then, however, his suffering did not come to an end, as the Obama administration refused to release him, and, instead, appealed his successful petition.

His lawyers’ submission on his behalf can be found here (PDF), and it is, I believe, a savage indictment of the administration’s politically motivated cowardice — and of the indifference of the US media and the American public — that no pressure has been exerted to secure his release, as his case presents the most obvious example of the Yemenis cleared for release whose continued presence at Guantánamo is dictated solely by politics of the most cynical kind.

I have previously published two letters sent by Latif from Guantánamo to one of his lawyers, David Remes, in my articles, Guantánamo Is “A Piece of Hell That Kills Everything”: A Bleak New Year Message from Yemeni Prisoner Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif and A Cry for Help from Guantánamo: Adnan Latif Asks, “Who Is Going to Rescue Me From the Injustice and the Torture I Am Enduring?” and David recently sent me a third letter, written on December 26, 2010, which I am reproducing below in the hope that it will keep Adnan’s plight in people’s minds, and will encourage readers to consider that a campaign to put pressure on the United States to honour its commitments to free prisoners cleared for release is necessary if the Obama administration is to avoid complaints that it is engaged in arbitrary detention, mocking its own procedures by holding men cleared for release, insulting the people of Yemen, and presiding over a system that is no longer holding men based on any spurious notion of justice, but is, instead, holding them as political prisoners.

A letter from Guantánamo by Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, December 26, 2010

David Remes,

Do whatever you wish to do, the issue is over.

I am happy to express from this darkness and draw a true picture of the condition in which I exist. I am moving towards a dark cave and a dark life in the shadow of a dark prison. This is a prison that does not know humanity, and does not know [anything] except the language of power, oppression and humiliation for whoever enters it. It does not differentiate between a criminal and the innocent, and between the right of the sick or the elderly who is weak and is unable to bear and a man who is still bearing all this from the prison administration that is evil in mercy.

Hardship is the only language that is used here. Anybody who is able to die will be able to achieve happiness for himself, he has no other hope except that. The requirement is to announce the end, and challenge the self love for life and the soul that insists to end it all and leave this life which is no longer anymore called a life, instead it itself has become death and renewable torture. Ending it is a mercy and happiness for this soul.

I will not allow any more of this and I will end it. I will send [move] it to a world that is much better than this world. There, the real life will live again that will be filled with complete happiness and be rid of all harassments. There, the environment will clear up, things will calm down and you will be able to relax and you will not see the world of evil people.

I am in need of a person who blindfolds his eyes from me [looks the other way] and leaves me in my freedom so that I can choose my end. With all my pains, I say goodbye to you and the cry of death should be enough for you.

A world power failed to safeguard peace and human rights and from saving me. I will do whatever I am able to do to rid myself of the imposed death on me at any moment of this prison.

156

12/26/2010

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

Empathy and Self-Reflection: An Extraordinary Article by Jason Leopold About His Friendship with Former Guantánamo Prisoner David Hicks

My friend and colleague Jason Leopold is a fascinating man, as anyone who has read his no-holds-barred confessional, News Junkie, can attest. In that book, Jason described the drug hell he inhabited, haunted by demons while striving to be a fabulously well-known and significant investigative reporter, how his life came crashing down after he achieved those aims reporting on the Enron scandal, and how he put his life back together. Since doing so, Jason has been at the forefront of those investigating the horrendous crimes committed by the Bush administration in its “War on Terror,” probing the case of the supposed “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah, for example, and working with the psychologist and blogger Jeff Kaye on stories investigating human experimentation at Guantánamo. On a personal level, Jason, via Jeff, discovered my work and recruited me to write for Truthout, and he also regularly cross-posts my work on his website The Public Record.

Last October, during “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week, I finally met Jason, along with many other pioneering journalists, authors, activists and lawyers, and subsequently read News Junkie, admiring Jason’s humanity and his ability to address his own weaknesses. I was therefore thrilled to discover, last week, that he had been talking to David Hicks, the former Guantánamo prisoner from Australia, who was released in March 2007 after accepting a plea deal in a trial by Military Commission, and who recently published his autobiography, Guantánamo: My Journey, and that, as well as interviewing David, he had found himself deeply moved and challenged by the encounter, and had written an essay for Truthout exposing these thoughts and feelings.

That article — to my mind a unique take on how reporters address the Guantánamo story, which also includes compelling testimony from a former guard who has never spoken publicly before — is cross-posted below, and I’ll be cross-posting Jason’s interview with David soon after. Please note that this article, as with all Truthout articles, is made available for republication under a creative commons license.

My Tortured Journey With Former Guantánamo Detainee David Hicks
By Jason Leopold, Truthout, February 16, 2011

I’ve been struggling these past few weeks.

I read a book written by a former Guantánamo detainee named David Hicks titled, Guantánamo: My Journey. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking memoir and it made a profound impact on me emotionally.

I interviewed Hicks after I read his book. We spoke about a half-dozen times over the past two months. This is the first interview he’s granted since he was released from the “least worst place” in 2007.

Hicks is the Australian drifter who converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammed Dawood and ended up at training camps in Afghanistan the US government said was linked to al-Qaeda, one of which was visited by Osama bin Laden several times. Hicks was picked up at a taxi stand by the Northern Alliance in November 2001 and sold to US forces for about $1,500. Hicks was detainee 002, [one of the first prisoners] processed into Guantánamo on January 11, 2002, the day the facility opened.

Hicks was brutally tortured. Psychologically and physically for four years, maybe longer. He was injected in the back of his neck with unknown drugs. He was sodomized with a foreign object. He spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. He was beaten once for ten hours. He was threatened with death. He was placed in painful stress positions. He was exposed to extremely cold temperatures, loud music and strobe lights designed to disorient his senses.

I’ve been obsessed with the torture and rendition program since details of it first surfaced nearly a decade ago. I’m not exactly sure why I’m so fascinated and outraged by every tiny detail, every new document dump or why I chase every new lead as if I were paparazzi trying to get a shot of Lindsay Lohan. What I do know is that there’s something about the crimes committed by the Bush administration in our name that haunts me.

I had never spoken to a former detainee before I phoned Hicks at his home in Sydney, Australia, a few days before the New Year. There was something surreal about listening to Hicks’ voice as he described his suffering in painstaking detail. Maybe it was the fact that there was a real person on the other end of the receiver and not just a name on a charge sheet. I found it incredibly difficult to separate the reporter from the human being once Hicks stopped speaking. Before I hung up the phone after our first conversation, I told Hicks I was sorry.

“I’m sorry my government tortured you, David,” I said.

“Thanks, mate,” Hicks said, his voice cracking.

What I’ve been grappling with was how to tell Hicks’ story. I’ve truly been at a loss for words. I had to dig deep to figure out why I felt it was too painful to sit in front of a blank computer screen to think about what I wanted to write. Here’s what I discovered: I empathized with Hicks and, perhaps more than anyone, I understood how the then-26-year-old ended up in Afghanistan associating with jihadists a decade ago.

Five years ago, I published my memoir, News Junkie, and, like Hicks, I too was brutally honest about my own feelings of alienation, my battle with drug and alcohol addiction, a desire for attention, a desperate need to belong and a terrible choice I made in my early 20s to ingratiate myself with a couple of made members of a New York City crime family.

Admitting that I share some things in common with Hicks scares me. It’s another reason I believe I felt paralyzed.

I wanted to approach this as a straight news story and simply report that Hicks was tortured, that he was abandoned by his country, used as a political pawn by Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard in his bid for reelection and forced to plead guilty to a charge of providing material support for terrorism in order to finally be freed from Guantánamo. But I’ve written so many of those reports and all of them end with a shrug here, some outrage there and no one being held accountable.

So, I’ve made the decision that I would expose my own vulnerability and tell you how my interview with the man dubbed the “Australian Taliban” has weighed heavily on my mind. I still cannot comprehend what could drive a human being to torture another human being. Hicks said, at Guantánamo, “torture was driven by anger and frustration.”

“It seemed like a mad fruitless quest to pin crimes on detainees, to extract false confessions and produce so-called intelligence of value,” Hicks told me. “The guards were desensitized and detainees dehumanized. Soldiers were not allowed to engage us in conversation. They were told to address us by number only and not by name. They were constantly drilled with propaganda about how much we supposedly hated them and wanted them dead and how much they needed to hate us. On occasion, when some groups of soldiers jogged around the camp perimeters I heard them sing lyrics such as, ‘you hate us and we hate you.’ One time in the privacy of Camp Echo a male soldier broke down when we were alone repeating, ‘what have I become?’ after having arrived from an interrogation of a detainee in another camp.”

Brandon Neely, a former Guantánamo Military Policeman (MP), who escorted Hicks off the bus at Camp X-Ray the day Guantánamo opened, said some soldiers tortured detainees because they wanted revenge for 9/11. He said that’s the message that was passed down from above.

“We were told (by superior officers) all of the detainees, including Hicks, were the ones who planned 9/11 or had something to do with it,” Neely said in an interview. “We were told over and over and over that all these guys were caught fighting Americans on the front lines and at any given time if we turned our back on them they would kill us in a heartbeat. We were told that everyday before we went to work inside the camps. After a while, the attitude was, ‘who cares how we treated the detainees.'”

A day before he left Fort Hood, Texas, for Guantánamo, Neely said his unit was told “by the company commander, the colonel and platoon sergeant that these people were not Prisoners of War. They were detainees and the Geneva Conventions would not be in effect.”

George W. Bush did not formally rescind Geneva Conventions protections for “war on terror” detainees until February 7, 2002.

Neely told me a remarkable story about the hours before Hicks arrived at Camp X-Ray that underscores how impressionable he and his fellow soldiers were and how the US government conditioned its military personnel to view detainees as animals.

“When Hicks’ bus got to Camp X-Ray we were told this guy was a mercenary, he was fighting Americans and we had to be real careful around him, Neely said. “We were actually told Hicks tried to bite through the hydraulic cables on the C-130 en route to Guantánamo. So everyone was on edge.”

