People the law forgot

One summer’s day in Cuba in 2002 a 31-year-old Pakistani teacher of English named Abdul Razaq noticed that, two or three cages along from his own, a fellow Pakistani prisoner, Shah Mohammed, was trying to hang himself. Silently, he had lashed a sheet to the mesh, tied the cloth around his throat and was choking.

Other prisoners in the United States prison camp in Guantanamo Bay raised a hue and cry. “First we shouted at Shah Mohammed to stop, but when he didn’t, we called the guards,” says Razaq, who was released in July.
“The guards came in and saved him. He was taken to another place. He appeared to be unconscious.”

It was one of four suicide attempts by Mohammed while in Guantanamo. He was released in May and lives in the Malakand Hills, a few dozen kilometres from Razaq’s home. Mohammed is 23 and a baker by trade. He has been having nightmares ever since he came back. In Kandahar, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, he was interrogated 10 times.

“The biggest damage is to my brain. My physical and mental state isn’t right. I’m a changed person,” he says. “I don’t laugh or enjoy myself much.”

Asked why he tried to commit suicide, Mohammed is vague: troubles at home; “my own problems”. But his attempts at self-harm at Guantanamo began after he was confined, without explanation, in a sealed punishment cell for a month — not, it seems, because he had broken camp rules, but because the authorities had nowhere else to put him while finishing new facilities.

In India Block, as the block of punishment cells is known, “there were no windows. There were four walls and a roof made of tin, a light bulb and an air conditioner. They put the air conditioning on and it was extremely cold. They would take away the blanket in the morning and bring it back in the evening. I was kept in this room for one month.”

As treatment for Mohammed’s suicidal state of mind, US medics injected him, against his will, with an unknown drug. “They brought seven or eight people and held me and injected me,” he says. “I couldn’t see down, I couldn’t see up. I felt paralysed for one month ... I couldn’t think or do anything ... They just told me: ‘Your brain is not working properly.’”

In trying to learn what life is like at the US prison camp at Guantanamo, the few score of released detainees — almost all Pakistanis and Afghans — are among the scant sources available. Journalists are allowed to “visit” the facility, but, like family members, lawyers and human rights investigators, they have no access to the detainees. Like a tour of the White House, the visits offer a superficial openness about the lives of the main occupants.

Yet the testimony of former detainees, together with rare scraps of information from censored mail, official statements and the odd comment from guards and others who have been inside, overlaps into a coherent portrait.

In the almost two years since the Guantanamo prison camp opened to hold people seized by the US in what the Bush administration has designated “the war on terror”, it has settled from a rough and ready, occasionally brutal place of confinement into a full-grown mongrel of international law, where all the harshness of the punitive US prison system is visited on foreigners, unmitigated by any of the legal rights US prisoners enjoy.

To this is added the mentally corrosive threat, alien to the US Constitution, of infinite confinement without court or appeal, on the whim of a single man — the president of the US. The question “What is Guantanamo really like?” has all the appeal of the unknown. But inside it lurks a darker question: “What is Guantanamo?”

One of the few political statements to slip past the censors, from a man still detained there, is contained in a short postcard from a French prisoner, Nizar Sassi, to his family, dated August 2002. “If you want a definition of this place,” he wrote, “you don’t have the right to have rights.”

The US executive acted quickly in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Within 26 days, Afghanistan was being attacked from the air; Kabul fell in nine weeks. Eleven weeks after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, resistance by Taliban fighters and their non-Afghan allies in northern Afghanistan was crushed. But, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the military in a revealing slip in April 2002, “We have been successful in not eliminating al-Qaeda.”

Having failed to find the suspected mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, or much in the way of terrorist infrastructure, the US set about constructing, behind razor wire on a secure Caribbean island, an incarcerated model of what its “war on terror” rhetoric implies. It has gathered terrorism suspects from all over the world, imposed discipline and order on them, encouraged them to hate the US and kept them together for years. It was as if the Bush administration so wanted the Hollywood fantasy of a central terrorist campus to be true that they built it themselves.

Because the roughly 660 detainees still on Guantanamo have no voice, and because the US has never explained case-by-case why it locked them up, the outside world has only the accounts of their families and the catch-all US definition of “enemy combatant” to understand who they are and why they are there.

Most were arrested in Afghanistan but many were handed over to the US by other countries. “They are an extremely heterogenous group. There are some 40 different nationalities, there’s 18 different languages,” says Daryl Matthews, a forensic psychiatrist who spent a week at the Guantanamo prison camp in May. “There are some people who are extremely well educated and westernised, and some people who are not at all. There are some very young people and some very old and wise people. There are people who speak English well, people who don’t speak English at all. There are some very secular, and some deeply devout.”

