Five years ago President Barack Obama said the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay would be shut down. He later said Gitmo did not reflect the founding principles of the US. But, the facility remains active. THE WEEK was the first Asian publication to visit what critics call “America’s gulag”
By Syed Nazakat/Guantanamo Bay & Washington
It is a virtual fortress, ringed by barbed-wire, watchtowers and surveillance cameras. Armed soldiers pace the road outside, and more patrol the coastline. A few yards from the main checkpoint, a new shift of guards report for duty. None of them sports the usual Velcro name tapes. Just numbers.
Only an iron gate stood between me and the world’s most notorious prison. To reach here, I had to clear security at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then board an Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft. We landed at Leeward Military Airfield in Guantanamo Bay, cleared security again, and then boarded a ferry to Windward base across the bay. Then, a series of check points. Every visitor, including Pentagon officials, need security clearance and a badge to enter the prison camps.
As I stood before the iron gate, a guard looked up at the guard tower, and then at me. After I cleared the final round of security, he waved me in, and then raised his left arm and gave a thumbs down. The gate clanged shut behind me.
Eleven years after this place was turned into a secret detention camp very little is known about what really happened inside the prison cells. Case files reveal that prisoners from 48 countries were housed here. Some were hardened terrorists, some were not. The profile of inmates is wide, ranging from an Afghani shepherd to a 70-year-old mullah to a broadcast journalist to a number of teenagers, some as young as 14. Many were detained and brutally interrogated here for years before being found innocent and released.
US presence in Guantanamo Bay began in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, Cuba leased this bay on its southeastern end to the US, to be used as a naval coaling station. In 1934, it became a US enclave, after a perpetual lease was signed.
Today, the 120sq.km base is administered by the Joint Task Force- Guantanamo. JTF-GTMO, as it is called in short, is a part of the Florida-based US Southern Command. As a joint command, JTF-GTMO has a staff pool from the US Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and the Coast Guard.
There is no escape from here. What is not guarded by the sea is guarded by steep hills on the Cuban side. The US demined its side of the border in 1996, after President Bill Clinton ordered it. Today, even if someone managed to evade the motion- and sound-sensors on the US side, he would run into mines on the Cuban side. Not to forget the Cactus Curtain, the 13km-long paddle cactus fence planted by Cuba. At night, I could see the well-lit American fence twinkling like fairy lights in the distance.
Inside the prison camp, I was briefed on what could and could not be photographed. No photos of any military personnel without their consent. No photos of the coastline, observation posts, fences, checkpoints, security cameras, metal detectors, locks, keys, gates, radar and communication equipment.
Gitmo is divided into four prison camps, for different types of prisoners. Camp Iguana, which once held juveniles as young as 12, now holds only three Chinese prisoners. Most of the detainees in Gitmo—146 out of 164—are held in Camps Five and Six. The location of Camp Seven is classified, as 15 “high-value detainees” are kept here.
Every camp is surrounded by rings of barbed wire, with separate gates. Many detainees do not know that they are so close to the coast. They were flown in blindfolded, and are taken out only for medical care or to meet their lawyers. Before they exit and enter the camp, they are subjected to a humiliating search. Guards slide a hand between the detainee’s scrotum and thigh to ensure nothing foreign is attached to the body.
Through an open window in Camp Six, I saw three prisoners—two were seated and quiet; the third one, in his 50s and with a long beard, was wandering around and chanting loudly. He peered out through the cell’s thick glass window, wanting to say something. As he walked towards the gate, the guards asked me to leave the complex for the safety of the prisoners. Who was the bearded man? The guard would only say that he was an “enemy combatant”.
I was told that living conditions of Camp Six detainees have improved over the years. Depending upon compliance levels, inmates can spend up to nine hours freely in a courtyard during day. Each cell has a bed, a metal sink and a metal toilet. Detainees are allowed a Koran, books, pen and paper. Many paint; some write letters and poems.
