As Eid ul-Fitr looms, spare a thought for the 625 Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who, deprived of their dignity and freedom, do not even know when, or whether, they will ever celebrate the festival at home with their families.
Almost a year has passed since the first captives of the ‘war on terror’ were airlifted to the remote US military outpost in Cuba, yet none is any nearer to winning his basic human rights, let alone liberty. Despite the best efforts of civil liberties groups in the US, the “enemy combatants”, as they are officially known, are still in the legal limbo created by that designation, and face indefinite confinement, because this, according to Washington, is a war without a foreseeable end.
The now notorious classification of “enemy combatant” was imposed early in the war on terror, mainly to dehumanise the enemy and to win public packing for Washington’s new “no holds barred” approach to its Islamic opposition. Its effect has been to strip away the legal safeguards that supposedly protect human beings, including the right of habeas corpus, the right to be charged and tried, and the right to legal representation. Deprived of prisoner-of-war status, the Guantanamo Bay prisoners do not even have the threadbare protection of the Geneva Conventions.
The American policy was reiterated by the US press secretary on February 2. “Taliban detainees are not entitled to POW status... they have not conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war... al-Qaeda is an international terrorist group and cannot be considered a state party to the Geneva Convention. Its members, therefore, are not covered by the Geneva Convention, and are not entitled to POW status under the treaty.” Put another way, Muslims fighting US aggression and interference fail to conduct themselves in a manner befitting civilised people and thereby disqualify themselves from the rules governing civilised men.
It is difficult to determine how many of the prisoners are fighters at all, raising the prospect that the enemy combatant status might be satisfied by mere political or financial support for Bin Ladin and the Taliban. “Some of the prisoners in Guantanamo weren’t even picked up in Afghanistan; they were arrested elsewhere in the world,” says Michael Ratner of the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York. Among them are diplomats connected with the former Taliban regime, such as Mulla Za’eef, their press spokesman.
Others are apparently not connected to the Taliban at all. Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen, travelled from Australia to Pakistan in search of employment and a school for his two teenage children. On October 5, two days before the US opened direct hostilities, Habib was arrested by the Pakistani authorities. Later in October Habib was flown to Cairo, where he was detained by the Egyptian authorities. On 18 April the Australian government notified Habib’s wife that he had been handed over to the US military, who in turn transported him to Afghanistan. This was the first time Habib had been to Afghanistan. On May 6 the Australian government issued a press release stating that the US had transferred Habib to Guantanamo Bay.
Three Afghan captives freed last month identified three categories of prisoner being held at Guantanamo: real fighters, those forced to fight, and bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pakistani interrogators who visited the camp this summer said that nearly all the 53 Pakistanis should be released. The largest group of inmates is said to be Saudi (at least 150); then come the Yemenis (85). There are fewer than 100 Afghans.
Each of the released Afghans says that they were questioned about a dozen times at Guantanamo. “They interrogated us for hours at a time. They wanted to know, ‘Where are you from? Are you a member of the Taliban? Did you support the Taliban? Were your relatives Taliban? Did the Taliban give you weapons?’ “ Mohammed Hagi Fiz said. This man has been left a babbling wreck by his ordeal. He came back to Kabul telling reporters that his age was 105, when a bracelet on his wrist gave1935 as his year of birth, which makes him just 67.
Accounts by the three released Afghans and letters smuggled out from other inmates confirm the inhuman conditions: semi-naked men shuffle along in leg-irons or crouch inside wire-mesh cages that have come to symbolise the US-led ‘war on terror’. Without legal status “ enemy combatants” are non-people.
“They kept us in cages like animals,” one of the Afghans, 35-year-old Jan Mohammed, said of the chain-link open-air cell he says he spent several months in. “We were only allowed out twice per week, for half an hour.” Inmates are kept in isolation, not allowed to communicate with one another, thrown in the ‘cooler’, a metal box barely big enough to contain one man, if they raise their voices or step out of line. Torture by sleep deprivation has also been reported.
The prisoners, held singly, are rotated every few weeks between cells to prevent them from forming friendships. In April they were transferred from Camp X-ray to the more permanent Camp Delta, a move that amounted to changing chicken-coops for hen-batteries. Each cell measures 1.8 metres by 2.4 metres. Eighty prisoners are housed in an isolation wing. Inmates needing medical attention are shackled to the trolley that transports them to the clinic, and once there handcuffed to the hospital beds. Exercise is limited to 30 minutes per week; even then each inmate is shackled at the feet, waist and hands, and his arms are held by guards.
Three inmates have tried to hang themselves with bed-linen and one has tried to slash his wrists using a plastic razor. Thirty other inmates have also attempted to harm themselves. Earlier this month Friends of Liberty, a right-wing US journal, celebrated the removal of Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus, the Camp Delta commander, because, it claimed, he was “too soft”. Ramadan has brought little respite. The Pentagon confirmed to this newspaper that there has been no relaxation on the ban on congregational prayers, although prisoners are allowed to eat at dawn and sunset. As it forges ahead with the “war on terror”, the US has plans to raise the camp’s capacity to 2,000.
Legal efforts to force Washington to recognise the inmates as PoWs have so far foundered on the US government’s determination to set the captives apart as a sub-human, breed of prisoner. A US appeals court will rule on December 2 on an earlier ruling that Guantanamo Bay does not fall within the jurisdiction of the US. Disingenuously, the government claims Guantanamo is part of Cuba, although it continues to pay rent for a lease president Roosevelt signed for the territory in 1903. If the appeal, brought by the Centre for Constitutional Rights, succeeds, it could pave the way for writs of habeas corpus to be filed.
It might not mean freedom, but it will be the first victory in a long battle to secure the prisoners an internationally acceptable legal status that recognises their humanity.