Neely was 21 when he was sent to Guantánamo. On June 2, 2002, his 22nd birthday, Neely received an “achievement medal” for “exceptional meritorious service while serving as a Military Policeman (MP) in support of Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

Nearly seven years later, Neely went public and revealed details about the abuses he witnessed and one that he participated in while he was at Guantánamo. Like Hicks, who Neely said reminded him “of a guy I would have just gone out and have a beer with,” he has been suffering all of these years. It was as if he were being tortured every time he saw or heard about a detainee being beaten or worse during the six months he worked at the prison facility. I can feel his pain. Literally.

Neely’s a cop in Houston now. He’s got a wife and three kids. He told me, “there has not been a day that goes by that I have not re-lived what I did or saw in Guantánamo.” Hicks reached out to Neely last year after he saw him on a BBC special. Neely had flown to London to meet a couple of former British detainees he used to guard and to apologize for the way they were treated. He and Hicks are pretty close now.

I asked Hicks if he could describe the facial expressions of his tormentors while he was being tortured and if he recalled how they reacted to his pain.

“Usually the guards seemed cold and indifferent,” Hicks said. “They deployed a ‘just doing my job’ attitude, such as when they chained me to the floor in stress positions or made me sleep directly on a metal or concrete floor in a very cold air-conditioned room in only a pair of shorts. However, some soldiers displayed discomfort and embarrassment. Usually guards were only used to restrain detainees, move them about, or help in the background with equipment. It was the interrogators who did the dirty work, expressing hatred and frustration. At times soldiers did participate directly in beatings, however, such as the beatings I received before I arrived in GTMO (in Afghanistan, in transit, or when I was rendered to the two naval ships before being sent to Guantánamo). These soldiers made a sport of it.”

“I was beaten by US forces the first time I saw them and realized straight away that torture was going to be a reality. It was very scary. As I say in my book, I could not help thinking of the saying, ‘like trying to get blood from a stone’ and I was afraid of becoming that stone.”

There’s a harrowing section in Hicks’ book where he describes how he had given up all hope after years of detention and abuse and planned to commit suicide.

“I was desperate; there was no other way out,” Hicks wrote.

Those words. I’ve uttered them before. I’ve written them. I know what that kind of desperation feels like. I ask Hicks if we could talk about it, but there’s silence on the other end of the receiver.

“Hello? You still there, David?” I said.

“Yeah mate.”

I didn’t press him. Maybe he was having a flashback. Perhaps he didn’t want to talk about it. I decided to end our conversation.

“Let’s catch up later in the week. We covered a lot of ground.”

“Cheers, mate,” David said and hung up.

I had a knot in my stomach. I had a hard time sleeping for the next few nights. I could not focus on anything but the images in my mind of a helpless Hicks being tormented. It made me realize that one can never comprehend the extent of someone’s pain and suffering until we hear about it first hand. I would get out of bed during those sleepless nights and walk into my son’s room and just stare at him sleeping in his crib. There was something about that image of pure innocence that was soothing to me.

One afternoon, a couple of hours after another session on the phone with Hicks, I took my son to school. As I stood in the background and watched him interact with about 30 other two-year-old boys and girls, tears began streaming down my cheeks. I had not expected to be overcome with so much emotion. I’m embarrassed admitting that I was. Unsure of what was happening at first, I touched my eyes thinking that perhaps something else was coming out of the tear ducts. I didn’t spend much time thinking about what I was feeling at that moment. But, in hindsight, I believe I was coming to terms with how we all eventually lose our innocence. Something about that seems tragic to me. It reminds me of a passage in another memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb, by Nick Flynn, who wrote about his own obsession with the Bush administration’s torture program:

“Here’s a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth.”

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has vehemently denied Hicks’ torture claims. In 2007, as a condition of his guilty plea and release from Guantánamo, the US government forced him to sign a document stating that he had “never been treated illegally.” Hicks, who was the first detainee sentenced under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, said he is also “not allowed to challenge or collaterally attack my conviction, seek compensation or other remedies, or sue anyone for my illegal imprisonment and treatment.”

What makes Hicks’ story all the more tragic is how badly he’s been vilified by the Australian media since his memoir was published last October for having the audacity to finally reveal the details of his torture. Yet, the Australian media seems willing to accept that Howard pressured the Bush administration to charge Hicks with a war crime, because Hicks “had unexpectedly become a political threat,” according to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman.

Gellman, author of a book on Dick Cheney titled Angler, wrote that Howard, “under pressure from home,” met with Cheney during the vice president’s trip to Sydney in February 2007, where the two discussed Iraq, and told Cheney, “there must be a trial ‘with no further delay’ for David Hicks who was beginning his sixth year at the U.S. naval prison at Guantánamo Bay.”

“Five days later, Hicks was indicted as a war criminal,” Gellman wrote. “On March 26 [2007], he pleaded guilty to providing ‘material support’ for terrorism. Shortly after Cheney returned from Australia, the Hicks case died with a whimper. The US government abruptly shifted its stance in plea negotiations, dropping the sentence it offered from 20 years in prison to nine months if Hicks would say that he was guilty.”

“Only the dramatic shift to lenience, said Joshua Dratel, one of three defense lawyers, resolved the case in time to return Hicks to Australia before Howard” faced re-election in 2007, Gellman reported.

But Hicks’ plea deal prohibited him from speaking to the media for a year. That’s how Howard dealt with this “political threat.” But justice was poetic as Howard lost his bid for another term in office.

Hicks’ plea deal, “negotiated without the knowledge of the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, was supervised by Susan J. Crawford, the convening authority over military commissions. Crawford received her three previous government jobs from then-Defense Secretary Cheney — she was appointed as his special adviser, Pentagon inspector general and then judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.”

Political interference in Hicks’ case, however, began even earlier. Davis, who resigned as chief prosecutor from military commissions at Guantánamo over the government’s handling of terrorism cases, revealed that a day after US officials met with the Australian ambassador to the United States in early January 2007, Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes called him up and asked, ‘how quickly can you charge David Hicks?’ even though at the time he had no regulations for trial by military commissions.”

Davis would later say that Hicks should not have been charged. Stephen Kenny, one of Hicks’ former attorneys, said that “it has always been my position that [Hicks] 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, Kenny said. The law that he eventually pleaded guilty to [material support for terrorism] was not actually an international war crime at all. In fact it was a crime that didn’t exist.”

Recently, the Australian government entered into a secret financial settlement with Mamdouh Habib, another Australian citizen abandoned by the Howard administration. Habib was arrested in Pakistan in 2001 and rendered to Egypt where he said he was brutally tortured for seven months before he ended up at Guantánamo. Habib was released in 2005 and was never charged with a crime, but he sued the Australian government after he got out, claiming it was complicit in his torture.

Hicks said if he were offered a similar financial settlement he wouldn’t turn it down. But what he really wants is the Australian government “to formally recognize that the 2006 Military Commissions Act was unfair” and designed simply to obtain guilty pleas.

“The Australian government has acknowledged that I have never hurt anyone or committed a crime under Australian law, so the least they can do is formally recognize my conviction as null and void,” Hicks said.

Although the Pentagon and the Australian governments continue to deny Hicks was tortured, at least one former Guantánamo military guard said he was.

“David Hicks was tortured, no doubt,” said Albert Melise, who has never spoken publicly before, in several video chats we had via Skype. “Solitary confinement is torture and I think what it did to David’s mind is torture. Would you want to be in a windowless room 23 hours a day?”

But Melise said he didn’t witness any of it. He only knows what Hicks told him. But, “being a cop and having experience separating what’s true and false,” he believes Hicks was being truthful. However, Melise also thinks Hicks, to some extent, “confused the stories of others who told him of their torture and made it his own.”

“His torture did not happen when I reached his camp,” Melise said. “He cut deals so it would stop. But I can tell you that David is one of those people who is easily manipulated. He was an easy target for the interrogators. They knew they could break him mentally and physically and they did.”

Melise, 40, was a Massachusetts Housing Authority officer when his Army reserve unit was activated and he was shipped off to Guantánamo to work as an MP.

Melise’s job duties called for him to escort detainees held in Camp Delta to their interrogations where he would “chain them down” to the floor or chair “knowing what he’s going to go through.”

The detainees sat there for hours in stressful positions while Melise stood behind a one-way mirror and watched their interrogations and waited for it to come to an end. He was present when detainees were slapped, when the temperature in the interrogation room was turned down real low and the volume on the music was turned up to excruciatingly loud levels and when the strobe lights were flicked on, part of the standard operating procedure designed to break the detainees and make them feel as uncomfortable as possible.

“That’s torture,” Melise said.

But I wanted Melise to tell me what happened in those rooms after the interrogators started questioning the detainees.

“Please don’t ask me about those things,” Melise said. “I saw a lot and I still have nightmares over it. I’ve seen these guys cry.”

I wondered if Melise bore witness to any of the horrific pictures my mind created during that split-second gap in our conversation.

“O.K. I understand,” I told Albert. “I won’t go there. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m a good soul and I was put in a horrible place,” Albert said.

“I know you are,” I told him. “Well, how about this. Can you tell me what you saw in the detainees’ eyes?”

“Sadness,” Melise said. “Like they could not believe the Americans are putting them through that. It was an emotional look. I’ll never forget it.”

Melise hated his job. He started drinking.

“Bacardi 151,” he said. “Two bottles a night.”

He said, “when you see people broken down so much you tend to drink a little to cope with what you’re seeing. I couldn’t deal with what they were putting me through.”

Melise said “fake” detainees were planted at Camp Delta to try and gather intelligence from the “real” detainees. He said he knew they were “fake” because they were “placed in cells for two or three months and then they would pretend to be going to another camp for interrogations.” But, “I would see them shopping, dancing or ordering a sandwich or hanging out at McDonald’s during that time.” Then the “fake” detainees would return to their cells.

He said detainees were also bribed with prostitutes as an incentive to get them to work as agents for the US government. He said there was a camp at Guantánamo that just housed children, some of who were as “young as 12 and over 8” years old, called Camp Iguana.