A poem from Gitmo, Ode to the Sea, was included in the English poetry syllabus of Calicut University, Kerala. The poem, which appeared under the pen name Al-Rubaish, was withdrawn later. Ibrahim Sulayman Muhammad Arbaysh, aka Al-Rubaish, is a Saudi and a former Gitmo detainee who was released in December 2006. He fled Saudi Arabia, and is now suspected to be in Yemen. He is now reportedly the mufti of AQAP—al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Detainees at Camp Six were once allowed to leave their cells and mingle freely with other prisoners. The freedom was revoked after violence erupted in April. Still, the joke amongst guards is that detainees in Camp Six enjoy better facilities than they do. All guards live in prefabricated homes, sometimes six to a ‘container’. Officers have better accommodation. Gitmo is not all dry for guards. There is a free movie theatre, and franchises of restaurants like McDonald’s and Jerk House, a Jamaican eatery. Not to forget the many bars with a decent wine list and cheap beer.
As I walked through Camp Six, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was brought out in a van to meet his lawyers in Camp Echo. Al-Libbi, meaning the Libyan, was al Qaeda’s No. 3 when he was arrested in Pakistan in 2005. He stepped into 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s shoes, after the Pakistani was arrested in 2003. Al-Libbi planned two assassination attempts on former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, and had plans to send al Qaeda recruits to Kashmir to fight the Indian Army. He is believed to have planned the failed plot to detonate liquid explosives in 10 flights bound from the UK to the US and Canada in 2006.
At Al-Farouq camp in Afghanistan, al-Libbi supervised the training of many al Qaeda men. One of them was David Hicks, the Australian who made three failed attempts to cross the Line of Control and enter Kashmir. He was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 and shipped to Gitmo, where he spent five years. Transferred to Australia in 2007, Hicks was later released. Now 38 years old, he is married and lives in Sydney. In 2010, Random House Australia published his autobiography, Guantanamo: My Journey.
Compared with Camp Six, inmates of Camp Five have a bleak existence. It is a maximum security facility, where even after 10 years of detention inmates spend about 22 hours a day in 8ft x 12ft cells. Each cell has a surveillance camera. Over and above that, guards peer in every three minutes, through windows set in the steel cell doors.
Currently, there are 58 detainees here, of whom 46 have been tagged as “indefinite detainees”—they might never be released or put on trial. A young Yemeni named Adnan Latif died here last year; autopsy concluded that cause of death was overdose of anti-psychotic medication. Adnan was captured in 2001 at the Af-Pak border. According to his classified file, in December 2006 the military had recommended his release. The recommendation was repeated in January 2008.
The Obama administration was reluctant to transfer Yemeni detainees back home because of the poor security situation there. Adnan’s lawyer David Remes said Adnan was so disturbed that he once ended a meeting with him by slitting his wrist and splattering him with blood. “I have seen many outrageous things [in Gitmo],” said Remes. “But none [have been] as outrageous as [the] episode involving Adnan.”
Interrogation rooms in Camp Five are outfitted in blue, with matching couches. Some interrogators are women, who reportedly have tried to break detainees by fondling them and wearing revealing clothes. Former US army sergeant Erik R. Saar, who served in Gitmo, said that in one case an interrogator smeared fake menstrual blood on a Saudi man’s face.
The Pentagon’s guidelines for military interrogators outline ways in which detainees can deceive them. Insurgents, the document says, are taught to resist interrogations by remembering their faith. Hence, many detainees see the incarceration as a greater jihad.
Some detainees collaborate and make stories to support each other or to distance the interrogator from the truth. For example, al-Libbi knew Osama bin Laden’s location for at least six years before the al Qaeda boss was killed. Yet, he misled interrogators at every turn.
I was shown a small room with a TV, and was told that detainees who comply could watch shows, but they would be shackled to rings on the floor. And, TV is not just entertainment, it is an intelligence gathering tool, too. “They watch live satellite TV. So, they are very appraised about world developments,” said Captain Robert Durand, the facility’s spokesman. “When you look at strategic intelligence, it is a question of association—people who they went to school with, people who they trained with…. So, there is utility to it [giving access to TV to prisoners.].”
