Guantanamo Bay: Wrong from the start

On 11th January 2011, the first 20 prisoners arrived at Guantánamo Bay. Hundreds of prisoners have been airlifted there since. 171 prisoners are still there. 88 of those men have been cleared for release, but a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that bans all future transfers from Guantanamo Bay and gives the US the lawful power to hold these men – or indeed anyone at all – indefinitely without due process. There is no indication that at a national level either the Democratic or Republican Party in the US wishes to close down Guantanamo Bay or the other offshore prisons where people can be held indefinitely: these are perceived as a useful, even a necessary resource.

Here’s how that first airlift is described in ABCNEWS at the time:

U.S. forces took their first group of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners out of Afghanistan today, marching a group of 20 shackled, hooded prisoners onto an U.S. Air Force C-17 and taking off from Kandahar airport.

The prisoners are expected to be flown to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, where they will be loaded onto a C-141 equipped for prisoner transport to Guantanamo Bay, due to arrive on Friday.

The prisoners were all chained together and outnumbered 2-to-1 by guards armed with stun guns.

Pentagon officials told ABCNEWS the prisoners might be sedated if necessary, and reports from a number of media outlets, including USA Today, said they would be chained to their seats, forced to use portable urinals and fed by their guards.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said then that the “detainees would be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention rules on prisoners”. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, declared their treatment was very humane.

This was not true. Prisoners were transported to the camp shackled, hooded, and sometimes sedated. The first prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, “Camp X-Ray”, consisted of metal cages open to wind and weather. A journalist who was allowed to look at the cages from 100 yards away wrote:

Camp X-Ray looks like a particularly densely packed zoo, its 2.5 metre cages arranged in tight metal blocks and its inmates all but invisible except for the occasional flash of orange through the wire.
With the help of binoculars, some of the detainees could be seen slumped motionless in the corner of their pens. The only apparent sign of life was on the west side of the cell block where the prisoners were trying to fix their sheets to the chain-link walls of their cages to take the edge off the intense evening sun, and arguing with the guards, who wanted to keep them in sight, over how high they could hang their makeshift blinds.

When President Bush was challenged on the US breach of the Geneva Conventions, as early as 29th January 2002, he said he would “consider all the legalisms” but he apostrophised all of the prisoners as “These are killers, these are terrorists, they know no countries.”

In February 2002, the Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke admitted that although the US government was holding three hundred prisoners in Afghanistan and 194 in Cuba who had been identified as “hardened terrorists”, “the US government was still working out the rules under which the tribunals would operate.” Victoria Clarke said:

“There is no holdup. The new situation presented by the war meant much work had to go into constructing new rules. But there’s also not a sense that we’ve got a person or two people that we feel are really likely candidates.”

By April 2002, there were nearly 300 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and the fact that none of the prisoners were confessing to any atrocity or war crime was interpreted by their American captors as the shackled prisoners “outwitting” inexperienced translators.

“They twist their pen 2,000 times a minute,” one linguist said. “The detainee is in full control. He’s chained up, but he’s having fun.”

By August 2002, there were nearly 600 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, but even US officials were admitting that they were not a group of hardened terrorists, dangerous leaders:

A US intelligence official quoted by the Los Angeles Times said the inmates were “low and middle-level” fighters and supporters, not “the big-time guys” who might know enough about al-Qaida’s workings to help unravel its cell-based structure.
Another official who had visited the Camp Delta prison camp at Guantanamo Bay said: “Some of these guys literally don’t know the world is round.”

And though the US continued to transport prisoners to Guantanamo Bay and to expand the prison camps, before November 2002, just a year after the US had begun rounding up prisoners in Afghanistan who looked like terrorists to US soldiers, or who had been sold to the US military by Northern Alliance warlords, guaranteed Taliban or Al-Qaida suspects for $1,500 apiece, it was beginning to be acknowledged that somewhere or other this effective process of harvesting “hardened terrorists” had gone wrong. Also, Pakistan wanted its 58 citizens back from Guantanamo Bay, alleging the US had no reason to hold them.