“One of my buddies worked there,” Melise said. “Sick.”

There was also a camp where CIA interrogators worked out of called Secret Squirrel.

Eventually, Melise asked for a transfer.

“I begged them to get me out of there,” Melise said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Albert, do you know what would make a human being torture another human being?” I asked him.

“I don’t have the answer,” he said, shaking his head. “It takes a really disturbed individual to torture someone. That’s not me. I didn’t sign up for that. I couldn’t live with myself and I couldn’t drink it away.”

So, Melise was transferred to Camp 4 for a few weeks and then landed at Camp Echo. That’s where he met Hicks and detainees from the UK who have since been released like Moazzam Begg or “Mo,” which is how Melise referred to him.

“Mo once cried in front of me and said he should become Christian,” said Melise, who has frequent Skype chats with Begg now. “I told him to tighten up and stay with your heart. Fuck what’s happening now. You’ll pull through. I said ‘don’t question your faith. Don’t think you need to change.’ He once told me I was not like the other soldiers, something shined in me that he could not explain.”

At Camp Echo, Melise said he “redeemed” himself.

“I let [the detainees] out of their cells and just let them talk and hang out,” he said. “I knew it would help them mentally. I knew it would help them cope with many things they had gone through. I also gave up what I had. I gave them normal food from my lunch to eat, cigarettes, protein bars, whatever was mine was theirs. I could have gone to prison myself for doing that, believe me. But I know I did the right thing.”

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“For sympathetic reasons,” he said. “Because I sat in on interrogations. I wanted to give them a sense of humanity. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. They were not the ‘worst of the worst,'” a description placed upon the detainees by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I’m an ex-cop and I can tell whose a criminal and who isn’t and a lot of these detainees I met were not terrorists.”

Melise told me he “likes getting this stuff off my chest” and I wanted to tell him that listening to him gave me a sense of hope and made me feel like maybe the dearth of compassion is not as widespread as I originally thought. But I held back.

Melise wanted Hicks to feel like he was back home in Australia, so he would sneak his DVD player into Hicks’ cell and watch movies with him, such as “Mad Max,” which starred Mel Gibson, and “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” directed by Madonna’s ex-husband, Guy Ritchie.

“I figured if he heard Mel Gibson’s accent he would feel like he was back in Australia,” Melise said.

I sent an email to Hicks asking if he remembers Melise.

“I remember him well because he did what he could in that controlled high security environment to help slow the deterioration of my sanity for the few months I spent with him,” Hicks said. “I hope to gather enough funds so I can fly [Melise and Neely] to Australia to thank them personally and show my gratitude for their friendship and trust. I would like to show them my hospitality and my country and to show them how much I appreciate their past kindness and current bravery.”

Melise, who is married with a wife and son, is now studying to be a nurse “so I can really help people in the future.” He recently re-enlisted in the Army reserves for another three years.

I was about to end my interview with Melise, but I had one last question.

“Do you think David is a terrorist?”

“No,” Melise said. “I don’t think he’s a terrorist. I plan on visiting him one day. Why would I do that if I thought he was a terrorist?”

Melise got up from his chair and walked out of sight. He shouted, “Sit tight!” He said he wanted to show me something. It’s a letter. He held it up against the video camera on his computer.

“I took this with me when I left Guantánamo in ’04,” Melise said. “It’s a letter David wrote that he asked me to send to his father.”

Melise never sent it. It was too risky, he said.

But he faxed a copy of it to me. Letters to and from detainees were reviewed by military personnel and were often redacted. But this six-page letter, written in April 2004 as Hicks’ legal team was challenging the legality of the military commissions, is clean. It clearly shows the psychological torture Hicks had endured and how he was being coerced into pleading guilty to crimes the US government knew he did not commit. The letter is addressed to Hicks’ father, Terry Hicks, who waged a campaign in Australia and the US to raise awareness about his son’s plight.

Hicks wrote that he owed his life to Melise. He said the letter he sent to his father “is very important because it’s the first and probably only time I will be able to tell you the truth of my situation.”

“Before I start I want you to know that the negative things I am going to say has nothing to do with the MP’s that are watching me,” Hicks wrote. “Some of them are marvelous people who have taken risks to help improve my day to day living. It’s because of such people that I have kept my sanity and still have some strength left. In the early days before I made it to Cuba I received some harsh treatment in transportation including mild beatings (about 4). One lasted for 10 hours. I have always cooperated with interrogators. For two years they had control of my life in the camps. If you talk and just agree with what their [sic] saying they give you real food, books and other special privileges. If not they can make your life hell. I’m angry these days at myself for being so weak during these last two years. But I’ve always been so desperate to get out and to try to live the best I can while I’m here …”

“I’m sick of writing you letters saying how good it is here. I’ve always done that because I’m afraid of what the authority’s [sic] may do to me. If I told you the reality they wouldn’t give you the information. I want to be able to make as much noise as possible. To let people know of what’s really happening here.”

Hicks then predicted his own future.

“Know that if I make a deal it will be against my will,” he wrote. “I just couldn’t handle it any longer. I’m disappointed in our government. I’m an Australian citizen. If I’ve committed a crime I can be man enough to accept the consequences but I shouldn’t have to admit to things I haven’t done or listen to people falsely accuse me. We can’t let them get away with it.”

I sent Hicks the letter. He said he doesn’t recall writing it. But he intends on giving it to his father.

“How were you able to survive?” I asked Hicks.

“I survived because I had no choice, as many of us may unfortunately experience at some time in our lives,” he said. “It was a psychological battle, a serious and dangerous one. It was a constant struggle not to lose my sanity and go mad. It would have been so easy just to let go: it offered the only escape.”

Like Melise, however, Hicks said he, too, still has flashbacks. And like Melise, Hicks said, “it’s the dreams that are the worst.”

“I see myself having to begin the long process of imprisonment again accompanied with vivid feelings of hopelessness and no knowledge of the future or how long it will last,” Hicks said. “The other dreams consist of gruesome medical experimentations too horrible to describe. Losing my personality, my identity, memories and self is much more frightening to me than any physical harm. It is these dreams that are the most common and terrifying.”

Hicks isn’t a practicing Muslim anymore. A couple of years ago, he got married — to a human rights activist named Aloysia. He also has a job working as a landscaper.

He said counseling has helped him, “but the passing of time has been just as helpful.”

“Being exposed to such a consuming environment for five and a half years leaves a stain that cannot be removed overnight,” Hicks said. “It will take longer to reverse the consequences but even so, some experiences, especially one so prolonged, can never be entirely forgotten.”

I had no idea how this story would end or what I would discover when I finally sat down at the computer and started to type. I now know that torture not only permanently scars the torture victim, but it also leaves its mark on everyone who comes in contact with that person.

Editor’s Note: Hicks’ book is not available for sale in the US. However, it can be ordered from online bookshops in Australia.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

The Indictment for Torture Filed Against George W. Bush (Part One: The Facts)

Just two weeks ago, as former US President George W. Bush was preparing to make his first visit to Europe since the publication, last November, of his biography Decision Points, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, and the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, with support from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), reminded the former President that he was a torturer — who, in addition, had openly bragged in his book that he had authorized the torture of “high-value detainees” in the “War on Terror” — and that, as a result, they would be filing a criminal complaint (an “indictment for torture”) in Switzerland, prior to the former President’s arrival for a meeting on February 12. According to the requirements of the UN Convention Against Torture (to which both the US and Switzerland are signatories), this might well have led to his arrest.

As I explained in a recent article, George W. Bush, War Criminal, Is Not Welcome in Europe, Bush subsequently cancelled his visit. However, as Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutonal Rights explained in the Huffington Post:

Swiss law requires the presence of an alleged torturer on Swiss soil before a preliminary investigation can be open. Because Bush canceled, the complaints could not be filed as the basis for legal jurisdiction no longer existed. However, the fact that Bush authorized torture remains … In the long run, ducking a charge of torture is not as easy as ducking a shoe thrown at a press conference.

In my article, I stated that “the fact that the torturer-in-chief has been made unwelcome in Europe — and, in theory, anywhere outside the US —  is heartening news indeed,” and this remains the case. In the hope of keeping the story alive — and providing the Preliminary Bush Torture Indictment in an accessible form, I’ve divided the original PDF into two HTML documents, and am cross-posting the first part below. The second part will follow soon. Please note that CCR will amend the indictment as new information comes to light (as it undoubtedly will, given how much of the US torture story is still hidden), and please also note that the original contains detailed footnotes, which I have not attempted to replicate here, where I have, instead, inserted a number of important hyperlinks.

PRELIMINARY “INDICTMENT FOR TORTURE”: GEORGE W. BUSH
BROUGHT PURSUANT TO THE CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE*

* The present document is a modified version of an individual criminal complaint prepared for submission against George W. BUSH in anticipation of his visit to Geneva, Switzerland on 12 February 2011. The individual criminal complaint brought on behalf of an individual plaintiff was not filed, as planned, on 7 February 2011 because of the announcement, on the eve of the filing, that BUSH cancelled his trip. Factual details regarding that visit, as a basis for establishing BUSH’s presence in Switzerland and the inclusion of analysis of Swiss law is reflective of the origins of this document. This document is not intended to serve as a comprehensive presentation of all evidence against BUSH for torture; rather, it presents the fundamental aspects of the case against him, and a preliminary legal analysis of liability for torture, and a response to certain anticipated defenses. This document will be updated and modified as developments warrant.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. George W. BUSH

1. George W. BUSH was born on 6 July 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. From 20 January 2001- 20 January 2009, BUSH served as president of the United States of America and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. Pursuant to Article II of the United States Constitution, executive power was vested in BUSH, as president of the United States. Upon assuming office, BUSH took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States.

2. In his capacity as president of the United States of America and Commander in Chief, BUSH had authority over the agencies of the United States government involved in the torture program, including but not limited to, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of State (DOS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as well as over the White House and Office of the Vice President.

3. BUSH chaired the National Security Council (NSC), which advises and assists the president on national security and foreign policies, and serves as the president’s principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies.

4. It has been publicly and widely reported that BUSH will be present in Geneva to take part as the guest of honor in a charity evening organized by the Keren Hayessod foundation, set to take place at the Hôtel President Wilson. His presence is announced for Saturday, 12 February 2011.

B. Overview of Detention Policies and Torture Program

5. On 14 September 2001, BUSH issued the “Declaration of National Emergency by reason of Certain Terrorist Attacks,” following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

6. On 17 September 2001, BUSH issued a 12-page directive (known as a “memorandum of notification”) that went to the Director of the CIA and members of the National Security Council, in which BUSH authorized the CIA to capture suspected terrorists and members of Al-Qaeda, and to create detention facilities outside the United States where suspects can be held and interrogated. BUSH‘s directive marked the official launching of the CIA program by vesting the agency with unprecedented power. The document was  “a means of granting the CIA important new competences relating to its covert actions: new choices it could make and new ways it could respond if confronted with Al-Qaeda targets in the field.”

7. According to Swiss Senator Dick Marty‘s 2007 Report to the Council of Europe [PDF], BUSH had been personally involved in the conception, discussion, and formulation of this new strategy. The 17 September 2001 directive, referred to by Marty as a “Presidential Finding,” is said to have “create[d] paramilitary teams to hunt, capture, detain, or kill designated terrorists almost anywhere in the world.” Marty‘s Report shed further light on what the directive was intended to achieve:

Our team has spoken with several American officials who have seen the text of the Presidential Finding and participated in the operations that put it into action. Two particularly striking observations have emerged from these discussions. First, by putting “a lot of stock in Special Activities” the Finding “redefined the role of the Agency,” even in the eyes of some of its own, more conservative senior officials. Second, the “really broad, not specific” scope of the covert actions authorised in the Finding meant that the CIA was instantly granted enough room for manoeuvre to design a secret detentions programme overseas.

8. The International Committee of the Red Cross (“ICRC”) was refused access to detainees held in the CIA program. As revealed through a 2007 ICRC report [PDF], the ICRC made repeated requests to the United States to grant it access to the detainees generally, including specific detainees whom the ICRC believed to be, and were in fact, held by the CIA in secret detention sites outside of the United States.

9. On 7 October 2001, BUSH announced that, on his orders, “the United States military has begun strikes against Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”

10. On 13 November 2001, BUSH authorized the detention of alleged terrorists and subsequent trial by military commissions, which he ordered would not be subject to the principles of law and rules of evidence applicable to trials held in U.S. federal courts. In this order, BUSH vested himself with the power to detain and try by military commission a broad category of persons believed to be, or have been, linked to the acts of international terrorism. In this order, BUSH further vested his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, with certain powers related to the detention of such persons and the establishment of military commissions. BUSH emphasized that tasking his subordinate, Rumsfeld, with these responsibilities related to detention policies “shall not be construed to limit the authority of the President as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces […].” Finally, through this order, BUSH purported to strip detainees of the power to seek a remedy not only in U.S. federal courts but also in “any court of any foreign nation, or any international tribunal.”

11. By late 2001, BUSH was planning for the detention of individuals at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Guantánamo) as evidenced by memoranda [PDF] addressing the question of whether the U.S. federal courts would have jurisdiction of individuals detained in Guantánamo — a prospect which BUSH sought to foreclose through his 13 November 2001 Order.

12. On 11 January 2002, the first detainees arrived in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

13. On 18 January 2002, BUSH decided that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda or members of the Taliban, and that they would not receive the protections afforded to prisoners of war. This decision was taken upon consideration of advice [PDF] from John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, both of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) Office of Legal Counsel (“OLC”), and the additional oral advice of his Chief White House Counsel, Alberto Gonzales [PDF].

14. On 19 January 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld transmitted BUSH‘s determination regarding the status of the Taliban and al Qaeda to combatant commanders, along with the order that the commanders should treat such individuals in a manner “consistent” with the “principles” of the Geneva Conventions only “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity” [PDF]. The combatant commanders were ordered to transmit the content of this memo to the subordinate commanders, including commander of Joint Task Force (JTF) 160 responsible for Guantánamo.

15. On 25 January 2002, the ICRC made its first visit to the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

16. On 27 January 2002, BUSH‘s Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld, visited the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo.

17. On 7 February 2002, pursuant to his “authority as Commander-in-Chief and Chief Executive of the United States,” BUSH issued a memorandum stating that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the conflict with Al-Qaeda, and that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions did not apply to either Al-Qaeda or Taliban detainees [PDF]. BUSH called only for detainees to be treated humanely and “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with principles of Geneva,” as a matter of policy — not law. In so doing, BUSH rejected Secretary of State Colin Powell‘s calls to reconsider and reverse his 18 January 2002 determination regarding the application of the Geneva Conventions, and disregarded the advice of the Legal Advisor to the State Department that the non-application of the Geneva Conventions to the conflict in Afghanistan was inconsistent with plain language of the Geneva Conventions and unvaried practice of the United States in the fifty years since becoming a party to the Conventions [PDF].

18. In March 2002, the first “high value detainee” Abu Zubaydah was detained and interrogated by the CIA. His detention “accelerated” the development of the CIA interrogation program [PDF]. In his memoir DECISION POINTS, BUSH explained that the decision was taken to transfer Abu Zubaydah to CIA custody and to “move him to a secure location in another country where the Agency would have total control over his environment.”

19. Through, among other means, discussions among members of the NSC, which BUSH chaired, BUSH was fully briefed on, and approved as a matter of policy, the indefinite detention of individuals held by the U.S. government, and specifically, the CIA.

20. The CIA interrogation program sanctioned by BUSH included interrogation techniques that were directly inspired by the “Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE)” training program, in which U.S. military members were exposed to, and taught how to resist, interrogation techniques used by enemy forces that did not adhere to the Geneva Conventions. As detailed in the CIA IG Report, the U.S. employed these techniques, which included waterboarding; confining detainees in a dark box for up to 18 hours at a time and possibly with an insect placed in the confinement box; up to 11 days of sleep deprivation; facial hold or facial slap; “walling,” which consists of pulling a detainee forward and then pushing him back quickly against “a flexible false wall so that his shoulder blades hit the wall;” and use of stress positions, on CIA detainees.

21. As described by the ICRC, the CIA detention program “included transfers of detainees to multiple locations, maintenance of the detainees in continuous solitary confinement and incommunicado detention throughout the entire period of their undisclosed detention, and the infliction of further ill-treatment through the use of various methods either individually or in combination, in addition to the deprivation of other basic material requirements.” The UN Joint Study on secret detentions [PDF, also see here and here] noted that detainees had been held in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland and Romania, among other locations. The ICRC described the fourteen individuals previously held as part of the CIA detention program, whom BUSH transfered to detention at Guantánamo, and which BUSH announced in September 2006, as “missing persons.”

22. The ICRC Detainee CIA Report further explained that the program “was clearly designed to undermine human dignity and to create a sense of futility by inducing, in many cases, severe physical and mental pain and suffering, with the aim of obtaining compliance and extracting information, resulting in exhaustion, depersonalisation and dehumanisation.”

23. The interrogation methods used on detainees were euphemistically qualified by the U.S. government as “enhanced,” but the United Nations and the ICRC found that they rose to the level of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The ICRC unequivocally concluded that, upon the information gathered from interviews with the former CIA detainees, conducted after their transfer to Guantánamo:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel inhuman or degrading treatment.

24. The ICRC concluded that the CIA program‘s interrogation techniques consisted of: suffocation by water — or waterboarding; prolonged stress standing position while arms are shackled above the head; beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall; beating and kicking; confinement in a box; forced nudity for periods ranging from several weeks to several months; sleep deprivation through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noise or music; exposure to cold temperature; prolonged shackling; threats of ill-treatment to the detainee and/or his family, forced shaving; and deprivation or restricted provision of solid food.

25. The UN Joint Study found that the CIA had taken 94 detainees into custody and had employed “enhanced interrogation techniques to varying degrees in the interrogation of 28 of those detainees.”

26.The CIA interrogations of Abu Zubaydah were videotaped and those videotapes were sent to CIA headquarters. In total there were 92 videotapes, 12 of which included application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The videotapes included evidence of torture, including the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah 83 times. Those videotapes were destroyed by the CIA in November 2005. Abu Zubaydah described to the ICRC his waterboarding:

I was put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds caused severe pain. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled without success to breathe. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

27. In November 2002, another CIA detainee held in a secret site, [Abd Al-Rahim] Al-Nashiri, was arrested. He was waterboarded twice in November 2002. Although the CIA IG Report is heavily redacted when discussing the interrogation of Al-Nashiri, it confirms that CIA HQ authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against him. As discussed below, BUSH authorized and condoned the waterboarding of Al-Nashiri.

28. A third CIA “high value detainee,” Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was subjected to waterboarding 183 times. In his recent memoir, BUSH specifically acknowledged that, upon request by CIA Director George Tenet, he authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, including waterboarding. In discussing “haul[ing] out their target,” following a raid on the apartment complex where Khalid Sheik Mohammed was, and the CIA interrogation that followed, BUSH writes in DECISION POINTS:

I was relieved to have one of Al-Qaeda‘s senior leaders off the battlefield. But my relief did not last long. [CIA] Agents searching Khalid Sheik Mohammed‘s compound discovered what one official later called a “mother lode” of valuable intelligence. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was obviously planning more attacks, It didn‘t sound like he was willing to give us any information about them. “I‘ll talk to you,” he said, “after I get to New York and see my lawyer.”

George Tenet asked if he had permission to use enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, on Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I thought about meeting Danny Pearl‘s widow, who was pregnant with his son when he was murdered. I thought about the 2,973 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11. And I thought about my duty to protect the country from another act of terror.

“Damn right,” I said.

Other so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used upon Khalid Sheik Mohammed were threats to kill his children and the deprivation of sleep for 180 hours.