In 2006, fourteen “high-value detainees”—all top al Qaeda operatives—were transferred from CIA custody to Gitmo. Many believed that they were held in Camp Five. But, they were in Camp Seven.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is held here. His detention had made the headlines when it was found that he was “waterboarded” 183 times in a month. Many officers in Gitmo said they were unable to comprehend what drove this Kuwait-born, US-educated mechanical engineer to terrorism. Surprisingly, he is a most obedient prisoner and shuns the hunger strike as he thinks it is haram (taboo) in Islam. His lawyers are prohibited by the Pentagon to discuss details about his interrogation and about black sites, as it could “endanger America’s national security”.
Late one evening, at a small cafe near the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites, I met an Arab interpreter who has been visiting Gitmo since 2005. He translates conversations between Arab detainees and their lawyers. “In India, you even gave Ajmal Kasab [the sole terrorist caught alive during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai] a fair trial and a chance to defend himself,” he said. “[This is despite his being] captured while killing so many innocent people. In Gitmo, you will find people who are just innocent. Yet they were never put on trial, leave alone a fair trial.” As we talked about condition of detainees, two men sat down at the next table. The interpreter suddenly said that we should leave; the men were CIA, I was later told.
The initial images of prisoners from Guantanamo were of people kneeling in the Cuban sun, wearing orange jumpsuits. Those 20 Afghanis were brought to Camp X-Ray on January 11, 2002. But, today, the camp is deserted and overrun with vultures and hutias, a rodent. At the edge of the camp stands the K-9 unit hut which housed those ferocious dogs which intimidated prisoners.
The camp would have been razed long ago, but for a federal judge ruling that the structures be preserved for possible prisoner abuse investigations in the future. My minder, an affable young soldier, said this was a temporary camp that housed around 300 detainees. The youngest detainee might have been Ismail Agha, a 12-year-old Afghani. He was arrested by an Afghan warlord in 2002 and allegedly handed over to US troops for $5,000 bounty. Detained for 14 months, he was released in 2004.
Case files show that at least 17 detainees were below the age of 18, and at least two were below 14. The number of child detainees could be more, as the age of many detainees was deleted or remains unknown. Notings in files show that the US army quickly concluded that the children were innocent. Yet, they remained in Gitmo for years. One of them, Yasser, was 16 when he committed suicide. A detainee who contacted THE WEEK through his lawyer said many detainees suffered from acute depression and many had attempted suicide.
On an average, each day the prison hospital receives three to four detainees. Most of them, said Dr Donyza, suffer from depression, hallucinations and other psychological disorders. “We provide detainees with the best treatment,” the doctor said. “For us they are just patients.” Currently, Camp Delta serves as a temporary hospital. The doctor, however, refused to answer questions on specific inmates, like the health status of Obaidullah, who has been here for 12 years.
Obaidullah was 19 when he was arrested from his home in eastern Afghanistan. He was nabbed in the middle of the night after US troops found landmines and a notebook on his family’s property nearby. They also found a borrowed van in the compound, with bloodstains on the back seat. The soldiers suspected that the van was used to ferry wounded al Qaeda men across the border into Pakistan.
Obaidullah’s lawyer, Major Derek Poteet, a US Marine, visited Afghanistan thrice to collect evidence. “I kept asking his family members whether it was true that he was transporting wounded al Qaeda fighters,” he said. “Nobody spoke a word about the blood-spattered van until one day an elderly man came forward. What he narrated was shocking.”
Two days before Obaidullah was arrested, Poteet said, he had borrowed the van to transport his wife, who was full term, to hospital. She went into labour on the way and delivered a girl in the van. Hence, the bloodstains on the seat.
“In Afghanistan, men do not talk about their women,” said Poteet. “It is taboo to talk about women in the family, leave aside their health issues and labour pains.” Obaidullah’s daughter was born two days before his arrest, and his first contact, after being jailed, with the 11-year-old was via videophone last year.
US military officials acknowledge that some prisoners were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were sold by Afghan warlords and Pakistani military for bounties. The US used to airdrop leaflets in tribal areas promising $5,000 per terrorist caught. In the fog of war, many innocents became suspects and ‘terrorists’. Some were picked up in random military sweeps along the highways and at checkpoints.