There is Briton Shafiq Rasul, who was arrested by the US-allied Afghan Northern Alliance and handed over to the US in December 2001. Jamil al-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, two refugees living in Britain, were arrested in the Gambia in west Africa and handed over to the US. Moazzam Begg and Richard Belmar, two other Britons, were arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the US by the Pakistanis. David Hicks, an Australian, who had previously led a life of shark fishing and kangaroo skinning, ended up in an Afghan prison after fighting with insurgents in Albania and Kashmir.

Ibrahim Fauzee, a citizen of the Maldives, was arrested in Karachi while staying in the home of a man with suspected al-Qaeda links. Tarek Dergoul, from London, thought to have been arrested during the battle for Tora Bora in southern Afghanistan, is reported to have had an arm amputated as a result of wounds. Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese assistant cameraman with the al-Jazeera TV station, was held while leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan after the fall of Kabul.

Airat Vakhitov, one of eight Russians on Guantanamo, thought he had been liberated when he was discovered in a Taliban jail, where he had sat in darkness and been beaten for seven months on suspicion of spying for the KGB. But he only exchanged the Taliban prison for an American one.

Mohammed says he went to work for the Taliban as a baker; Razaq says he was a missionary. They were held by the Northern Alliance, selected to receive a cursory interview from US special forces or the CIA, and flown to Kandahar, where they were held for weeks or months before being flown to Cuba.

Razaq, in his first interview with a journalist, told me he was convinced the only reason he was sent to Cuba was because he spoke English.

He was taken to a small room with mud walls and made to kneel on the ground in front of two Americans in uniform. The interview took three or four minutes, and consisted of two questions: “What is your name, and why have you come to Afghanistan?” Afterwards he was taken outside and hooded. He and other such captives were flown to Kandahar.

Another released Pakistani, Mohammed Saghir, a grey-bearded sawmill owner who is now 53, tells me that he had not even had a cursory interview at Shebergan before he was bound hand and foot, blindfolded and helicoptered to Kandahar.

Shah Mohammed was held at a prison in Mazar-i-Sharif before being sent to Kandahar. He met Hicks, the Australian, while there.

The released detainees recount the roughness with which they were treated at Kandahar. “They had tied up my hands so tight that for two months I couldn’t use my right hand,” says Razaq. “They would just pick us up and throw us out [of the plane],” says Saghir. “Some people were hurt, some quite badly.” Mohammed says: “They kicked us out of the plane and threw us on the ground.”

At Kandahar, prisoners slept and sat in small groups under canvas canopies, on the bare earth, surrounded by razor wire and under constant surveillance. They were given a single blanket each. It was winter. The bottled water they were given to drink would be frozen by morning. For the first 20 days, a strict no-talking rule was enforced. Saghir describes how no one had been allowed to sleep for more than an hour. The prisoners were interrogated steadily. “They never told us we would be taken to Cuba,” says Mohammed.

Razaq says, “There were rumours that they arrested me because they thought I was a very senior Taliban official. In fact, in the last interrogation at Kandahar, the American interrogator gave me water to drink and assured me I would be released.

“This assurance was given to me on several occasions. I never knew where they were taking the people who disappeared. We asked the Red Cross, but they wouldn’t give us any information. At the end, it seemed they just wanted to send everyone to Cuba and I was in the last group.”

The last thing the US captors did before dispatching the detainees to Cuba was forcibly shave off their beards, a process they found humiliating. Razaq was told it was because, without showers, they had picked up lice.

For the flight to Cuba, the prisoners were given the orange jumpsuits familiar from TV footage of their arrival at Guantanamo. They were bound hand and foot, blindfolded, gagged, and their ears were muffled. Once on board the military transport plane, their feet were chained to the floor, their hands bound to the handrests, and restraining straps stretched across their bodies.

Saghir says that, as with the arrival at Kandahar, the detainees, still bound, gagged and blindfolded, were thrown off the plane on arrival in Cuba. Some had their noses broken, he says. “I got a bruise where my face hit the ground.”

The first prisoners were put in bare mesh cages that would be their home for the first few months of 2002, in the original detention centre, Camp X-Ray. Those initial images of blinded, deafened, mute and bound men became a potent weapon in the hands of those who opposed the manner in which the Bush administration was coping with terrorism.

The bizarre setup of Guantanamo itself, a fortified American toehold in one of the world’s last outposts of communism, added to the sense of prisoners being cast into the centre of concentric circles of isolation.

In the first few weeks of Camp X-Ray’s existence, the prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, not even in a whisper. “I spent the first month in utter silence,” says Mohammed.

According to Saghir, there was little tolerance for the practice of Islam, with its requirement of prayer five times a day. “I tried to pray and four or five commandos came and they beat me up. If someone would try to make a call for prayer they would beat him up and gag him. After one-and-a-half months, we went on hunger strike.”

US officials at the camp have admitted hunger strikes took place, though in some cases prisoners were force fed. According to Saghir, it was only after a mass four-day hunger strike that the no-talking rule was lifted, a loudspeaker was put up to broadcast the call to prayer, more time was given for meals, and Korans and other books were provided.

The Guantanamo prisoners have no way of knowing what is happening in the outside world, whether it concerns football scores or the war in Iraq. Apart from the guards and interrogators, the only contact the prisoners have is with officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and with occasional visitors from the intelligence services and foreign ministries of their home countries.

The ICRC never talks about conditions in Guantanamo and little else has leaked out. Swedish activists campaigning for the release of Mehdi Ghezali have used Sweden’s freedom of information laws to obtain a censored version of a report by an intelligence officer, Bo Eriksson, on a visit to Guantanamo with another Swede in February 2002. It and other documents reveal that the US was so obsessed with security that it drafted in a Swedish-speaking US army officer to listen in on the meeting.

“The cells measure approximately 2x3m, with walls of wire mesh, concrete floors and metal ceilings,” wrote Eriksson. “Inside the cells, the detainees have a mattress, a blanket, a hand towel, a couple of buckets and water bottles made from soft plastic. Outside their cells, the detainees wear orange overalls and plastic slippers ... Outside their cells they wear hand and feet restraints. The handcuffs are fastened to a belt around their waist allowing them only restricted movement with their hands and arms. [Ghezali] only just managed to drink water from a mug with hand restraints on.

“The leg restraints mean that when detainees are moved they have to move forward taking very small steps. One of the guards keeps a hand on the back of the detainee’s neck the whole time, bending the detainee’s head forwards so that he is looking at the ground the whole time he is being moved … The mesh cell walls mean of course that the detainees never have a moment’s privacy.”

In April 2002 the prisoners were moved to new accommodation, Camp Delta, and Camp X-Ray was closed. Their beards grew back. The new facilities, which make up the main part of the prison camp to this day, feature blocks of 48 cages each, with two rows of mesh cages separated by a narrow corridor. The blocks have no external walls, only a pitched roof; they stand on concrete bricks in areas of raked gravel surrounded by high, opaque green fences topped by razor wire. The cages are about as long and wide as a tall man lying down, and contain a metal bunk, a tap and a toilet.

Besides this standard type of accommodation, there are at least six others. There is the more relaxed regime of Camp Four, where docile, cooperative prisoners are rewarded with dormitory-style living. But within Camp Four there is a further category of prisoners kept isolated from other prisoners in preparation for being put on trial.

There is Delta Block, where prisoners with mental problems are kept under observation; and India Block, and possibly one other block, which contain the punishment isolation cells.

The Guardian has also learned that a very small number of prisoners, thought to be between two and five, are kept permanently isolated in a special, super-secure facility within Camp Delta.

One of the US justifications for holding the Guantanamo prisoners in isolation for so long is that they need to be interrogated for valuable intelligence. There has been an enormous amount of interrogation — 10 to 20 sessions per prisioner, generating an estimated 15 000 hours of transcripts. Yet, without exception, the detainees say they were questioned by different interrogators each time, and each time the questions were the same.

Prisoners describe the interrogation room as a small, windowless, air-conditioned, plywood space. There is a metal ring in the floor to which the prisoners have their chains fixed. “They would ask: ‘Where is Osama? Do you know any of the al-Qaeda leaders?’” says Saghir.

After one interrogation, the interrogators effectively told Razaq he was free to go. “They said: ‘OK, your file is clear. Where do you want us to drop you?’”

Daring to hope, Razaq answered: “Peshawar?” Immediately, the interrogators began questioning him again as if for the first time, and made him take a lie-detector test. “Maybe this was one of their tactics,” says Razaq. “They first made me happy and accept that I will be free, then they changed direction.”

Guantanamo is a bleak, dull, repressive place for its inmates. Yet there is something about it which may not be immediately apparent: it is not dissimilar to facilities in the harsh US civilian prison system. In focusing on physical conditions, there is a risk of missing the unique aspect of Guantanamo — the arbitrary, unprecedented and unfair way in which Bush and his administration have confined hundreds of people without any idea how long they are to be locked up or any way to plead their case.

