The Sixth Anniversary of Guantánamo: A Symbol Of US Hubris


The Guantanamo Files

January 11, 2008 marks a particularly grim anniversary, as the Bush administration’s reviled prison at Guantánamo Bay has been open for six years. Although over 60% of the nearly 800 detainees have now been released, the predicament facing the remaining 281 is as bleak as ever.

Held without charge, without trial, and without any way of knowing when, if ever, they will be released, the detainees are cut off from their families, are mostly held for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, and are not even granted the meagre pleasures –- TV, a social life, and the freedom to read and write –- that are enjoyed by the most hardened convicted criminals on the US mainland. Although the torture that was prevalent in 2003 and 2004 appears to have subsided, it remains clear that indefinite detention in deliberately isolated circumstances can constitute torture in and of itself.

It’s also known that some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for several years, and that dozens of long-term hunger strikers continue to be force-fed twice daily in a brutal manner. Held in restraint chairs, using 18 separate straps, they are fed through a thick tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, which is removed after each feeding in a deliberate attempt to “break” their will.

Shockingly, after six years of legal wrangling, the detainees still have no effective means to challenge the basis of their detention. Although the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that Guantánamo –- specifically chosen because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts –- was “in every practical respect a United States territory,” and that the detainees therefore had habeas corpus rights, the other two branches of the government –- the executive and Congress –- have twice conspired to remove these rights, and the results of a third challenge mounted in December will not be apparent until spring 2008.

In the meantime, what hopes there are for the dismantling of Guantánamo rest on the perceived status of the remaining detainees. The administration has at last conceded that it only intends to pursue war crimes trials against approximately 80 of the detainees, although these figures are not necessarily plausible, as some senior officials have estimated that the truly dangerous detainees number only 40 at most. There is also no guarantee that the trials will proceed smoothly.

Dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, the Military Commissions have been condemned for relying on secret evidence and seeking to conceal all mention of torture on the part of US forces, and have yet to produce a single significant result. Riven by internal disputes, and currently focused on two contentious cases –- that of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, and Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden –- their only success has been in the case of the Australian David Hicks, who accepted a plea bargain. After dropping claims that he was tortured by US forces, Hicks returned home last year to serve a nine-month sentence for providing “material support for terrorism,” and has just been freed.

It’s possible that another 130 or so detainees will be released this year, although at present the administration maintains that it can hold these men indefinitely. With a typical disregard for the law, senior officials have suggested that they can do so because the men are too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged.

Closing Guantánamo is also complicated by the fact that 70 men, cleared for release through military reviews, cannot be returned to their home countries –- including China and various North African regimes –- because of fears that they will be tortured. In an attempt to overcome international safeguards preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, the US government has been busy signing “memoranda of understanding” with some of these regimes. In this, they have colluded with the British government, which is seeking to repatriate alleged terror suspects, held without charge or trial under control orders that amount to virtual house arrest.

Rightly regarded as worthless by human right activists, these agreements, which purport to guarantee humane treatment, have been betrayed by the Tunisian government in the cases of two returned detainees, and appeals courts in the US and the UK have recently delivered rulings aimed at overturning these dubious policies.

Six years after it opened, then, Guantánamo, though diminished in some ways, remains as monstrously lawless as ever, and even as it empties it becomes more apparent that behind it –- in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in other secret locations –- lurks an even larger system of indefinite detention that is even less accountable than this darkly iconic symbol of US hubris.

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

A version of this article, entitled “Guantánamo Bay –- jumpsuits and torture,” appears in the January 2008 edition of Socialist Review.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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