Some were arrested because they had the “sign of the al Qaeda” on them—the Casio F-91W watch. CIA officials believe that bin Laden trained recruits to use this cheap watch as timers in bombs. Case files of at least 50 detainees show ownership of a F-91W at the time of their arrest.
The 22 Chinese detainees who were in Gitmo were Uyghur Muslims who had fled their home province of Xinjiang to escape persecution. They crossed into Pakistan, were caught and sold for bounties. Nineteen have been freed and given asylum in various countries, including Albania and Sweden. Three remain, because many countries are unwilling to risk China’s anger. Abdul Ghupur, one of the Uyghurs, has been at Gitmo for over 10 years.
Of the 164 detainees, at least 84 have been cleared for release to either their home or to another country. To facilitate their transfer, President Obama has appointed Clifford Sloan, a senior Washington attorney and former publisher of Slate, as his envoy. There is, however, a self-defeating policy disconnect, said lawyer Remes. “The state department has been trying to convince other countries that the cleared detainees pose no threat,” he said. “But, in court, the justice department continues to argue that the US can hold the detainees because they are part of al Qaeda.”
Gitmo was chosen by President George Bush because of its extra-judicial nature—it is outside the United States and its commonwealth. Hence, beyond the reach of any civilian court. Despite being a Nobel Peace Prize awardee, Obama has not been able to deliver on his five-year-old promise of shutting down Gitmo. In many ways, Gitmo illustrates all that is wrong with America’s war on terror.
During his speech on national security on May 23, Obama said, “Imagine a future, 10 years from now or 20 years from now, when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime, on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw?”
There has been global outcry over the way the US has treated Gitmo detainees. Amnesty International called Gitmo the gulag of our times. “Most of the detainees are held in indefinite detention without charge or trial, and with little contact with the outside world,” said Rob Freer, USA researcher, Amnesty International. “The facility should be closed.”
However, Rear Admiral Richard W. Butler, commander of JTF-GTMO, told THE WEEK that all inmates are treated humanely (See interview on pages 54-55). About the separate detention of the Chinese, the rear admiral said that it was done after considering their “security, safety and degree of cooperation”. As commander of the facility, he refused to name the most dangerous prisoner. Can a terrorist be rehabilitated? I asked, and his reply was clinical: “It may be possible, but rehabilitation is not what we are trying to do here. We are detaining detainees and making sure that they are away from the battleground.”
What has brought renewed focus on Gitmo is the mass hunger strike by detainees. It started, according to one version, after security guards inspected Korans for contraband. The detainees considered this sacrilegious and went on strike. The military said those claims were false.
While on strike, the detainees covered “147 of the 160 security cameras” in the facility, the military said. According to the military, on April 13, when soldiers in riot gear swept into Camp Six, they were met with stiff resistance. An Associated Press photograph showed the military’s display of makeshift weapons confiscated from inmates, including batons made of wood, plastic and steel. The number of strikers has dropped to 19 now.
A Gitmo doctor said that once a detainee refuses nine consecutive meals, he is considered to be on hunger strike. He is then bought to the hospital, restrained and fed through a nasal tube. Detainees have said that the process, which is done twice a day, is very painful.
“The US department of defence will not allow detainees in its charge to harm themselves. We will not allow them to commit suicide with a piece of contraband and we will not allow them to commit suicide by [starvation],” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col Todd Breasseale. “We do indeed provide, and sometimes must apply, enteral feeding to those detainees who reach a particular health threshold where their life is in danger.” At least one detainee, Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi, is on hunger strike since 2005.
Most detainees are simply desperate. Some have been in solitary confinement since 2002, and without trial. They are allowed four phone calls a year through the International Committee of the Red Cross, but their families are never allowed to visit. Of the detainees, one died of cancer, one of a heart attack and seven committed suicide.
But, guards insist that prisoners are abusive and often aggressive. “They keep shouting from prison cells. They hurl abuses at women guards,” said a sergeant serving with the 193 Military Police Battalion. “[For us] it is hard work, long shifts and stressful.”