29. In a speech given on 6 September 2006, BUSH “officially acknowledged the existence of a CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program.” Defendant BUSH stated that “our government has changed its policies,” and admitted to authorizing an “alternative set of procedures” on persons detained “secretly” and “outside the United States” in a program operated by the CIA, while refusing to specify what techniques were authorized. BUSH also discussed another individual held in this program, Abu Zubaydah. As discussed above, Abu Zubaydah was subjected to acts of torture, including having been waterboarded at least 83 times. Notably, while BUSH stated that there were no detainees held in the CIA detention program as of 6 September 2006, he explicitly reserved the right to place, again, persons in CIA detention in secret sites beyond the reach of the law.

30. In his 6 September 2006 speech, BUSH also expressed fear that members of the U.S. military involved in torture might be prosecuted for war crimes: “some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act — simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way.” He emphasized that he would not allow this to happen and asked Congress to prevent detainees from pursuing civil claims against U.S. military personnel for violations of the Geneva Conventions. Through these measures, BUSH sought to provide complete immunity from justice for any member of the U.S. military who tortured a detainee.

31. Having met with the fourteen “high value detainees” held in the CIA program following their transfer from secret sites to Guantánamo in September 2006, the ICRC concluded that it “clearly considers that the allegations of the fourteen include descriptions of treatment and interrogation techniques – singly or in combination – that amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

32. On 11 June 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member state, published an investigative report authored by Dick Marty on secret detentions and illegal transfers of “high value detainees” by the CIA involving Council of Europe member states. The report confirmed the existence of secret CIA sites in Poland and Romania and found that the interrogation techniques used on detainees were “tantamount to torture.” On 27 June 2007, the Parliamentary Assembly, adopted a resolution in which it unequivocally stated:

The detainees were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, which was sometimes protracted. Certain “enhanced” interrogation methods used fulfill the definition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5) and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

33. In March 2008, BUSH vetoed legislation that would have banned the CIA from using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, saying it “would take away one of the most valuable tools on the war on terror.”

34. In addition to detainees in the CIA detention program, these SERE-inspired “interrogation techniques” were also used against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a detainee at Guantánamo who was subjected to a prolonged, aggressive interrogation that violated international law, known as the “First Special Interrogation Plan” [PDF]. This interrogation plan, which began on 23 November 2002 and ended 16 January 2003, included 48 days of severe sleep deprivation and 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, dehumanizing treatment, the use of physical force against him, prolonged stress positions, prolonged sensory overstimulation, and threats with military dogs. These techniques were later widely acknowledged as torture. Indeed, the former convening office of the military commissions at Guantánamo, Susan Crawford, declared that she could not bring charges against Mr. al-Qahtani due to the torture inflicted on him: “we tortured al-Qahtani. … His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

35. There have been a plethora of reports published that detail the draconian conditions, interrogation techniques and torture that took place at Guantánamo. Since as early as 2003, ICRC staff had expressed their deep concerns about the detention conditions in Guantánamo — indeed, published memoranda by U.S. officials from that period contain descriptions of meetings held between ICRC staff and Guantánamo commander Geoffrey Miller where concerns were raised [PDF]. In 2006, a group of five United Nations Special Rapporteurs published a joint Report on the situation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Crucially, this report came to the express conclusion that the interrogation techniques authorized and deployed by the Department of Defence, which operates under the command of BUSH, amounted to torture. Additionally, the UN experts also concluded inter alia that the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike amounted to acts of torture [PDF]. A 2006 report by the United Nations Committee against Torture explicitly recommended that the U.S. “rescind any interrogation technique, including methods involving sexual humiliation, ‘water boarding‘, ‘short shackling‘ and using dogs to induce fear, that constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” [PDF]. A 2008 study by Physicians for Human Rights came to the conclusion that many techniques used in Guantánamo, especially those exercised over a longer period or in combination with other techniques, amounted to torture. Other studies have detailed how the BUSH administration, for example, forcibly deployed the drug mefloquine against detainees at Guantánamo in order to break their resistance to interrogation, despite the fact that it is well-known to have severe side effects and cause health problems [PDF]. In sum, there is widespread international acceptance — amongst intergovernmental bodies, international experts, academics and others — that the interrogation techniques applied in Guantánamo constitute torture under international law.

36. Finally, as is well-known, detainees in Iraq, including at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, were also subjected to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and other serious violations of international law [Taguba PDF, Fay/Jones PDF, ICRC PDF, Schlesinger PDF].

C. Admissions and Findings that BUSH Authorized and Approved Torture

37. George W. BUSH has acknowledged on numerous occasions, and without any apparent remorse or consequence that he authorized and condoned the waterboarding of detainees held in U.S. custody, and that he was aware of and condoned the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” BUSH‘s own admissions are consistent with, and confirm the findings of key reports, such as the CIA Inspector General‘s Report and the Marty Report.

38. The CIA IG Report confirms that BUSH was fully briefed on the specific “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by the CIA, through consultations carried out in the summer of 2002 by the CIA with the NSC, which BUSH chaired, and with “senior Administration officials.” The CIA IG Report further confirms that in early 2003 the CIA continued to inform senior Administration officials, including the White House Counsel and others of the NSC, of the status of its Counterterrorism Program, because “[t]he Agency specifically wanted to ensure that these officials and the [Congressional] Committees continued to be aware of and approve CIA‘s actions.” Select members of the NSC were given a detailed briefing on the program by the CIA on 29 July 2003, and again on 16 September 2003: “none of those involved in these briefings expressed any reservations about the program.” BUSH met daily with, and was briefed by, his intelligence team.

39. In addition, BUSH played an active role in supporting the CIA secret detention program. Marty‘s Council of Europe investigation, for example, reported that BUSH welcomed to the Oval Office a high-level group of delegates from Bucharest to personally thank them to their contribution to the CIA program, as Romania hosted CIA black sites.

40. In an April 2008 interview with ABC News, BUSH acknowledged that he knew of the detailed discussions members of his national security team (the “Principals Committee” of the NSC) were having to define the interrogation techniques to be used by the CIA. When asked about the treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, which included waterboarding, BUSH said: “I didn’t have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew.”

41. BUSH released his memoir, DECISION POINTS, on 9 November 2010. In the book, BUSH states unequivocally that he authorized the torture, including waterboarding, of individuals held in U.S. custody. He further admits and acknowledges his role in selecting and approving the interrogation techniques used by the CIA: “I took a look at the list of techniques. There were two that I felt went too far, even if they were legal. I directed the CIA not to use them. Another technique was waterboarding, a process of simulated drowning. No doubt the procedure was tough […] I would have preferred that we get the information another way. But the choice between security and values was real. Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior Al-Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk I was unwilling to take. […] I approved the use of the interrogation techniques.”

42. BUSH details how at his direction, Department of Justice and Central Intelligence Agency lawyers conducted a legal review of the list of interrogation techniques proposed by the CIA. (Notably, the current U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, has unequivocally defined waterboarding as an act of torture.) Having received legal advice from government lawyers that it is permissible to waterboard detainees, BUSH admits that he responded “damn right” to the query of whether Khalid Sheik Mohammed could and should be waterboarded.

43. In an interview with Matt Lauer of NBC News on 8 November 2010, BUSH again admitted that he authorized acts of torture, including waterboarding:

BUSH: […] one of the high value al Qaeda operatives was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the chief operating officer of al Qaeda, ordered the attack on 9/11, and they say he’s got information. I said, “Find out what he knows.” And so I said to our team, “are the techniques legal?” And he says, “yes, they are,” and I said, “use ’em.”
LAUER: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?
BUSH: Because the lawyers said it was legal. He said it did not fall within the Anti-Torture Act. I’m not a lawyer, but you gotta trust the judgment of people around you and I do.
LAUER: You say it’s legal and “the lawyers told me.”
BUSH: Yeah.
LAUER: Critics say that you got the Justice Department to give you the legal guidance and the legal memos that you wanted.
BUSH: Well —
LAUER: Tom Kean, who was a former Republican co-chair of the 9/11 commission, said they got legal opinions they wanted from their own people.
BUSH: He obviously doesn’t know. I hope Mr. Kean reads the book. That’s why I’ve written the book. He can — they can draw whatever conclusion they want.

44. BUSH‘s admission of authorizing torture techniques was previously acknowledged by the second-highest ranking member of his administration, Vice President Dick Cheney. On 10 May 2009, former Vice President Cheney appeared on the CBS News television program Face the Nation. Asked what BUSH had known about torture methods, Cheney replied, “I certainly, yes, have every reason to believe he knew — he knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it.”

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Moazzam Begg Interviews Former Guantánamo Prisoner Saber Lahmer in Paris

Saber Lahmer (aka Sabir Lahmar) is one of the six Algerians held at Guantánamo from its earliest days, having been kidnapped by US agents in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in connection with an alleged plot to blow up the US embassy in Sarajevo, even though the plot has never been backed up by any evidence, and was never even mentioned in Guantánamo. In November 2008, five of the six men (including Lahmer) won their habeas corpus petitions, and were released — three to Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2008, Lakhdar Boumediene to France in May 2009 (also see here and here), and Saber Lahmar to France in December 2009. The sixth man, Belkacem Bensayah, successfully appealed the denial of his habeas petition, meaning that a District Court judge must examine his case again, although this has not yet happened.

Last month, Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo prisoner, and now the director of Cageprisoners, met up with Saber Lahmer at a conference in Paris to mark the ninth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, and also found time to interview him for Cageprisoners. That interview, which is fascinating for a number of reasons — not least Lahmer’s reflections on the innocence of the men in Guantánamo, and his abandonment since his release by the French authorities, who have not allowed him to travel or reunited him with his family — is cross-posted below.

Moazzam Begg: Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Saber Lahmer: In the name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful. I send my prayers and peace on the noble Prophet and to proceed … My name is Saber Mahfooz Al-Ahmer (Lahmer), I am an Algerian national, a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah and am now a resident in the city of Bordeaux, France where I was transferred to from Guantánamo about a year ago. I was born in 1970.

Moazzam Begg: Before talking about how you ended up in Guantánamo please explain how you were arrested in Bosnia, where you had been a resident prior to your abduction.

