The Chilling Horrors of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre
By: Lyba Mobeen
Guantanamo Bay is an area of 45 square miles on the Eastern coast of Cuba which is under the United States occupation as its first Overseas Naval Base, established at the end of the 19th century. With the initial aim of strengthening the US Navy, the Guantanamo Bay has always been the talk of the town, at first due to the clash of ownership over the Bay between Cuba and United States and then after the formation of a notorious detention facility, setup by the Bush administration after the 9/11 as a policy measure of its “War on Terror” to interrogate and imprison the Al-Qaeda members beyond the jurisdictional and constitutional limits. Even after twenty years since its inception, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp still stands out unhinged for its notoriety, abuses, and torture of the inmates.
The fate of Guantanamo Bay dates back to Theodore Roosevelt’s era of civil service in the 19th century. Towards the descent of the 19th century, Roosevelt, and the political leadership (Republicans and Democrats) of America wanted to strengthen and expand the US Navy by establishing naval bases at strategic locations in the Caribbean Sea to thrive the newly emerged trade markets. In this respect, Roosevelt advocated the presence of a Naval base at Guantanamo which according to him would ensure “the creation of a modern and more well-rounded military with an enduring presence in the Caribbean”.
The opportunity came by when the Cubans fought for their independence against the Spanish colonisation in 1898 and America intervened instigating the Spanish-American War. The war ended after six months of military confrontations when the Spanish surrendered Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Philippines to America as a result of Paris Agreement 1898. With the end of the war, the Cubans came under the imperialist control of Americans and for Cubans to attain complete independence and for the withdrawal of American troops, United States demanded them to amend their constitution to accommodate the seven conditions put forth by the US, including to allow the lease of any piece of Cuba’s land for an indefinite time period for American Naval Base as a goodwill gesture of reciprocating America’s help during their independence struggle. Not just that, the Platt Amendment allowed US to intervene to protect Cuban sovereignty and the right to create up to 4 naval bases on the island but, the United States only managed to build one. The Amendment was signed in 1901 after which American forces withdrew and Cuba was declared a Republic. In 1903, another treaty was bilaterally signed certifying America’s complete jurisdiction and control over 45 sq. miles Guantanamo Bay which can only be eliminated through a mutual agreement (Rothman, 2015).
However, in 1934 the Platt Amendment was repealed and most of its conditions were abrogated mutually under the President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbour Policy” towards Latin America but, the right to maintain a Naval Base retained.
The Base came to the highlight back in 1960’s when Fidel Castro threatened to push the American Navy out of the Base if it continued to interfere in the Cuban domestic issues particularly, its economy. Having said that, he never took to hardliner policy to exterminate the US Navy because of the repercussions that could be triggered with US attack on Cuba and impeach him.
But it was not until 2002 that Guantanamo became a worldwide sensation. Post 9/11, the security environment surrounding the White House was comprised of fear of imminent terrorist activities that could escalate within coming period as reports regarding the Osama bin Laden’s attempt to get his hands on biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons made global coverage. With this security landscape, the Bush administration sought for a site for detaining the high-profile Al-Qaeda members so as to keep them away from American soil and to ensure their full-proof security. Many sites were considered for this purpose, but Guantanamo Bay ticked all the parameters set by the officials. The second task was to prevent the Geneva Conventions or United States Constitution from being implemented on the prisoners. Since the prison was on foreign land, therefore the United States laws were no applicable there and as far as the Geneva Conventions were concerned, the Bush administration labelled the captives as “unlawful combatants” instead of “Prisoners of Wars” which cleared them of any obligations under UN to treat the prisoners as humane and provide for basic requirements as the POWs were entitled to under the third Geneva Convention. Critics condemned this policy as a “legal black hole”. The term “unlawful combatant” applied to those mercenaries and fighters who worked for a leader which is not a representative of a recognised government by the international law. To provide for the excuse or rationale, the officials proclaimed that Al-Qaeda constituted a nonstate actor and were not the signatory of Geneva Conventions therefore, they should not be authorised to the protections designated for POWs as they do not fit the criteria. Initially called as “Camp X-Ray”, the facility comprised of seven camps, namely Camp Echo, Camp Delta, Camp Iguana, Camp Five, Camp Six and Camp Seven, where the perpetrators were kept under surveillance, constant observation, in rooms made of mesh, wires and metals with zero privacy and persistent exposure.
The Ill-famed Interrogations and Torture
Since 2002, Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre or Gitmo has accommodated 780 Muslim prisoners only from 48 countries, among whom 732 have been released either to their home country or any other country without charges and after being held for nearly two decades in imprisonment without any legal representation, 09 died in custody, and only 16 of them were ever charged with criminal offences as per the Human Rights Watch. According to New York Times’ article “The Guantanamo Docket” the highest number of captives were taken from Afghanistan (203), Saudi Arabia (140), Pakistan (63), Oman (30) and the UAE (24)
Despite torture being globally prohibited and considered illegal, in December 2002, the Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld allowed a list of 15 abuse techniques to be used upon the Guantanamo detainees which marked forceful silence, sleep and food deprivation, persistent exposure to light and noise, kept blindfolded, solitary confinements, thrashing, subject to phobias, etc. Along with the permission to use the aforementioned techniques, the ground staff of the prison were given free hands during interrogation in terms of impunity which led to extreme abuse. As per the 2008 Senate Report, Rumsfeld gave a green signal to many torturing techniques despite disapproval by the military lawyers and experts.