To back up their assertions, a military officer escorted me to an empty cellblock in Camp Five. The ceiling of the cellblock was covered with thick foam padding. I was shown a piece of foam that was stained with what the officer said was dried faeces. Guards said they routinely face “splashes”—prisoners mixing faeces, urine, blood and saliva in a cup and throwing it in the guard’s face.
As mentioned earlier, the guards have no name tapes. Anonymity provides security, and it also deters prisoners from forming a bond with the guards. At least one guard, Terry C. Holdbrooks Jr, converted to Islam after being inspired by the faith of a detainee. Holdbrooks changed his name to Mustafa Abdullah. Since then, any conversation between guards and detainees is prohibited.
Gitmo is a moral question, too. And it is all the more pertinent when it is highlighted by the Rev. Dr Luis Leon, an Episcopalian priest, formerly of St John’s Church, Washington. Leon was born in Guantanamo and migrated alone to the US as a 12-year-old. He delivered the closing prayer of Obama’s second inauguration in January. “We should not torture any inmate. It is cruel and immoral,” said Leon. “No matter what, we have to do justice with the [Gitmo] inmates.” St John’s is traditionally called the US president’s church, because every president from James Madison (1809-1817) onwards has been at least an occasional attendee here. Pew 54 of the church has been designated the President’s pew, in perpetuity.
Until the Afghanistan war, most Americans knew about the Guantanamo Bay base through the Marine Corps thriller A Few Good Men. As in the movie, the fate of the detainees, too, will be eventually decided by the court. If everything goes according to plan, the first US war crimes trial in 50 years could begin in Gitmo next year. On an abandoned runway, over a hundred tents have been erected forming Camp Justice, the venue of the trials.
As dusk fell, I was standing on John Paul Jones Hill, the highest point on the base. The sun slipped into the sea, leaving darkness to blanket the barbed wire. But lights blazed from the prison camps. No one sleeps there, perhaps. At least the guards do not. As I watched, a fresh shift started duty. The relieved shift walked away to wash off the day’s dust and exhaustion. Tomorrow
Interview Of Rear Admiral Richard Butler, commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo
There is not a single torture cell in Gitmo
By Syed Nazakat
As commander of the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, Rear Admiral Richard Butler in charge of the detention and security of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay. He has taken command of Gitmo at a time when many detainees are on hunger strike and there is increasing debate on whether the camps should be closed. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Admiral Butler spoke about the hunger strike, allegations of Quran desecration and interrogation of detainees. On India, he said he was moved by the 26/11 Mumbai attack. “When I visited Mumbai after the attack, I made sure to visit the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Leopold Cafe,” he said. “Tragedies like these remind us that we cannot afford to lower our guard against terrorism.” Excerpts:
Gitmo is seen as the most controversial, notorious and dangerous detention facility in the world. Your comments.
As a detention centre, the controversial part, yes, I can see that. What I would not necessarily agree with is [that it is] the most dangerous detention centre. We treat them [detainees] in as much safe and human fashion that I think is possible, given the conditions under which we operate.
Why are detainees kept in different camps?
There are different conditions for different detainees. Some of them are kept in a communal area, where they can congregate throughout day. They get locked at night for a few hours, as opposed to some of our high security areas where we have the detainees in cells locked down for most of the day up to 22 hours.
Why is the location of Camp Seven kept secret?
A lot of folks have an interest in Camp Seven. But the policy surrounding Camp Seven is set by the higher authority and all we do here is abide by it. Beyond that, we have no say about the access to Camp Seven.
Is it because 9/11 accused are detained in the camp?
It is a well-known fact that 9/11 defendants are kept there and they are undergoing the military commission process.
What is happening on the legal front with the Gitmo detainees?
We have different categories of detainees here. The one you are talking about are those who have been actually charged with crime. They have been charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks. We are currently having pretrial hearings at Gitmo. We completed one last week. They will continue till next year. It is a lengthy procedure.
Will the detainees ever face a trial?
Yes, there will be a trial. They will be tried by the jury and will be dealt accordingly.
