On UN Torture Day, Please Remember the 40 Torture Victims Still Held at Guantánamo

26.6.21

Witness Against Torture campaigners make a stand against torture outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2017, the 15th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

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Today, June 26, is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which was first established 23 years ago, on June 26, 1998, to mark the 11th anniversary of the day that, in 1987, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect.

The long struggle against the use of torture began nearly 40 years before, on December 10, 1948, when, as the UN explains, “the international community condemned torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.”

Created in response to the horrors of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented an aspiration for a better world, which “set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.” Now translated into over 500 languages, it is “widely recognized”, as the UN also explains, “as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels,” including the Convention Against Torture.

Nevertheless, the long years between the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the creation of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment remind us of how entrenched torture is as one of the dark secrets of numerous regimes around the world.

162 countries have now ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, and yet torture has not, by any means, been eradicated. and one of the most prominent places where its pernicious influence still lingers is at the US’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, where 40 men are still held.

On January 11 this year, marking the 19th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, the UN’s human rights experts stated, unequivocally, that “Guantánamo is a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalized, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied.” The experts added, “The very existence of this facility is a disgrace for the United States and the international community as a whole,” also noting that “Guantánamo should have been closed a long time ago.”

As they also explained, “We must not forget these detainees, who have been subjected to torture or [are] victims of comparable trauma, and still languish in Guantánamo, in a virtual legal limbo, outside the reach of the constitutional judicial system of the United States.”

They added, “The prolonged and indefinite detention of individuals, who have not been convicted of any crime by a competent and independent judicial authority operating under due process of law, is arbitrary and constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or even torture.”

The points made by the experts continue to have resonance nearly six months later, as Guantánamo marks its 7,107th day of operations today.

Of the 40 men still held, 24 were specifically held and tortured in CIA “black sites,” as revealed in the unclassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was released in December 2014, and which revealed the names of 119 prisoners held by the CIA. Further analysis was provided by the UK-based Rendition Project in July 2019.

However, while the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report spelled out, in excruciating detail, many of the ways in which these men were tortured in CIA custody, we must not overlook the fact that, as the UN experts explained in January, the prison at Guantánamo Bay is a place “where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalized.”

The majority of the 16 men still held who were not specifically held in CIA “black sites” were at Guantánamo during the brutal early days of the prison’s history — particularly under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was the commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) for two years, from November 2002 until late 2004, when the use of torture was rampant, as Miller sought to “break” prisoners to get them to confess to non-existent crimes, and when two specific torture plans were approved for Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is still held, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was released in 2016.

In addition, as, over the years, prisoners have responded to the brutality and lawlessness of their imprisonment through hunger strikes — the only way, throughout history, that prisoners thoroughly deprived of their rights have been able to take back control over their bodies — the authorities’ response, involving painful force-feeding, in some cases over the course of many years, has also alarmed critics, who have aptly described it as a form of torture.

Just as significant, however, as highlighted by the UN’s experts in January, is the impact of “[t]he prolonged and indefinite detention of individuals, who have not been convicted of any crime by a competent and independent judicial authority operating under due process of law,” which, as they noted pointedly, “is arbitrary and constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or even torture.”

Of the 40 men still held, 28 have not been charged with a crime, and are suffering from the “prolonged and indefinite detention” identified by the UN experts, while, for the 12 others, the broken nature of the legal system chosen for their trials — the military commissions — is also of grave concern. As the experts stated in January, “Military Commissions are still undergoing pre-trial proceedings on motions to suppress evidence resulting from torture,”, and, “as fresh trials are not expected to commence anytime soon, proceedings are likely to last several years, leaving the defendants incarcerated indefinitely.”

7,107 days since the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, I can only join the UN experts in insisting, as they demanded in January, that the US authorities  “prosecute, in full compliance with human rights law, the individuals held at Guantánamo Bay or, alternatively, immediately release or repatriate them while respecting the principle of non-refoulement” (not sending people to places where they are at risk of torture). I also commend their assertion that “the US must uphold its international legal obligations, conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged human rights violations and provide redress and rehabilitation to those who have  endured prolonged arbitrary detention or any form of torture or ill-treatment.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today, on the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, marking the day, in 1987, when the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect, I ask you to remember the 40 torture victims still held at Guantanamo.

    24 of them were specifically held and tortured in CIA “black sites,” but all 40 have, at Guantanamo, been held in what, in January, the UN described as “a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalized, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied.”

    Of particular relevance, as we think of Guantanamo and the men still held there today, is the UN’s assertion that “[t]he prolonged and indefinite detention of individuals, who have not been convicted of any crime by a competent and independent judicial authority operating under due process of law, is arbitrary and constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or even torture.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    Guantanamo must be closed with full justice for all our victims of torture.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Very well said.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Redwoodhippie Palmer wrote:

    Thank you Andy for your dedicated efforts to get these remaining 40 torture victims freed.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And thanks for caring, Robert. Sadly, too few people recognize that holding men indefinitely without charge or trial is the behavior of a dictatorship, and not the “shining city on a hill” that the United States was, according to Ronald Reagan.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    To mark the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, I thought it might also be appropriate to give an airing to ’81 Million Dollars’, a song I wrote for The Four Fathers’ first album directed at those responsible for the US’s post-9/11 torture program – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, their lawyers and other senior officials, their UK supporters (Tony Blair and Jack Straw), and the two men connected to the song’s title, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
    https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com/track/81-million-dollars

    Mitchell and Jessen were psychologists who trained US soldiers to resist torture if captured by a hostile enemy, and who, with no experience whatsoever of real-life interrogations, successfully proposed reverse-engineering their program for use on prisoners seized in the “war on terror,” for which they were rewarded by being paid 81 million dollars.

    No one has yet been held accountable for the crimes committed by the US government (and its allies) in the “war on terror,” which continue to this day at Guantanamo.

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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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