The globally infamous prison has witnessed all sorts of abuses, torture, and human rights violations in its span of 20 years, be it physical, sexual, mental, psychological, or even spiritual. According to reporters, the “Abu-Gharib-style torture and sexual humiliation” was conducted there. In a 2005 New York Times article, the reporter Anthony Lewis mentioned an FBI agent’s exact words,
“I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a foetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times, they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more”
Physical abuse at the centre was primarily carried out by the “Immediate Reactionary Force”, comprising of Military Police with the purpose of ensuring discipline and law and order with the prison camps, often misused and exploited their authority and carried out brutal torture including prolonged, vicious and frequent beatings, smashing, grabbing, throwing, punching, stomping against walls, dragging across stony paths, handcuffing and tying in stressful positions for continuous time periods, short shackling (having one’s arms and legs shackled and bent forwards), using tear gas and pepper spray and much more. As per the statement of an inmate,
“One day a prisoner named Al Dossari returned to his cell and saw that few of his usual items were missing. The MP on duty, Webster, pushed him to the ground of the cell and cursed at him. Dossari shouted back at him The MP called for the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF). When the IRF team arrived, one of the MP named Smith burst into the cage and jumped on Al Dossari’s back wearing full riot gear and at that time, he weighed 240 pounds. At least two other men held Al Dossari by the legs. MP Smith began to choke him with his hands, while another repeatedly hit his head on the floor. While being beaten, Al Dossari lost consciousness. When the cage was hosed down later, the water ran red with blood. Mr. Al Dossari later asked Smith why Smith had beaten him. Smith replied, “because I’m Christian.”
Medical abuse was also prevalent usually. The medications of the prisoners were withheld by the interrogators and allowed to release them on the basis of their cooperation. What is more deteriorating is that the medical staff was equally involved within these practices. The doctors and psychologists violated the medical ethics of patients’ right to privacy which was in return dissipated by the IRF forces to blackmail and threaten the prisoners. As claimed by Usman Abdul Raheem, an inmate
Another prisoner Ruhel Ahmed stated,
“I needed corrective lenses due to an eye problem and I was denied the lenses for 1 and a half years after which I was granted the lenses but, not the solution to wash them. It has all collectively added to the permanent damage to my eyes.”
Psychological abuse included pertained timeframes of solitary confinements which has stretched up to years for some prisoners and resulted in severe mental health issues and traumas leading to bewilderment, severe anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, depression and obsession.
Being exposed to extreme temperatures along with noise and light was another severe method of invoking the feeling of helplessness among the prisoners. Detainees were either kept under intense lights for 24 hours or kept under complete darkness for longer periods.
A prisoner, Belkalcem Bensayah was borne to fluorescent lights 24 hours a day for seventeen straight months and resultingly he now cannot look at anything for longer time periods as he sees black spots.
As stated by the FBI witnesses, another detainee, Murbati was once short shackled with his hands tied underneath his legs and for continuous 12 hours, he was tormented by very loud music and white noise played on six speakers in close proximity to his head.
They were also exposed to extreme hot and cold temperatures in their cells for months.
An inmate, Mustafa Ait Idir was left shackled in a room with the air conditioning on very high for 5 or 6 hours, exacerbating a kidney ailment he was known to have. He was then placed in a solid steel isolation cell (“very cold”), and his sleeping pad was taken away because he refused to cooperate with interrogators.
Sleep deprivation was another tactic used by the authorities to weak and de-stabilise the captives. The IRF constantly disturbed the inmates and kept on waking them throughout the day and night through constant banging on doors, asking them to set their things in a specific manner after every hour, excessive light, loud noises and rising or dropping temperatures. The crudest example of such torture was that of Mohammad Al-Qahtani who was deprived from sleeping for 50 days. This action was in accordance with the “special interrogation Plan” approved by the then State Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. The use of sexual threats, rapes, and sexual humiliation as an active interrogative tool was initiated at Guantanamo Bay and then exported to Abu Ghraib (United States Detention Centre at Iraq) and other notorious detention centres. Male prisoners were frequently harassed by female MP’s when the latter touched them for false checking purposes. The prisoners were periodically seduced and bribed to be given sexual favours by the females, if they decide to cooperate, especially during Ramazan when the Muslim males are highly prohibited to touch a female.
Many juvenile prisoners were reported to have been taken to isolation rooms and then raped and sexually molested by the guards
Stated by a British prisoner, an Algerian man was “forced to watch a video supposedly showing two prisoners dressed in orange, one sodomizing the other, and was told that it would happen to him if he didn’t cooperate.”
