Guantanamo Bay: a terrible tenth birthday

Today, prisoners at Guantánamo will embark on a peaceful protest, involving sit-ins and hunger strikes, to protest about their continued detention, and the continued existence of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, three years after President Obama came to office promising to close it within a year, and to show their appreciation of the protests being mounted on their behalf by US citizens, who are gathering in Washington D.C. on Wednesday to stage a rally and march to urge the President to fulfill his broken promise.

In December 2001, the US government announced that the “worst of the worst” of the prisoners of war taken in Afghanistan (whom they claimed were none of them covered by Article Four of the Geneva Convention and could not be allowed the rights specified in the Geneva Convention) were to be sent to a specially-built prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, the US miltary’s private plot of territory on Cuba, beyond the reach of law.

On 11th January 2002, ten years ago tomorrow, the first 20 prisoners arrived.

Donald Rumsfeld particularly seemed to show much relish at the idea of how “tough” a prison Guantanamo Bay would be, but while this got good press in the US, it was less well-received internationally.

At the time, I did not understand the scale of the US government’s lies about their extrajudicial prisoners. Nor did I know about the torture, the murders, or the Dasht-i-Lelli massacre. But I understood that the US government was now in breach of the Geneva Convention – that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all others directly responsible for this decision had made themselves into international war criminals.

Article Five of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War reads:

The present Convention shall apply to the persons referred to in Article 4 from the time they fall into the power of the enemy and until their final release and repatriation.

Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy, belong to any of the categories enumerated in Article 4, such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.

No competent tribunals were ever held to determine the status of the prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay before they were condemned to indefinite extrajudicial imprisonment.

Had tribunals been held, for example, for Rhuhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul, British citizens from Tipton, it seems unlikely that the US military, who took them prisoner in November 2001, could have shown any evidence at all that they had any real reason to suppose they were al-Qaeda, since the “evidence” for their detention seems to have consisted from the beginning that they were Muslims in Afghanistan who spoke English: the later “evidence”, compiled in the dossiers linked to above (hosted by The Telegraph, provided by Wikileaks) seems to have consisted entirely of evidence that their interrogators got them to provide under torture.

While at Guantanamo, they were subject to repeated beatings, sleep deprivation, extremes of hot and cold, forced nudity, death threats, interrogations at gunpoint, menacing with unmuzzled dogs, religious abuse, and racial harassment. None of the four had ever been a member of a terrorist group or taken up arms against the United States. Rasul vs Rumsfeld, 2004

In December 2002, over a year after they had been taken prisoner, their lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith wrote:

Rumsfeld has announced that Guantanamo Bay is reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’; the courts have called them the enemies of America ‘deemed most dangerous by the US military’; if this is the case, we have little to fear from al-Queda. To be sure, Asif supports Manchester United and Shafiq is a lifelong Liverpool supporter. This may be difficult to forgive, but we ought to demand a little more evidence of evil to justify incarceration ad infinitum.

They were not released from Guantanamo Bay until March 2004.

In Afghanistan, Asif Iqbal said:

“An American … shouted at me, telling me I was al-Qaida. I said I was not involved in al-Qaida and did not support them. At this he started to punch me violently and then when he knocked me to the floor started to kick me around my back and in my stomach.”

Rhuhel Ahmed said that during his interrogation in Afghanistan, two British representatives, a Foreign Office official and an MI5 officer, told him that “the other two Britons”, Iqbal and Rasul, had been sent home because they had cooperated with the interrogation – though in fact they had been sent to Guantánamo Bay. Ahmed then confessed to every allegation put to him, including going to Afghanistan to fight jihad at the expense of the al-Muhajiroun group. He had eaten next to no food for weeks and was suffering from sleep deprivation and extreme cold. He said the British officials “did not seem to care or even ask him about the conditions.”

Shafiq Rasul confessed to a meeting with Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta in Afghanistan in 2000.

“Eventually I just gave in and said, ‘OK, it’s me’ … because of the previous five or six weeks of being held in isolation and being taken to interrogation for hours on end, short shackled and being treated in that way,” he said. “I was going out of my mind and didn’t know what was going on. I was desperate for it to end.”

On the dates his American torturers had got him to confess to meeting with the architects of September 11, his employers, Currys, were able to show CCTV video tape proving he was working at their store in the West Midlands.

That is the standard of evidence which the American authorities used, often with allied assistance, to imprison a person for years in Guantanamo Bay.

Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay when he took office in January 2009. But well before March 2010 he seemed to have decided that he would do so by moving the prisoners to Bagram Airbase. This is because, as is openly admitted, the US has come to appreciate what they call the “necessity” of a prison on territory which they control absolutely but which is not legally US soil, to hold prisoners against whom they have no actual evidence that would stand up in court, but whom they want to “question”.

For such suspects, a facility such as Bagram, north of Kabul, remains necessary, officials said, even as they acknowledged that having it in Afghanistan could complicate McCrystal’s mission. – Los Angeles Times, 21st March 2010

There are still 171 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Their imprisonment is not justified by a charge of any crime in any legal jurisdiction anywhere in the world. The prison was illegally conceived, and for most of the prisoners who were held there, there never was any evidence that they could be charged with any crime. The example of the Tipton Three is not unusual because they were unusually not guilty, it is unusual because the evidence that they were not guilty was so complete and so thorough and so accepted by the allied nation of which they were citizens that they were released home – in Guantanamo Bay terms – very early, less than two and a half years after they were first imprisoned.

Most of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not so fortunate.

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