on the world: a view on human rights
Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, Barack Obama did not close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in January 2010, as he had promised. Instead, on the day that he left presidential office in January 2017, there were still 41 prisoners held at the prison he once called a “misguided experiment”.
Under Donald Trump, the experiment continues pretty much as it did under Obama. In spite of Trump’s threat to “load up” Guantánamo with “bad dudes”, the prisoner count has remained consistent. Interest in the issue and the fate of the prisoners has otherwise fallen so far below the radar that it is not surprising that many people believe it is a closed chapter of history.
Almost 800 men and boys have been held at Guantánamo Bay since it opened on 11 January 2002. Eighty-six per cent of the prisoners were sold to the US military by allied Afghanistan militias, such as the Northern Alliance, or Pakistani forces for bounties.
Former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf referred to these payments as “prize money”. The current conflict-related slave trade in Libya has much in common with the sale of prisoners to the US military and the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 2000s.
Only two of the remaining 41 prisoners have been there since early 2002 and none were captured by the US military. Over half were sold to the US by the Pakistani authorities, and the majority were held at CIA black sites – secret torture facilities around the world – before they arrived at Guantánamo.
“Forever prisoner” Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, a stateless Palestinian known better as Abu Zubaydah, spent over 1500 days in such secret CIA prisons, in Thailand, Afghanistan, Poland and Morocco, after being detained in Pakistan in March 2002. Deemed a “high value detainee” (HVD), the bounty on his head was at least $20,000. The Guardian newspaper called him “Osama bin Laden’s most influential henchman.” The “intelligence sources” the media relied upon clearly used torture, something the media was aware of , but claimed these were authorised techniques.
When Abu Zubaydah arrived at Guantánamo in September 2006, along with other HVDs, George Bush admitted that CIA torture prisons existed and stated that as “Zubaydah had been trained on how to resist interrogation, the CIA “used an alternative set of procedures””. Never charged, by 2008, the US would admit that it knew all along it had the wrong man.
Abu Zubaydah successfully sued Poland (paid $30 million to run CIA torture facilities) for his detention and torture there, and has a further case pending at the European Court of Human Rights against Lithuania for its alleged collusion. Abu Zubaydah was the first prisoner to be waterboarded and was a guinea pig in the latest chapter of the CIA’s history of torture experimentation.
His lawyer Joseph Margulies stated that his 2016 review hearing, where prisoners plead to be cleared for release, was a simply “a formality” and “Abu Zubaydah will not be released”.
The potent symbolism of Guantánamo Bay aside, the US has no interest in closing the facility and releasing its residents, not because of the threat they pose to the security of the US but the threat they pose to the credibility of the US and the carefully-crafted narrative that justifies its neo-colonial wars all over the world under the guise of fighting terrorism. Perish the thought that any of these men should ever have access to an independent doctor or unfettered access to the outside world.
Torture evidence is admissible in the military commission kangaroo court. Its “value” is amply demonstrated in the conviction of another HVD, Pakistani national, Majid Khan, who in a secret plea bargain in 2012, pleaded guilty to five charges, including murder, conspiracy and spying. Part of the plea bargain required that Khan would “temporarily dismiss his habeas petition and agree not to sue the government, including the CIA, for his capture, detention, or interrogation” and that “Khan acknowledged and agreed that the government has the legal authority, under the law of war, to hold him as an enemy combatant even after he serves his 19-year criminal sentence”.
Still awaiting sentencing, he is one of three convicted prisoners held at Guantánamo. Khan’s confession was later revealed to have been obtained through torture:
“Majid was waterboarded twice, hung by his hands, naked and shackled, and submerged in tubs of ice water until he thought he would drown.
“He was sexually assaulted while hanging naked from the ceiling. Interrogators threatened to hammer his head, and threatened to harm his young sister. Majid lived in total darkness for much of 2003, and in solitary confinement from 2004 to 2006.”
Seven other prisoners have been charged and are currently awaiting trial; all are HVDs who arrived at Guantánamo in 2006 and 2007. All have suffered such brutal forms of torture that the very journey to and from the courtroom is difficult and many cannot sit for long periods due to the severe forms of sexual torture they were subjected to.
When one of the 9/11 defendants, Mustafa al Hawsawi, was allowed to undergo rectal surgery in 2016, it emerged that due to having been raped so severely after he was arrested in Pakistan in 2003, “he has had “to manually reinsert parts of his anal cavity” to defecate. When he has a bowel movement, he has to reinsert parts of his anus back into his anal cavity” […] which “causes him to bleed, causes him excruciating pain.” This operation, however, was not to address this particular problem.
Recent changes to how military personnel deal with hunger striking prisoners highlight the health risk Guantánamo poses to its residents. Although many suffered worse treatment prior to arriving at Guantánamo, the medical treatment there is often inadequate; a broken MRI scanner delivered two years after being ordered by a judge is perhaps a perfect illustration of Guantánamo health care.
Although Donald Trump unwaveringly insists on keeping the facility open, Barack Obama’s stated desire to close the physical centre did not always equate to freeing prisoners. Towards the end of his presidency, he attempted to send a Kenyan prisoner to Israel for prosecution in relation to an attack on Israeli tourists in Mombasa in 2002, however the FBI would not collaborate and provide information to the Israeli authorities. His administration also tried to send an Indonesian prisoner to Malaysia for trial where the outcome would have most likely been the death penalty.
This prisoner, Riduan Isomuddin, better known as “Hambali”, was charged in June 2017 in relation to bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003. He was kidnapped in Thailand in 2003, and “disappeared” into CIA jails in Morocco and Romania before arriving at Guantánamo in 2006, around the same time as the other HDVs. The torture ordeal of these prisoners must be so carefully guarded that the victims themselves are kept away from other prisoners and most military personnel.
In December 2017, further charges were added and two Malaysian prisoners were also charged with related offences. All the charges are non-capital. For unspecified administrative reasons, the Pentagon has yet to approve them. The US Senate Torture Report stated that although Hambali was never waterboarded, he was subject to “long stretches of being shackled in painful positions, being slapped or slammed into a wall, being kept nude or in diapers, confined in a coffin-like box and subject to rectal rehydration, sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation.”
They remain among the 26 prisoners who face the prospect of never leaving Guantánamo alive. In the twisted and inverted logic 16 years of Guantánamo has helped to create, it is unsurprising that while torture victims are slated for trial on the basis of evidence coerced out of them, no US official has ever been charged, let alone tried, for what any of these men, or the over 700 others who have been released, have suffered. Even a prosecution of CIA contractors who helped to design the torture programme ended in an out-of-court settlement denying the victims their day in court. While some of their victims still languish in Guantánamo, one of these contractors continues to cash in on torture through a book promotion and speaking tour.
The stories of these men are deliberately kept obscure, not because they lack interest but because powerful interests mean they must never be disclosed. The fog of the war on terror has ensured minimal interest in their plight and public apathy is necessary to keep Guantánamo open, all the while providing justification for never-ending wars and the increasing militarisation and securitisation of communities and states, not just in the US, but in all of its many and equally complicit allied states.
Two events will take place in London on 11 January 2018 to mark the 16th anniversary of Guantánamo: