In 2002 Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz insisted in a televised interview that the detainees were, “involved possibly or probably with serious crimes of terrorism”. His successor, Donald Rumsfeld, claimed on CNN that enemy combatants, “if let out on the street…will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others.” In 2009, Vice President Dick Cheney was still promising us in an NBC interview that the prisoners were “the worst of the worst”.
After being told over and over that the Guantanamo Bay detainees were, as Wolfowitz said, “more dangerous” than any previous prisoners of war, the fact that at least 150 of the total 774 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay between 2002 and the present day have been identified by the US government as innocent, rounded up by bounty hunters, and inappropriately detained for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, clashes intensely with America’s image of the “dangerous” enemy combatant.
This incredible discrepancy does not mean that all enemy combatants are innocent. But the argument to sacrifice ‘a part for the good of the whole’, in other words, a few innocent detainees for the sake of a majority of guilty ones, is invalid when the stakes are as high as a person’s life, and also not applicable to Guantanamo Bay.
The US director of national intelligence confirmed that 13.5 percent of Guantanamo Bay detainees released from Guantanamo Bay have been confirmed of re-engaging in terrorist or insurgent activities. While this statistic is upsetting and one to take seriously, it emphasizes that the majority of detainees have been unnecessarily tainted with the label “enemy combatant”.
The first injustice against these innocent prisoners was detention at Guantanamo Bay. The second, that they have for the past 12 years been subject to torture. Ahmed Bel Bacha, an Algerian released this March after 12 years on the grounds that he attended a mosque associated with radical Islam, was part of a group at Guantanamo, “strapped into a restraint chair, and a gastric tube inserted through their noses was used to pour a liquid nutritional supplement into their stomachs.” Other detainees mention instances of waterboarding and solitary confinement.
The third injustice, perhaps more subtle but equally devastating, is the label “enemy combatant” and the irreversible damage this term does to detainees’ lives.
While the US government declared roughly 600 of the total 774 detainees ever held at Guantanamo “non-enemy combatants” and approved their release, many remain at Guantanamo for years fearing torture or prosecution in their home countries after a media barrage attesting to their dangerousness. Up until March 2014, Ahmed Bel Bacha was one of those detainees. Originally cleared for release in 2007, Bel Bacha spent seven extra years at Guantanamo waiting and hoping to find a safe place to resettle. His lawyers explained that in Algeria Bel Bacha risks “torture or death…by the government, which is likely to view him as a terrorist because of his tenure at Guantánamo”. Bel Bacha was still released to Algeria a month ago. No other country would take him.
Bel Bacha’s fears are not ungrounded. Many non-enemy combatants experience torture and harassment upon release. In 2010 Slovakia agreed to resettle three prisoners who feared prosecution at home, but instead, the ex-detainees were sent to a detention centre where they claimed conditions were “worse than Guantanamo”. The Chinese government considers the 22 Uighur detainees, cleared in 2008 to be “terrorists”, and even puts pressure on other states not to accept them as refugees. Around twenty countries denied the Chinese detainees asylum, and only in January 2014, six years after being cleared for release, did a country accept the last Chinese detainee. The host country-Slovakia.
Today, seventy-six detainees cleared for release remain at Guantanamo, no longer an enemy combatant, but with nowhere to go. The State government has called the detainees’ situation “unfortunate”.
For the prisoners still waiting at Guantanamo and previous prisoners like them, the label “enemy combatant” has been a lifetime sentence. Throughout the early 2000s the US media clung to the language describing enemy combatants as “extremely dangerous”, and as a result, there is a strong backlash to the proposal of resettling detainees in the United States. When in 2008, the US government proposed relocating the Chinese detainees to Northern Virginia, former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams claimed on Fox News that the detainees were “Chinese terrorists… I think the long-term plan here is to integrate them into the regular prison population where they can radicalize the other prisoners.” Adams, and others, continue to plague ex-enemy combatants with notions of dangerousness long after they have been proclaimed innocent.
International governments exhibit a similar bias towards ex-detainees. Vijay Padmanabhan, a former State Department lawyer who worked on detainee resettlement cases, describes the harsh reaction of the UK to the proposal of resettling prisoners in Britain, “the political opposition immediately stepped up and said, ‘These are dangerous people. Why would the government be accepting these people back onto the streets of the UK?’”
After the proposal to settle the Chinese detainees in the US failed, a dozen prisoners were offered temporary asylum in Bermuda, El Salvador, Switzerland and Palau. Human Rights Watch reports that these ex-combatants “remain in a precarious situation and are often isolated linguistically and culturally…it has not been easy to rebuild their lives.”
The label “enemy combatant” did not just take the time of innocent prisoners through years of unjustified torture and detainment; it took their whole lives. Tarnished by their supposed “dangerousness” some non-enemy combatants cannot return to their homes, to their families. More dangerous than the innocent detainees is the image the media crafted for them. Though they have left Guantanamo Bay, some prisoners are plagued by the term “enemy combatant” forever.