Only when all of this was still not enough, the American forces took up to the most inhumane practice, the religious abuse. They degraded the inmates’ religion i.e., Islam, interfered with their religious rituals and customs, and humiliated and insulted them on religious bases. The desecration and disrespect of the Holy Quran was the most eminent of the methods which would fuel outrage and in return provide the IRF forces with an excuse to maltreat the prisoners. Despite knowing the fact that the holy book is entitled to utmost affection and esteem, and that the Muslims were very diligent when it comes to the regard of the Holy Quran, yet the guards intentionally humiliated the Holy Quran by throwing it on the ground and putting their feet over it, shook the Quran violently, tore its pages and the bindings for searches, and mishandled the Holy book periodically.
Once a female IRF member was asked to search for a detainees’ room. She took the Quran from the shelf of the prison and with other prisoners watching, she threw it in the bad at her feet. This caused massive resentment and she drenched with water by them, and she later went on to confess that she did it to provoke them.
Additionally, they were refused to keep beards which were regularly shaved as the US considered it “a symbol of terrorism”, they were forced to give up their pants as they could not offer prayers until their legs and waists were covered with clothes, during Ramadan, they were denied food at times of breaking the fast, they would make a mockery out of the Azan by barking like dogs or hee-hawing like donkeys. Moazzam Begg, a victim of this abuse asserted, “It is the faith of the detainees that is targeted: the religion of Islam.”
As a result of all these abuses, malpractices and ill-treatments, people became suicidal and committed self-harm whenever they were given the chance. Within the initial year of the Gitmo, 18 prisoners attempted suicide by engaging in 28 number of attempts. As per US official statements, in 2003 alone, there were 350 acts of “self-harm,” including 120 “hanging gestures.” In August 2003, a mass suicide attempt took place in which 23 prisoners tried to take their lives due to the desecration and humiliation of the Holy Quran at the hands of the interrogators and IRF members. The first and the last actual suicides occurred in June 2006, when the 3 detainees turned out to be successful in taking their lives.
Another captive, Moazzam Begg once recalled his bitter and worse memories of the prison,
“Two soldiers sat on top of me, one on my head, one on my back. They took out a knife and they slipped off my clothes with a knife and I could feel the cold steel against my skin. And then they dragged me in the mud, screaming and shouting, spitting in my face, spitting on my body, spitting on other prisoners, kicking me, punching me, bringing dogs, and then photographing me in this state, and then shaving my beard off, shaving my hair off, and then interrogating me naked, shivering in the cold”
The fact that the higher official authorities were completely aware of the plight of the prisoners is strengthened by the fact that the Pentagon “praised the Commanding Officer of the Guantanamo Detention Centre in 2002, Major General Geoffrey Miller for improving the flow of information from terrorist suspects and the use of notorious methods of inspection” Miller was quoted saying, “I think of Guantanamo as the interrogation battle lab in the War against Terror”.
Why has the Detention Camp not closed yet?
The Camp came into the limelight within a short span after its inception after the released captives went vocal about the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Mass protests, movements and international condemnations came about. From the general public to Human Rights advocates to Amnesty International to United Nations, everyone criticised the Bush administration and demanded the closure of the facility as soon as possible. However, nothing substantial was done. The Obama administration tried to put down the detention and torture facility when a huge spike in criticism against the abuse and maltreatment of prisoners took pace. However, the presidential order signed by Barack Obama proved inadequate as the Congress opposed the decision and decided to continue running of the facility, Pentagon did not seem active on the issue along with the legal questions and mess surrounding the executive order. Similarly, Trump’s pre-election stance over the prison provided suffice evidence to conclude that he shall not put an end to this vice. His statement that “he would load up the Guantanamo Bay facility with bad dudes”, reflected his policy. Trump reversed Obama’s order of closing the facility by signing his executive order. Anyhow, his tenure still did not witness an increment in the number of detainees as the maintenance cost of it was crazy, approximately $13 million per prisoner. With Biden administration in power, many people hope to witness the historical decision of clearing this huge blot on American honour. As stated by Wells Dixon, an attorney of Constitutional Rights, “President Biden has stated his intention to close Guantanamo as a matter of policy but has not taken substantial steps toward closure,” while According to a senior officer of the White House, “The administration is committed to closing the detention centre, an effort it “jump-started” after four years of inaction under Trump.” With little hope to foresee and a lot in their plates at the moment, whether the Biden administration shall be able to successfully abandon the facility or not, is yet to be seen. Asserted by an Amnesty International Human Rights activist and USA’s Director Security with HR, “President Biden must uphold his commitment to close Guantanamo once and for all, the longer the prison remains in use, the longer it continues to undermine US credibility globally on human rights.”
Despite projecting themselves as the champions and protagonists of Human Rights, Americans have yet again failed to sync what they preach and what they practice. The advocates of the camp associate its existence with the US National Security and call the victims it catered as “the Worst of the Worst”, whereas the critics accuse the governments to be violating the US Constitution, the Torture Treaty, of which the United States itself was among the founding members, the United Nations Charter, and the International Humanitarian Law. They maintain that with poor regard for IHL, the American detainees abroad are also at a high-risk exposure to the inhumane torturing techniques. One of the founding members of the Guantanamo Detention Centre, Michael Lehnert, a Marine Corps General, has become an active detractor of the decision of keeping the low-profile fighters and rebels in custody for a prolonged period without charges as against the American spirit.