Every year on July 4 Americans celebrate the US Declaration of Independence. This date is portrayed by the West as the beginning of civilisation, the move from darkness into light, the dawn of a new era of rights and freedoms. The now-infamous lines of the preamble to that historic document read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This year, July 4 marks another historic occasion: a day on which the US and the West returned to darkness. July 4, 2007 is the 2,000th day since the opening of the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. It has been 2,000 days of illegal imprisonment; 2,000 days of captivity; 2,000 days of torture; 2,000 days of humiliation; 2,000 days of injustice. It has been 2,000 days in which “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, those “inalienable rights” endowed upon man by their Creator, have been denied to hundreds of men who are held without charge in cages on an island off the coast of Cuba where they are subjected to physical and psychological torture daily.
While the US is guilty of establishing and operating of this facility, other countries are stained with the blood of the four men who have died there in these 2,000 days; that this detention-camp has been tolerated and facilitated by the rest of the world allows the injustices and abuses to continue unabated. As Carmen de Monteflores put it, “Oppression can only survive through silence”.
Anyone familiar with American foreign policy and the US's history of intervention around the world will realise that it actually returned to the darkness long ago, long before the opening of Guantanamo Bay; indeed it is true to say that the US was even made in darkness and has been in it since. But despite its numerous unlawful covert operations around the world and its use of a forked tongue in its role as an “honest peace-broker”, the US had nevertheless portrayed itself as a bastion of freedom, of human rights, and as an upholder of international law. What little was true of that changed on 11 January 2002.
On that day, the US made a deliberate decision that not only would it no longer be bound by international laws and conventions protecting human rights, but that it would defy them openly and unashamedly. The myth which it has propounded to justify its arrogant behaviour has been that these laws are not adequate, nor designed to protect mankind from the unprecedented threat it faces today from “jihadi terrorism”. By opening the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and allowing the world's press to photograph detainees in orange jumpsuits, hooded, shackled and gagged, on their knees in wire-mesh cages, the US was sending a message out to the watching world that, as Tony Blair put it so eloquently after the London bombings, “the rules of the game have changed.” These images have become the shameful antithesis of what the Declaration of Independence symbolised to the world.
The problem does not end there. Guantanamo Bay is only one symptom of a much greater problem: that more than 14,000 people are being held in ‘ghost prisons' (not officially admitted to exist) around the world. One can only speculate about the abuses they endure, but former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg has testified that the worst place he was held in was Bagram airbase, where he saw two detainees killed in custody.
The torture, ill-treatment and inhuman punishment being meted out to Muslim detainees in American custody have also increased within prisons on US soil. Take the case of John “Humza” Walker Lindh, for example. Despite no evidence having been procured of his ever taking up arms against American troops in Afghanistan, this American revert to Islam is currently serving a sentence of twenty years' imprisonment after pleading guilty of providing aid to the Taliban between May and November 2001 (in May 2001 the Bush administration itself provided $43 million in aid to the Taliban). Lindh was initially held in a medium-security prison in Victorville, where he was prohibited from speaking Arabic, in which he had become fluent in Yemen. The prohibition was so severe that Lindh could not exchange the greeting of salaam with other Muslim inmates; nor could he recite Qur'an or pray aloud. Following each incident of terrorism around the world, and whenever he breached rules (which seemed only to apply to him), Lindh was thrown into solitary confinement or “the hole.” After years of petitioning by his lawyers, the restrictions were lifted. Before he had a chance to open his mouth to say shukran, Lindh was whisked away to his new home at ADMAX in Florence, Colorado, the federal Supermax facility, where he is kept in a private cell 23 hours a day, with just one hour daily alone in a prison yard.
Even more disturbing, and indicative of an element of institutional Islamophobia and anti-Muslim persecution, has been the opening of what some have described as a “Muslim-only prison” in Terre Haute, Indiana. On 11 December 2006, 17 federal prisoners across the US were taken out of their cells, held in isolation for two days, and then taken by bus to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana. US-based journalist Katherine Hughes is one of the few journalists who has had the courage to report on a new unit at the institution, the Communications Management Unit (CMU): a completely self-contained unit housing almost exclusively Arab and/or Muslim inmates, many of whom have never been convicted of ‘terrorism' but are merely active political dissidents.
Among other things, severe restrictions have been placed on prisoner communication within the CMU. Instead of 300 minutes of phone-time a month, prisoners may receive only one 15-minute call a week, which the warden has the power to reduce to just three minutes a month. In stark contrast to the usual weekly all-day contact-visits in other prisons, visits in the CMU are for two hours, twice a month, and are restricted to non-contact only. All conversations must be conducted in English unless otherwise negotiated. In addition, Islamophobic policies are slowly being implemented whereby detainees are prevented from praying five times a day and from calling the adhaan. Most worrying has been the lack of adequate healthcare, which recently lead to the death of one inmate. The lack of access to medical care seems to be part of a pattern set in Guantanamo Bay, where ex-detainees have testified that medical care was directly linked to cooperation with interrogators.
The CMU currently holds only Muslim prisoners leading to accusations of “religious profiling”. The unit was set up in secret, with no public notice of its formation, although such notice is required under Federal law. Furthermore, there is a severe lack of clarity about how it is decided who will be sent there. It is very worrying that the US has taken it upon itself to establish a unit specially for Muslims considered a threat to national security. It is even more worrying that the American and global press and media have refused to cover this story (except for one article in the Washington Post). We all know the tragic consequences that history has shown can flow from such discriminatory policies.
Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers of the US would shudder today at the thought of the existence of institutions such as Guantanamo Bay and the CMU. The kidnapping, rendition, indefinite detention without charge and brutal torture of men, women and even children cannot have been what they imagined the US would be notorious for more than 200 years after their dawn of civilisation. It could be argued that they would, if alive today, even argue for the replacement of the current US government with another. For it was they who said in their Declaration that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Liberating the hundreds of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the thousands of prisoners in American custody around the world would be more in line with the spirit and sentiment of July 4: not only because it is the official American Independence Day, but also because on that day in 1187 the great Muslim general Salahuddeen Ayubi defeated the armies of the Crusaders at Hittin and liberated the people and the land of Jerusalem.