Saber Lahmer: About a month after the 9/11 attacks I was raided by the Bosnian police and falsely accused of intending to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia. I was imprisoned in Sarajevo on remand for three months after which I was taken to court. The Bosnian judge in the case ruled that I be freed and there was no case to answer for and that the allegations were baseless. So I was freed and left the prison heading for home. On the way back home, in the middle of the street, I was abducted by US and Bosnian police and rendered straight from there to Guantánamo where I remained for eight years and eight months.

Moazzam Begg: And there were five other men with you who suffered the exact same fate?

Saber Lahmer: That’s right, there were five others and all of us have been released – except for one who is still in Guantánamo. I pray Allah frees all of them.

Moazzam Begg: Before we go on to what happened in Guantánamo, can you tell me how you, as an Algerian, ended up in Bosnia?

Saber Lahmer: After I graduated from university in 1996 I was offered work by the Saudi High Commission to go to Bosnia and help the humanitarian effort there as part of my contract which of course was a very important and crucial time for the Bosnians just after the war.

Moazzam Begg: So you saw something of the horrors that were experienced by the people of Bosnia?

Saber Lahmer: Yes, I saw the aftermath of the massacre, rape and pillage of an entire nation — I saw what the cowards had done.

Moazzam Begg: What was going through your mind when they sent you to Guantánamo?

Saber Lahmer: In reality, even when I was still in prison in Sarajevo and I asked those interrogators, “Why am I here, held by you?” they would reply, “We honestly don’t know,” and therefore it indicated that this was just a procedural exercise — nothing more. Afterwards, when I was sent to Guantánamo the interrogators over there had no idea what to question me about; they would say that the file that accompanied me from Bosnia contained no palpable allegations against me. Hence, they would say to me that if I had any information about other people then I should give it to them, but as for any accusations against me, there simply are none. Subsequently, when I was presented to the court [in the habeas corpus petition of the six men, in November 2008] the judge was not able to level any charges against me and that was because all the “evidence” presented about me in my file by the FBI and CIA was laughable. He [the judge] ordered my release.

Moazzam Begg: You are of course married with children, a family man. You were married in Bosnia and have children that you’ve not seen since your abduction. How did you manage to maintain contact with them during your time in custody?

Saber Lahmer: During all the years of my incarceration in Guantánamo I was unable to speak to my wife or children even once. I have two children — a boy and a girl. The boy was about a year and a half when I was taken and the girl I have not even met as she was born after I was taken.

Moazzam Begg: Guantánamo is probably the world’s most notorious prison — at present — but had you heard anything of this place before you became one of its occupants?

Saber Lahmer: I had no knowledge of this place — not even the word, what it meant or even where it was on the map. I was only aware that there was a country by the name of Cuba. I was only made aware of the Guantánamo prison by the police in Sarajevo a few moments before I was actually put on the plane.

Moazzam Begg: You were kidnapped illegally by US — and Bosnian — authorities. What was the reaction of the Bosnian people in relation to what happened to you all, who were legal residents of Bosnia?

Saber Lahmer: A few days before I was imprisoned at Guantánamo the Bosnian public became well aware that there was some kind of latent plan to hand over the six Bosnian Arabs to the Americans, a plan that was agreed between the governments of Bosnia and the USA. Subsequently, over 5,000 people held demonstrations lasting several days outside the prison where we were held, protesting on our behalf. Their purpose was to stop the oppression against all of us who were facing this impending situation. However, since the US can pretty much do whatever it likes with impunity — under the colour of a “legal” veneer — this arrest, rather kidnap, was carried out and the business transaction [of our lives] went ahead unabated.

Moazzam Begg: I have seen pictures of how you were all abducted in Sarajevo. Please tell me about the way in which this happened.

Saber Lahmer: They took us in a brutal, inhuman and barbaric way; they used extreme force, violence and terror. They beat us severely, crushed us and tried to dehumanise us. Let me explain a little: I was taken to a US military base just outside Sarajevo where I was shackled to the floor for three whole days. The temperature at that time was minus 10 [degrees centigrade]. After this we were taken on board a US aircraft and flown to another military airbase — I don’t know if this was in Turkey or Germany — and then on to Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: During this time, en route, what were the Americans saying to you?

Saber Lahmer: The statement that I kept hearing repeatedly — via the translators — was, “You are on your way to the American hell from which you will never escape.”

Moazzam Begg: Was it just you — the Bosnians — taken together or were there others who came to Guantánamo with you?

Saber Lahmer: When we stopped over in either Turkey or Germany and boarded another plane there were around forty or so prisoners on board who had been brought over from the Bagram prison. We knew this as we heard different voices speaking in Pashtu, Urdu and some speaking in Arabic. Therefore we realised this was a transit port where prisoners were brought from various places before being shipped off to Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: And how were you seated on the aeroplane?

Saber Lahmer: Of course we were seated in a very painful, savage way. Our hands and legs were tied very tightly with metal shackles; our eyes were covered with blacked-out goggles; our mouths were sealed with cloth; our ears were covered with large headphones; and, if we moved, even slightly, we’d get punched in the face or body.

Moazzam Begg: Were you able to communicate, to speak with any of the other prisoners?

Saber Lahmer: As I said, we’d receive a barrage of punches and strikes from the guards if we so much as moved. Even those who were clearly in a state of terrible discomfort or were just sick received no mercy. Instead, if any one dared complain or ask for medical assistance they would get beaten.

Moazzam Begg: This was in January 2002 — nine years ago. You were amongst the second group of prisoners sent to Guantánamo and were held at what, at that time, was Camp X-Ray. What did you see when you got there?

Saber Lahmer: When I go there I witnessed [prisoners] people of imaan [faith]. People who refused to bow down before anyone except Allah. When I saw them I recalled the words of Allah Mighty and Sublime: “Indeed this is the group that believed in their Lord and We [Allah] increased their guidance.” We saw nothing but good of them and we learned a great deal from them even before they learned from us.

Moazzam Begg: What did the Americans say to you when you arrived at Guantánamo?

Saber Lahmer: The first words I heard from them was, “Welcome to the American hell.” After that I was taken immediately to interrogation where they only really sought one thing: If I had any information about anything that I could tell them. I told them that this is not my problem. My problem is that you accuse me of trying to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia and yet no one is asking me any questions about that now. They would always avoid this question — and I would remind them. In the end, when I decided that I would not speak to them about any subject except regarding the embassy allegation they began to punish me. Consequently, most of my time in Guantánamo was spent in isolation and solitary confinement.

Moazzam Begg: What were the allegations against the other Bosnian Arabs who came with you?

Saber Lahmer: Exactly the same as me: that we, as a group of six men, were involved in a conspiracy to blow up the US embassy. What I find amazing about this “conspiracy” allegation is that the Americans accepted that we did not even know one another [before the arrests]. This was the contradiction: they would say we know that so-and-so does not know so-and so, and yet they would still claim that we somehow conspired together.

Moazzam Begg: How were you able to communicate with your family about what had happened to you all this time?

Saber Lahmer: There was no way to communicate with them at all. Hence, I heard nothing from my family for several years. The first letter I received from my family was via my lawyer who first saw me in 2004.

Moazzam Begg: Just so people understand, why would you have a lawyer when there are no charges against you, no court proceeding and legal process that you have access to?

Saber Lahmer: Firstly, according to their procedures a person has the right to legal representation if he is imprisoned — whether he is charged or not.

Moazzam Begg: But this happened only after you’d been imprisoned for almost three years that they allowed an opportunity for lawyers to come to Guantánamo.

Saber Lahmer: Yes, and they did not want this to happen — they did not want to allow us any way to legally challenge our incarceration. However, it was due to the outside pressure placed on the US administration after stories of abuse and torture had become synonymous with Guantánamo and the fact that they were acting in contravention of every law relating to the treatment of prisoners. Even with the presence of lawyers it was just to give Guantánamo a veneer of having some kind of legal system when in fact there still is none. You won’t find any place in the world that imprisons people without giving them at least some legal rights.

Moazzam Begg: You spent over eight years imprisoned in Guantánamo. This is an incredibly long time, almost impossible for most people to contemplate. What was the hardest part of your ordeal and how did you deal with it?

Saber Lahmer: I wouldn’t say that there were some days in Guantánamo that were hard, they were all hard. And what we witnessed there were events that no one would encounter in any ordinary prison. However, we passed these days with strength and patience from Allah even though we could never have imagined that we could have spent all this time facing the various types of torture and abuse which have been refined to a modern day art by scholars and psychiatrists. These types of torture are not “radical” or traditional as such but they have been perfected after many years of experiment and study to a fine art and focus on the psychological as much as or even more than the physical.

Moazzam Begg: What do you think is the biggest lesson the US administration learned from the Guantánamo experiment?

Saber Lahmer: That [our] imaan will never be extinguished.

Moazzam Begg: What were the Americans intending to gain out of all this?

Saber Lahmer: It is as the words of Allah [in the Quran] when he says: “They wish to extinguish the light of Allah through their words but Allah repels them and protects and completes His light …” The issue has nothing to do with terrorism. Those imprisoned in Guantánamo are not terrorists and the greatest evidence of this is that they are still avoiding legal proceedings at every level. And you can now see that Obama is trying to play the same dirty game as his predecessor by avoiding any legal process. Instead, they are approaching prisoners and asking them to sign a piece of paper admitting they are reformed terrorists and that they will be freed once they do so and will also not face charges. The reason for this is clear: there are no charges or evidence against these people [the prisoners]. If they were taken to court both Obama and his predecessor would be exposed because these men have been held for so long and after all that, no charges. This would be a cause of great shame to the US leader. Thus, they prefer people leave Guantánamo without trial.

Moazzam Begg: There are prisoners who have memorised the Quran, memorised texts of ahadeeth [Prophetic sayings] by word of mouth, learned languages from other prisoners and made fitness routines for themselves. How did you spend your time, how did you benefit, as it were, from your imprisonment?