Matthews says firmly, “The issue is human rights.” Matthews, who opposes the death penalty, nonetheless provides psychiatric advice to courts in civilian capital cases. Yet he is still wrestling with his conscience over whether to provide the same service to the military commissions that will try the Guantanamo detainees.

The commissions have the power to impose the heaviest sentences, up to and including death. Unlike the rapists, child abductors and serial killers on capital charges in the US, unlike the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, the hundreds locked up in Guantanamo have not been told why they have been deprived of their liberty for two years, nor when or how they might be released, charged or tried, nor given any opportunity to challenge their status before a tribunal.

That isolation and uncertainty, Matthews points out, puts an extra burden on the detainees. “It’s horrible being a prisoner ... Just a normal prison environment produces profound alteration in mental states, suicide and depression. But at Guantanamo there’s an added level of stress …

“Inmates in a normal prison are focused on how much time they are going to serve, on contacting their lawyers, on being able to take constructive efforts to get out; these are important ways prisoners deal with the stress of confinement, and these guys can’t do anything.”

When the terrorists attacked the US on September 11, the world found in Bush and his attorney-general, John Ashcroft, men who had already embraced the idea that large-scale incarceration and executions were the way to fight wrongdoing.

In a recent speech, Ashcroft boasted that the Bush administration had used the same tactics to fight terrorism as to fight crime. “We have proven that the right ideas — tough laws, tough sentences, and constant cooperation — are stronger than the criminal or the terrorist cell.”

More than 1 000 foreign Muslims were detained in the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Although they were technically held for outstaying their visas and other immigration offences, 762 of them were investigated for terrorist links. Few, if any, were charged with such links, but all had to wait weeks or months to be cleared by the FBI.

The Guantanamo detainees may to some extent be paying the price for the Americans’ inability to capture the al-Qaeda leader. In a sense, Guantanamo is St Helena without Napoleon, with the dregs of his army locked up instead.

It remains a mystery why the Bush administration chose not to follow international law but to make up its own. Its first move away from international norms was to refuse to categorise the Afghanistan captives as prisoners of war.

Officially, the US hides behind the fact that the resistance in Afghanistan didn’t dress like soldiers. It is true that, like CIA operatives in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like many of the Northern Alliance allies of the US, the Taliban and non-Afghan fighters didn’t wear uniforms, but that does not prevent them being declared prisoners of war. Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention is clear: any captured belligerent whose status is uncertain should be considered a PoW until his or her status is settled by a “competent tribunal”. The US carried out hundreds of these tribunals during the 1991 Gulf war and in the recent Iraq war. In Afghanistan, it didn’t.

Asked why there hadn’t been any tribunals for the Afghan captives, Major John Smith, a Pentagon military attorney, said: “The president’s decision was that there was no doubt these individuals did not qualify for PoW status and a tribunal wasn’t required.”

Had there been formal tribunals, the US could still have interrogated, charged and tried the PoWs. They might also have screened out some of their more pathetic captives before they had to endure Guantanamo, such as Mohammed Hagi Fiz, a toothless, fragile old Afghan in his 70s, released in October 2002, or an Afghan suffering from schizophrenia, released in May 2002 with a six-month supply of medication.

Strangely, although the US does not consider the Guantanamo captives prisoners of war in the formal Geneva Convention sense, it considers them prisoners of war in one very specific sense — that they can be held until the war is over.

It calls them “enemy combatants”, a term not recognised in international law. To the question “What war?”, the Bush administration responds: “The war on terror.” In other words, the captives can be held for as long as the US president likes. It is difficult to see how any US leader could ever take the political risk of declaring the “war on terror” to have finished.

Next year, the US supreme court will investigate the legality of the Guantanamo situation, and the Bush administration will have to justify its actions (probably by using pre-Geneva Convention precedent).

But it had at least two other options: the civilian criminal courts, as used to try past terrorist cases, such as the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, and court martials in the US military courts, as used to try the deposed leader of Panama, General Manuel Noriega. The Bush administration defends the choice of military commissions on the grounds that the alleged, presumably terrorist, offences for which some Guantanamo prisoners will be tried are “war crimes”; and on the grounds that the commissions will help safeguard classified information that would leak out from normal trials or courts martial. Critics say that neither argument stands up, and that the real reason military commissions are being used is that they give the accused little chance of a fair hearing, and stack the deck in favour of convictions.

“It seems to me that our government’s talking out of both sides of its mouth,” says James Harrington, a lawyer from upstate New York, who is defending people inside the US accused of terror links. “We say they’re not PoWs and won’t be treated as PoWs, but at the same time we say we are at war. It should be one or the other.” — Â

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