Since the facility was established in 2002, this is the first time detainees have been put on trial.
Yes, that is true. There have been other legal proceedings in the past. But we have reached a phase now, where we are actually picking up the pace in moving the process forward.
After Osama bin Laden’s killing, has there been any change in the behaviour of the detainees?
You are asking me a difficult question because you are asking me to interpret the thought process of the detainees. I would not try to speak on behalf of what they think. We have seen the behaviour towards the guard forces changing in a cyclic fashion for various reasons.
Some detainees were arrested nearly 10 years ago. Do they still have intelligence value?
We continue to have interest in them, based on their background and history.
How do you obtain information from them?
We talk to the detainees. And if they are willing to give information, we listen to them. We talk to them on voluntary basis, when it comes to interrogations.
Most of them would not be willing to speak?
That will be fair to say.
Then, how do you interrogate them?
No, I mean when it comes to anything beyond interview-type interrogation, we do not do that here. That does not happen here.
But in 2002, detainees were ‘interrogated’ inside Gitmo?
I was not here in 2002. I can speak to you about right now.
Does the CIA have secret torture chambers at Gitmo?
Right now, there are not any. Not a single one.
There have been allegations of Quran desecration.
The allegations that we mishandle or disrespect the Quran are just allegations. There is no truth in them. These are misinterpretations generated by detainees. We don’t disrespect the Quran. We try to limit soldiers’ handling of the Quran. I can tell you that the entire forceis sensitive to the Quran and the religious practices.
How are you dealing with the hunger strike?
We are making sure that the detainees are observed medically for any weight loss. When it becomes a threat to their lives, we deal [with it] accordingly.
How did it start?
There have been hunger strikes here over the years for various reasons. The current one started early this year. There was this strong desire from the detainees to have their voices heard about their condition.
A number of detainees have been cleared for release. Yet, they are still lodged in Gitmo. Why?
There are a lot of reasons. We facilitate the process but we do not make the final decision about the transfer. The individuals are vetted. We provide the information, we do not make the decision.
Hell in a cell
164 detainees from 23 countries
85 cleared for release but still in prison
22 Chinese were detained, all released except three
19 prisoners on hunger strike
9 detainees died in custody
Faces of Gitmo
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Top commander of al-Qaeda, planned 9/11 attacks.
The Australian converted to Islam, trained with al-Qaeda and was detained for six years. Now married, he lives in Sydney and has written an autobiography.
The ’20th hijacker’ of 9/11 failed to enter the US as officials noted he had no return ticket and suspected he wanted to become an illegal immigrant.
The Pakistani businessman is the oldest detainee at 65. A New York Institute of Technology graduate, he was recommended to be released. He has been in Gitmo for the past 10 years.
Abdul Rahman Shalabi
The Saudi national has been on hunger strike since 2005.
Mohammed Ismail Agha
The 12-year-old Afghani child was the youngest prisoner and was detained for 14 months before release.
The Yemeni was twice ordered to be released. He died (allegedly a suicide) in custody last year, after 10 years of imprisonment.
Opened in 2006, it is a top secret camp where 15 al-Qaeda men, including Khalid Sheikh and his nephew, are kept. The exact location is unknown. Its detainees had been previously held and interrogated by the CIA for years at unknown sites.
Holds 88 detainees and was previously reserved for detainees who followed prison rules. But after a clash between prisoners and guards early this year, security has been increased. Some prisoners are still allowed to pray together, and have round-the-clock recreation time as well as access to satellite TV.
This maximum security prison holds 58 “indefinite detainees”. Even after 10 years of detention, inmates spend about 22 hours a day inside their cells.
Originally reserved for child detainees, it now holds the three remaining Chinese Muslims who have been cleared for release but could not return because of fear of persecution.
This was the first detention facility and held about 300 prisoners, including a 12-year-old Afghan boy, in 2002. Now closed and deserted, it is preserved for possible future prison-abuse investigation.
Camp Five Echo
Once a secret block used to punish captives, it is now a meeting point for prisoners and their lawyers.
THE WEEK, October 27, 2013