Saber Lahmer: Books to educate oneself were prohibited in Guantánamo and that was because they wanted people to leave that place ignorant and unable to understand anything around them after all this time in prison. They know of course that in many prisons people can study many subjects and attain great benefit from their time in prison so that their time in prison isn’t completely wasted. However, out of malice they deliberately made sure we had nothing to study and, based on the concepts developed through psychological experimentation, they ensured we did not have the tools to benefit from improving ourselves through gaining knowledge. They only permitted the distribution of the Noble Quran — not for our benefit but for their own, so they could say that they are affording us religious freedoms. This is also evidenced from the fact, especially in the latter days, that almost every prisoner has memorised the entire Quran — al hamdu lillah [Allah be praised].

Moazzam Begg: In addition to this, some prisoners who had knowledge of different subjects were teaching the others?

Saber Lahmer: Yes, certainly. Your brother here took on the task of teaching others all that he was able to from what he had studied during his life as a free man and similarly anyone who had anything to teach would do so in order for others to benefit and gain reward in the Hereafter. So for example, someone who had learned grammar and comprehension would teach those who had little grasp of that subject, likewise those who had memorised classical texts would teach the others and so on. Thus, although the Americans did not wish us to benefit from anything we managed to benefit a great deal from one another.

Moazzam Begg: As you said, you spent many years in solitary confinement. How did you manage to learn anything during that time?

Saber Lahmer: I spent years in isolation: one and a half years in Camp Six, a similar time I spent in Camp Echo and some time in other places and in such places prisoners were prevented from anything. The only thing that one could do during that time was to live with the book of Allah, Mighty and Sublime and no other, which was our friend and companion — and what a beautiful friend and companion. During all this time I did not see the sun — or anything outside. In fact, by the time this period had ended I had forgotten the colour of the sky and what it looks like.

Moazzam Begg: There are a few prisoners who have lost their minds in Guantanamo. What do you know about this and how can this happen?

Saber Lahmer: Yes, I have myself seen some people who have in reality lost their minds. They include a Palestinian, some Afghans and some Turkistanis [Uyghurs] who had completely lost their minds. Hence, the US administration does not wish to release them, fearing the response the world will have to their already battered world image. There is of course no doubt that this has happened directly as a result of the torture and abuse suffered by these men and the psychological pressures placed upon them over a period of nine years — especially during interrogations. Day after day, month after month and year after year, this has caused the men to lose a grip on reality and led to the descent into insanity. Sadly, this has happened to several prisoners.

Moazzam Begg: Despite this most of the prisoners have left Guantánamo with a heightened sense of their faith and strength of character. How did you manage to keep and, indeed, develop your faith during this time?

Saber Lahmer: Guantánamo is a place of isolation far removed from all normal civilisation. Thus, a person of faith will see this as an opportunity to be in seclusion with Allah. I’ve heard so many of the prisoners say that they had always wanted to have some time to spend alone, to reflect on their lives and spend in contemplation and personal meditation, but that the world had always got the better of them. And so we can use this as an opportunity to review the pages of our lives, to correct that which is wrong within us and reflect on our hopes for the future. And essentially, to strengthen our relationship with our Creator since we are prevented from any other thing in this place. And, as it is said, it may be that something seemingly harmful is in fact more worthy than you think.

Moazzam Begg: Were any of the guards or interrogators humane or sympathetic towards you?

Saber Lahmer: As for the interrogators I did not see any good at all from them. Rather, I saw the opposite from them, wanting to destroy any hope we had of freedom or a future. Suffice to say that they said things like, “If we were allowed to, we would have killed you a long time ago. You don’t deserve any mercy. It’s only the law that’s preventing us.” As for the guards, they told us that they would get special training two months before they came to Guantánamo and get indoctrinated against us, being told that we are savages, that we are very dangerous, that they need to be very wary of us at all times, and that we do not deserve to be treated with mercy. Of course, many of them changed their minds by the time they left Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: Some of the soldiers embraced Islam and others were sympathetic. What did you experience of this?

Saber Lahmer: Yes, this is true with those who realised the truth, and I would ask all those who became Muslims about the reason for this, and they would say that it was due to many reasons. They were moved by the brotherhood they witnessed between the prisoners. They were amazed at our bowing and prostrating to Allah and how that in an integral part of our lives, which we will not give up for anyone. They saw that as the reason behind our incomprehensible (to them) patience. They also commented that when they looked at our faces they would see happiness and tranquility which they found remarkable under the circumstances. Also, they said, the authorities described us in one way but that their experience of us — almost living with us on the other side of the wire — was the total opposite. They also recognised our treatment as oppression and injustice, and saw the hypocrisy of telling the outside world that we were being treated fairly, with respect and dignity. The soldiers [the unbiased ones] saw through all of this. All of these things created in them a desire to ask us more about Islam and eventually enter into its fold — al hamdu lillah.

Moazzam Begg: I just wanted to tell you that there is a sister who embraced Islam recently who was formerly a guard at Guantánamo and she told me that the seed of Islam was planted in her heart during her time there and that she wanted all the prisoners to know this.

Saber Lahmer: Yes — that’s true. There were male and female soldiers who embraced Islam secretly. They did this because they understood the negative repercussions they would face, sadly, because of the open hostility towards Muslims.

Moazzam Begg: What was your relationship with the other prisoners like and how did living with them for so long affect you as a person?

Saber Lahmer: Before I arrived at Guantánamo I heard about them through the media that they were allegedly the worst of all of God’s creatures. But from the time that I met them and began my life of exile with them I recalled the words of Allah Mighty and Sublime: “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and those with him are forceful against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves. You see them bowing and prostrating [in prayer], seeking bounty from Allah and [His] pleasure. Their mark is on their faces from the trace of prostration.” These were people of good, of obedience [to Allah] and patience. Their prior concern in life was earning the pleasure of Allah. All of this had a great effect on my life and I began to emulate them in all that is good and, as the poet said, “I love the righteous even if I am not of them.” I tried all I could to be like them, though I could not attain their level.

Moazzam Begg: At its height there were around 780 prisoners in Guantánamo, but over 600 have been released. You were there for 8 years and witnessed many prisoners leave while you remained behind. What went through your mind when this happened?

Saber Lahmer: I never saw anyone leave from Guantánamo who didn’t cry in the hope that they would be the last to leave that place — wishing only that their brothers would leave before them. It occurred many times that when a person was told he was due to be released, the prisoner would ask to speak to the authorities so that he could inform them that he does not want to be released and instead wants someone else to leave in his stead. Of course, this is from an internal and brotherly point of view, and it does not mean that anyone would like to stay in a place that is filled with oppression and abuse.

Moazzam Begg: It is clear that the US administration seemed bent on breaking the resolve and resistance of the prisoners, but it seems as if the opposite was achieved. The weak became strong and the strong an example for others. What brought this about?

Saber Lahmer: In truth the Americans didn’t understand some of the basic concepts of human nature. They wanted to destroy us — and destroy our faith in the religion of Islam. It was not the case of wanting to prevent terrorism. If it was we would have applauded them. But they wanted to extinguish the light of Allah — and the one who wishes to do this must be exposed because he is at war with the Lord of the Worlds. Relevant to this is the story of Abdul Muttalib when his camels were taken by the King of Abyssinia [Abraha] who had come to destroy the Ka’bah. The king said to him, “I thought you had come to ask me about my intention to destroy the Ka’bah but you ask me for your camels instead?” Abdul Muttalib replied, “I am asking for my property because the Ka’bah has a Lord who will maintain its own protection.” In the end, as we know, Allah destroyed this army of elephants as is recorded in the Quran. This is the final result for whoever wishes to obstruct the way of Allah.

Moazzam Begg: What did you see or experience in relation to religious abuse during your time in custody?

Saber Lahmer: As I said, they used every tool available to dent our faith and tried very hard to make us leave our religion and practice of it. In fact, some interrogators would say that it was their mission to ensure that the prisoners left this place having completely forgotten their religion, but Allah wished to foil their plot. In addition, I saw the soldiers kick the Quran with their booted feet; I saw with my own eyes in Camp X-Ray soldiers throwing the Quran into a toilet bucket; I encountered interrogators who would curse and swear at Allah and his messenger in the belief that this would enrage me and that somehow I would start talking to them and co-operating with them as a result. They would make fun of our faith in order to needle us, knowing that it was something very dear to our hearts.

Moazzam Begg: This sort of thing led to more resistance and non-cooperation which included the hunger strikes. What was the result of this? Did you take part in the strikes?

Saber Lahmer: Yes, we took part in the hunger strikes when abuses against our faith occurred — like the desecration of the Quran. The hunger strikes were very long and it was an extremely harsh time, but the result was that the US administration put out a general order that no soldier is permitted to touch the Quran. Of course, this wasn’t out of respect for our book or our faith but for their own purposes completely — so that they didn’t have to deal with our response.

Moazzam Begg: How did the authorities try to break the hunger strikes?

Saber Lahmer: They tried to force-feed us with liquid food by forcing tubes through our nostrils — and sometimes our mouths — and pushing them into our stomachs while we were tied down to a chair with our arms, legs and heads placed in restraints. And, if only they wanted to feed us using this process that’s one thing, but the way in which they forcibly inserted and removed these tubes was so painful that it is clear they just wanted to break our will to hunger strike rather than the strike itself.

Moazzam Begg: Did they succeed in breaking the strikes in this way?

Saber Lahmer: They did not succeed and they will never succeed because stamping authority by force never wins.

Moazzam Begg: When was the first time you heard that you might be released from Guantánamo and who told you?

Saber Lahmer: After I was declared innocent by the US I was moved to Camp Iguana where I spent several months with the Uyghurs until the time for my release finally came. So although I had been cleared for release for a very long time, I was not released even then until almost a year later.

Moazzam Begg: How did your transfer from Guantánamo and release to France finally come about?

Saber Lahmer: This was through the French ambassador in Washington — I met one of the French embassy officials who offered to accept and take me to France. I asked them what they were prepared to do for me in France and they told me, oddly, that there is no need to discuss too much of that and that the moment I step foot in France I would be afforded all the rights and avenues to advance my life and live as a normal human being. But, since my return I have, sadly, spent most of my time in a tiny room — one that resembles a Guantánamo cell in many ways.