The first four prisoners were released from Guantanamo Bay at the end of October 2002. One of those released was said to be senile, claiming to be 105, looking to be in his 70s. His name was Haji Faiz Mohammed. He said that in February 2002 he was arrested by American forces while he was in a clinic in the central province of Uruzgan. He was tied up and blindfolded, flown by helicopter to Kandahar, and then, shackled and hooded, put on a plane to Guantanamo.

“I don’t know why the Americans arrested me. I told them I was innocent. I’m just an old man,” he said.
A plastic wristband, apparently issued by authorities at Guantanamo, indicated the year of Fiz’s birth was 1931, but he claimed to be 105. Another prisoner, Mohammed Sadiq, claimed to be 90 and said he was arrested in the eastern province of Paktia.
Many Afghans are not aware of their exact ages, and birth certificates usually don’t exist, but both men appeared to be in their late 70s. -CBSNews

Let’s be clear: Guantanamo Bay prison camps were illegal from the start. Due process exists for a reason. Hundreds of innocent men have been sent to Guantanamo Bay and caged there for years. The prison camps may have been founded in the belief that the system of scooping up prisoners based on limited or no imformation would somehow find al-Qaida leaders, hardened terrorists, but quite clearly it exists now simply because the US government finds it convenient to have established as of right a place where they can put people they suspect of terrorism without having to go through any tedious process of providing evidence.

People like Sami al-Hajj, a journalist, held for over six years in Guantanamo Bay. Lakhdar Boumediene, a children’s humanitarian aid worker, held for seven years in Guantanamo Bay. Fayiz Al Kandari and Fawzi Al Odah, Kuwaiti charity workers who went to Afghanistan ten years ago and never came home. Murat Kurnaz, a German tourist who was arrested by the police in 2001 from the bus on his way to the airport for his flight home from a study holiday in Pakistan, and then spent nearly five years as a prisoner:

I later learned the United States paid a $3,000 bounty for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently the United States distributed thousands of fliers all over Afghanistan, promising that people who turned over Taliban or Qaeda suspects would, in the words of one flier, get “enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” A great number of men wound up in Guantánamo as a result.
I was taken to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, where American interrogators asked me the same questions for several weeks: Where is Osama bin Laden? Was I with Al Qaeda? No, I told them, I was not with Al Qaeda. No, I had no idea where bin Laden was. I begged the interrogators to please call Germany and find out who I was. During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.
At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable.
After about two months in Kandahar, I was transferred to Guantánamo. There were more beatings, endless solitary confinement, freezing temperatures and extreme heat, days of forced sleeplessness. The interrogations continued always with the same questions. I told my story over and over — my name, my family, why I was in Pakistan. Nothing I said satisfied them. I realized my interrogators were not interested in the truth.

Last year, Moazzam Begg (kidnapped in Pakistan in 2001, released from Guantanamo Bay in January 2005) who spent four years in a cell in Cuba, wrote on Gitmo’s ninth birthday:

The first person to be released during the Obama era was Binyam Mohamed, who told me that, in many ways, things had worsened in Guantánamo since Obama came to power. He said that some of the more sadistic soldiers wanted to “get theirs in” against the prisoners before the place closed. The genius of the Obama statement on Guantánamo – two days after he took office in January 2009, when he declared, “Guantánamo will be closed no later than one year from now” – is that almost everyone believed him.


If you are in the US, you can write to Obama, to your Senators, and to your Congresspeople. You can use the ACLU’s Activist Toolkit; or write letters via Amnesty International. Anyone, US citizen or not, can make use of the facts and figures provided by Human Rights Watch.

If you are in the UK, you can sign Amnesty International’s petition at Protect the Human. You can write to David Cameron asking him to investigate UK involvement in rendition flights, UK complicity in torture, and MI5 complicity in the rendition of British citizens and residents to Guantanamo Bay. You can write to William Hague at the Foreign Office to ask him to press for Shaker Aamer‘s release from Guantanamo Bay. You can support Reprieve – they currently have 15 Gitmo prisoners as clients, including Shaker Aamer. You can also ask specifically to have the torture of British citizens investigated and those guilty extradited via e-petition. And of course write to your MP asking them to raise an Early Day Motion opposing rendition of prisoners into US power. Even if they are guaranteed a trial. If the US has any evidence against anyone resident in the UK, whether refugee, resident, or citizen, they should make their case against their suspect in a British court.

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