Opened in January 2002 to incarcerate what were then referred to as the “worst of the worst”, in the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld, Guantanamo Bay continues to operate as a torture camp. From a high of some 700 prisoners, it still houses about 40 people. Located on the Cuban island, illegally occupied by the US—how else does one define a lawless regime?—the prison camp is off bounds for most people. Even defence lawyers are provided limited access to meet their clients who are held in animal-like cages.
There are other peculiarities about Gitmo (as it has come to be called). There is no specific law—international or US—that applies there. The US operates what is referred to as a ‘military commission’. It is a kangaroo-style system in which the accused often do not know what crime they are charged with except for some vague allegations of participating in or supporting terrorism.
To be held in Gitmo, one does not have to be charged with any crime, as is the case with several detainees. Even those that have been cleared for release because they are not guilty of any crime—they were never charged with one, only accused of aiding and abetting al-Qaida—but were caught in a dragnet in the charged atmosphere following 911, still continue to languish there.
Saifullah Paracha, a 73-year-old Pakistani money changer and wealthy businessman from New York is one of them. He was captured in Thailand in 2003 and believed to have been held at the black site there before his transfer to Gitmo in September 2004. In November 2020, Paracha made his eighth appearance before the Guantanamo Bay review board. On May 17, 2021, the review board cleared him for release stating that he is “not a continuing threat” to the United States, according to his lawyer Shelby Sullivan-Bennis.
He never was. His only ‘crime’ was that he had changed money for two of the alleged hijackers whom he had never met before. Would a grocery store clerk be arrested and charged with aiding and abetting terrorism if the alleged hijackers had bought groceries at the store?
Another prisoner, Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, a Yemeni was also informed about being cleared for release by the review board, according to his lawyer, Beth Jacob. He, too, has been held without charge at Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002.
Gitmo quickly gained notoriety for torture and other crimes against humanity. These included prolonged sleep deprivation, holding detainees in stressful positions and threatening them with sexual abuse. Detainees were forced to make confessions after such torture sessions. Paracha’s son Uzair was also arrested and was ‘convicted’ in 2005 in federal court in New York. He was accused of providing support to terrorism, based in part on testimony extracted under torture from witnesses held at Guantanamo whom the US relied on to justify holding his father.
It would be another 15 years (March 2020), before a judge would throw out those witness accounts because they were extracted under torture and the US decided not to seek a new trial. Uzair Paracha was released and sent back to Pakistan. He awaits the release of his elderly father.
Would he make it alive, is the question that his family asks because the senior Paracha suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and a heart condition. Some prisoners have died in the American gulag. There are others that may die because of ill-treatment. One is Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani taxi driver arrested in Karachi and sold for a bounty by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002. Rabbani was mistaken for Hassan Ghul, an alleged terrorist, and taken to Bagram prison where detainees had their first bouts of torture before being shipped to Gitmo.
In an article in the Huffington Post (August 27, 2021), Rabbani wrote: “The US Senate’s Torture Report later revealed that when I was being tortured in the Dark Prison in Kabul [Bagram] into saying I was Ghul, the US actually captured the real Hassan Ghul and brought him to the same prison. But in the end they let him go and sent me to Guantanamo. He apparently went back to what he had been doing before, and the US killed him in a drone strike. Meanwhile, I am simply collateral damage in the so-called ‘war on terror’.”
Never charged with any crime, Rabbani has spent 19 years at Gitmo. To protest his continued illegal detention, he has gone on an indefinite hunger strike. His weight is down to 78 pounds. The prison guards feed him through a thick tube inserted through his nose. Each feeding session, far from being an attempt to save his life, is a torture session. He has reconciled to the fact that he may never make it out of Gitmo alive.
The most shameful and horrific torture was inflicted—and may still be continuing—on Abu Zubaydah. In an incredible expose in Tom Dispatch (April 25, 2016), Rebecca Gordon has provided a detailed account of Abu Zubaydah’s torture. “His name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but he is better known by his Arabic nom de guerre, Abu Zubaydah. And as far as we know, he is still in solitary detention in Guantánamo.
“A Saudi national, in the 1980s Abu Zubaydah helped run the Khaldan camp, a mujahedeen training facility set up in Afghanistan with CIA help during the Soviet occupation of that country. In other words, Abu Zubaydah was then an American ally in the fight against the Soviets, one of President Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” (But then again, so in effect was Osama bin Laden.)
“Abu Zubaydah’s later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature. He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA ‘firsts’: the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency’s ‘ghost prisoners’ (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could ‘legally’ do to a detainee without supposedly violating US federal laws against torture.”
He was waterboarded 83 times in one month in order to ‘extract’ information from him about al-Qaeda. “Abu Zubaydah wasn’t involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency. Yet notorious as he once was, he’s been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters. He shouldn’t have been,” wrote Rebecca Gordon.
Two CIA-hired contractors—the psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell—set to work interrogating Abu Zubaydah. “Those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called “learned helplessness,” meant to reduce a suspect’s resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million,” according to Ms. Gordon.
If it is any consolation, the Taliban released all prisoners from Bagram air base prison once the Americans fled. In an incredible act of magnanimity, the former Bagram prisoners hold no ill-will toward their American tormentors, as reported by Nic Robertson of CNN. America’s gulag at Gitmo, meanwhile continues to operate and torture prisoners.