Moazzam Begg: The first thing each person released thinks of is their family. Were you able to make contact with them?

Saber Lahmer: I went to and left from Guantánamo an innocent man — no charges, no accusations even. I was told before I came to France that I’d have all my rights — which would include the ability to go to visit my family in Bosnia, but until now I have been prevented from doing so as I have no travel documents. Hence, I have not seen my children in all this time and no one is even prepared to discuss this issue with me.

Moazzam Begg: How was your first conversation with your children after your release; did they see you as a stranger or even know who you are?

Saber Lahmer: When I called them for the first time they did not really want to speak to me because they could not recognise me as a father — I’m a complete stranger to them. How can a child speak to a stranger with such an obstacle placed in front of it? I sense this when I speak to them all the time.

Moazzam Begg: This has been the experience of many Guantánamo returnees: fathers who don’t know their own children, children who cannot recognise their fathers. Who bears the responsibility for all this?

Saber Lahmer: We cannot just blame America for this, especially for those who are now free. The countries that have taken in Guantánamo prisoners but have made absolutely no provision for the basic human right of a family being together, reunited after such an ordeal, demonstrates still how we are regarded as less than human.

Moazzam Begg: There was some mention of your case recently in WikiLeaks. Can you tell us about this?

Saber Lahmer: Two things emerged from the WikiLeaks for me. Firstly, that I was brought over to France for the promise of a financial incentive and package and, secondly, became a sort of a bargaining chip for the purposes of improving Franco-American relations, which, as everyone knows, are quite often sour. This is what has become apparent.

Moazzam Begg: How do you feel about this?

Saber Lahmer: Since my resettlement here no one from the government has spoken to me at all — not once, despite writing to them, or contacting them through lawyers — nothing. At present I just feel like I’ve been moved from the big Guantánamo to the lesser one, simply because I have been abandoned by the very people who promised to me give me my basic rights.

Moazzam Begg: Finally, what advice do you have for our readers and people who are interested the cases of the Guantánamo prisoners?

Saber Lahmer: I would ask all those who read this to do all they can to assist Cageprisoners and other organisations in their efforts to have the prisoners of Guantánamo released and receive justice. Also, they should not forget those who have been released from there, because those who have been freed in reality still live in Guantánamo. And when I ask people to help both groups of people I mean that there must be real, tangible efforts made to assist the downtrodden and forgotten prisoners of Guantánamo. Steps taken must be straight and consistent and as the saying goes, if you speak then listen and if you hit then you [must] feel pain [too].

Moazzam Begg: May Allah reward you with the best for sharing your thoughts.

Saber Lahmer: May Allah reward you and all the brothers and sisters at Cageprisoners for your efforts to assist the prisoners.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Hiding Horrific Tales of Torture: Why The US Government Reached A Plea Deal with Guantánamo Prisoner Noor Uthman Muhammed

At Guantánamo on Tuesday, following hints last week, Noor Uthman Muhammed, a Sudanese prisoner in his 40s, and formerly a trainer at the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, accepted a plea deal in his trial by Military Commission. He is only the sixth prisoner convicted since the Commissions were dragged from the grave by Dick Cheney in November 2001, and the fourth to accept a plea deal. Noticeably, of the three prisoners convicted under President Obama, all have accepted plea deals, demonstrating, I believe, that the administration knows that the system itself is weak.

As legal experts have repeatedly pointed out, the charges in the Military Commissions (since their revival by Congress in 2006, after the US Supreme Court ruled that Cheney’s version was illegal) consist of spurious war crimes specifically invented by Congress (“Murder in Violation of the Law of War,” for example, which, as in the case of Omar Khadr — who was obliged to accept that he was an “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent” in his plea deal last October — attempts, absurdly and shockingly, to claim that any attempt to fight Americans or coalition forces is a war crime) or of crimes traditionally triable in federal court (conspiracy and providing material support to terrorism), which, very probably, would not stand up on appeal, as senior Obama administration officials conceded when reviving the Commissions in 2009.

In Muhammed’s case, an additional complication is that the authorities were trying to convict him for war crimes that took place before the US was at war with al-Qaeda. Last September, Raha Wala, a Georgetown Fellow in Law and Security, who attended a pre-trial hearing on behalf of Human Rights First, specifically touched on these problems, noting, “Most of the criminal acts Noor allegedly committed took place from the mid-1990’s to 2000, purportedly before the United States was at war with anyone. Yet the military commissions were originally created in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks to try individuals for war crimes, raising questions about whether the military commission even has jurisdiction to hear Noor’s case.”

Another fundamental problem, however, and one which casts a dark shadow over the entire proceedings, concerns Muhammed’s role at the Khaldan training camp, which is central to the allegations against him, and the possibility, or probability that an actual trial — rather than a plea deal followed by a brief sentencing phase — would have focused attention on the stories of two other men involved in Khaldan — Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi — which the authorities would rather not air too publicly, and on the role of Khaldan itself.

Muhammed was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, on March 28, 2002, which also led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, who was touted as a significant figure in al-Qaeda, and flown to Thailand, to the first of a series of secret prisons in other countries that were used by the CIA to torture “high-value detainees.” On August 1, 2002, before he was moved to another secret prison in Poland, he became the first “War on Terror” prisoner to be subjected to a specific torture program for “high-value detainees,” when John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (which is supposed to provide impartial legal advice to the executive branch) wrote two memos — the “torture memos,” signed by OLC head Jay S. Bybee — in which he cynically attempted to redefine torture, and endorsed an interrogation plan for Abu Zubaydah using torture techniques including waterboarding, a form of controlled drowning.

Despite this, however, the US authorities have been unable to prevent the emergence of damning evidence — not least from FBI interrogators — demonstrating that Zubaydah was actually mentally ill, and was little more than a glorified travel agent for the Khaldan camp. In a court submission in October 2009, the government abandoned its claims that he was a member of al-Qaeda, or had any inside information about the 9/11 attacks or other terrorist attacks, proposing instead that he was the head of a militia that “was ‘part of’ hostile forces and ‘substantially supported’ those forces,” and that he “facilitat[ed] the retreat and escape of enemy forces” after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

This narrative — and other, uncorrected claims that Abu Zubaydah was a “terrorist leader” and was “the person in charge” of Khaldan — have, distressingly, been accepted by judges in the District Court in Washington D.C., where they have been ruling on Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions, and also in the D.C. Circuit Court, which hears appeals following the District Court rulings, as I explained in my articles, In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies and Algerian in Guantánamo Loses Habeas Petition for Being in a Guest House with Abu Zubaydah. The courts’ inability, or unwillingness to investigate the evidence about Abu Zubaydah has been disastrous for Sufyian Barhoumi and Abdul Razak Ali, who have lost in court, as discussed in the articles above, and can, therefore, continue to be held indefinitely, although it is certain that Noor Uthman Muhammed’s defense team was better briefed, and, had their client’s trial by Military Commission proceeded, might have been able to raise some awkward questions.

Also central to the government’s allegations that Muhammed sometimes served as the deputy emir of Khaldan is the role played by the camp’s emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, although al-Libi cannot provide any information himself, as he died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan prison in May 2009. His death conveniently prevents the US from having to account for what happened to him between December 2001, when he was seized following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and 2006, when he was returned to Libya. This is convenient because, towards the beginning of what appears to have been a horrific tour of secret prisons operated by the CIA or on the CIA’s behalf, lasting several years, al-Libi was sent to Egypt, where, under torture, he falsely confessed that two al-Qaeda agents had been discussing the use of chemical and biological weapons with Saddam Hussein. This confession was used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, even though al-Libi retracted it before Colin Powell presented it as “evidence” at a crucial UN security council meeting a month before the invasion.

In addition, the role of Khaldan as an “al-Qaeda camp” has also been dispelled over the years, as it has become clear that it was founded during the US-backed mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, that it was only marginally connected to al-Qaeda’s activities, and that, in fact, the Taliban closed it in 2000 after al-Libi refused to allow it to come under the control of Osama bin Laden. This does not necessarily mean that the camp did not play a role in the training of men who later became involved in terrorist activities, despite Abu Zubaydah’s claim that it was “committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad” (as it appears that the mentally damaged would-be terrorists Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui both trained there, as, reportedly, did three of the 9/11 hijackers), but it certainly adds weight to Muhammed’s explanation, at his tribunal in Guantánamo in 2004, that Khaldan was “a place to get training” that had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban. “People come over to that camp, train for about a month to a month and a half, then they go back to their hometown,” he said, adding that what the people did with the training they received was their own business.

A military jury will shortly begin deliberations about what sentence Muhammed should receive — a largely symbolic gesture, as it will be irrelevant if, as expected, it exceeds the term agreed in the plea deal. This is under seal, but the Miami Herald reported that “Military sources said the deal could send Noor home by January 2015,” and the Associated Press stated, “Arabic broadcaster Al-Arabiya, citing an anonymous source, reported that Noor … will serve no more than three years at Guantánamo and has agreed to testify against other prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah.”

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will actually press ahead with a trial by Military Commission for Abu Zubaydah, as suggested by Al-Arabiya. It certainly seems unlikely, given his central role in the Bush administration’s torture program, but in the meantime, the jury in Muhammed’s case will probably deliver a punitive symbolic sentence, which will be used by the administration to justify the Commissions, and to show Republicans how tough the government is on “terrorists.”

This will no doubt play well to the many cheerleaders for the Military Commissions in the Republican party — and to those Democrats who, like Obama himself, approved their revival despite never seeming to be entirely convinced — although the truth was pointed out to the Miami Herald by Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University, who “said the strategy of trading short prison sentences for guilty pleas lets the government ‘gloss over fundamental legal issues’ still bedeviling” the Commissions, leaving defense lawyers “to resolve a tension between ‘what’s in the best interest of the client and whether to challenge a system that is fundamentally flawed.'”

As ever, “justice” and “Guantánamo” are not words that fit well together.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

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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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