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Guantánamo: the United States's torture

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

As prisoners in Guantánamo Bay reached the hundredth day of a mass hunger-strike, two United Nations special rapporteurs, who have been denied private access to prisoners in the United States prison camp, spoke out in London against the US’s failure to “meet the minimum international standards of independent fact-finding”.

Listen to testimonies of ill-treatment and abuse from Badar Zaman Badar and Moazzam Begg, two ex-Guantánamo detainees, at the end of this article

Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur on torture and Paul Hunt, UN rapporteur on the right to health, are among a group of UN representatives who have requested access to Guantánamo Bay and other places of detention. Over a year of negotiation, the group made several concessions to US government conditions, including accepting a one-day visit – scheduled for 6 December – in lieu of three days, and the exclusion of Paul Hunt from the group.

But on 17 November, the UN representatives announced that they had cancelled the trip, because the US refused to permit access to the detainees. “We were not going to be allowed direct access, much less private access,” said Manfred Nowak. “It would have been a breach of our most basic guidelines.”

Paul Hunt told openDemocracy that he made four requests to visit Guantánamo in the past two years, because of consistent and credible reports of worrying deterioration in the physical and mental health of prisoners in Guantánamo and the frequency of reported suicide attempts.

“This is especially regrettable”, he said, “because the protection of human rights is one of the central purposes of the United Nations, agreed by all member-states in the opening sentences of the UN charter. And, as an independent special rapporteur of the United Nations, it is my duty to do what I can to ensure that the human right within my mandate is respected at all times and in all places. The writ of international human rights does not stop at the gate of Guantánamo Bay. It is imperative that Guantánamo Bay and other facilities do not escape the international accountability that has been carefully constructed by states in recent decades to safeguard the human rights of individuals.”

“To those who argue that the detainees are ‘bad people’”, he continued, “I would say that whether they are good or bad, the rule of law extends to them, because they are human beings. That is what distinguishes a system of government based on the rule of law from one based on the arbitrary exercise of power.

The rule of law cannot be applied selectively. A state cannot respect the rule of law in one place and not in another, to one group of people but not another. The rule of law is not to be turned on and off like a tap.”

“The tip of the iceberg”

The rapporteurs have also requested access to other places of detention. There has been no reply from Afghanistan or Iraq, Nowak said. In April, the US government asked them to concentrate on Guantánamo in order that they be granted access this year. “In the spirit of compromise”, said Nowak, “we agreed to concentrate on Guantánamo Bay.” He stressed that the rapporteurs had not lost interest in other places of detention, including the secret places of detention that the CIA has called “black sites”.

There are currently 505 prisoners in Guantánamo, 200 of whom joined a hunger-strike in July. A second hunger-strike has been maintained by an estimated 150 detainees since 11 August. “They are dying, mentally and physically, every day”, said the lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

Shaker Aamer, a resident of Britain for twenty years and a client of Stafford Smith, has lost half his body weight in the last 100 days and has told his lawyer that he wants to die. “All he is asking for is the rule of law and to be treated with dignity”, said Stafford Smith.

Defence lawyers for the Guantánamo Bay prisoners need security clearance to visit their clients, but this is given only to United States citizens. Statements their clients make and reports on their treatment and conditions are also deemed classified by the US military authorities and can only be made public after clearance.

Also published by openDemocracy on Guantánamo:

David Rose, “Guantánamo: America’s war on human rights” (September 2004)

Clive Stafford Smith, “Torture: an idea for our time” (August 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, “Captured by Guantánamo” (September 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Storming the Supreme Court: a students’ odyssey” (September 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Guantánamo: land without law” (September 2005)

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But despite the secrecy surrounding the real conditions in Guantánamo, Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, described it as the “public face” of a system of illegal, secret detention that involves many more facilities. Clive Stafford Smith estimates that 14,000 prisoners are being held secretly and illegally in various detention-centres, including prisons in Iraq.

“Guantánamo is the tip of the iceberg”, said Irene Khan. Amnesty recently published details of three Yemeni nationals who were seized in Tanzania, interrogated and tortured over two years in a series of US-run facilities, then handed back to the Yemeni government, which continues to hold them without trial at the request of the United States. “Death in custody, disappearance, torture and secret detention are all crimes under international law”, she said.

Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who was held in Bagram airbase, Afghanistan, and then in Guantánamo for a total of three years before being released without charge, said that normal life for him ended the day he was detained. He had seen terrible tortures at Bagram and in Guantánamo, he told the meeting, but he had also met kind and humane US officers.

“They were horrified at the news from Abu Ghraib, and asked me to tell the world that they were not like that. They were not, but there were plenty who were”, he said. “Despite the humanity of some officers, I also saw things that could have come from a Nazi or a communist torture manual.” A guard in Bagram had told him that the only way he could do his job was to regard the prisoners as subhuman.

At one point, Moazzam Begg said, the US military had asked him to be a witness against officers guilty of abuses. “Three years in detention, and the only suggestion of legal process was to be asked to be a witness against my jailors. If this continues”, he said, “I can guarantee that violence and terror will only proliferate.”

Clive Stafford Smith enumerated several cases of torture among his clients. Benyam Mohammed, he said, a British resident, had been tortured for eighteen months. “They stripped him one day and cut his penis repeatedly with razor-blades. They did it every day until he signed anything they put in front of him.”

Benyam Mohammed confessed, he said, to having dinner with four top al-Qaida leaders and the “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid in Pakistan on 21 April 2002. “Anyone who believes that”, said Stafford Smith, “believes in fairy stories. Those people have never been in a room together and certainly not with Benyam Mohammed. But now he has been charged and a confession obtained under torture will be used against him. It is unworthy of the United States.”

Badar Zaman Badar

Badar Zaman Badar, originally from Afghanistan, and his brother Abdurraheem Muslim Dost were arrested in November 2001 by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at their home in Peshawar, Pakistan. They were transferred to Guantánamo Bay where they spent three and a half years. Neither brother was able to attend the conference in London as they were unable to secure visas.

Listen to Badar Zaman Badar
Moazzem Begg

Moazzam Begg, originally from Britain, was arrested by the CIA in February 2002. After a period of detention at Bagram airbase, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay. He was released in January 2005.

Listen to Moazzam Begg



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