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New revelations of abuse at the U.S. government's prison camp
Victims of Guantánamo

March 3, 2006 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON looks at the latest revelations about the Bush administration's prison camp in Guantánamo Bay.

WHEN THE Bush administration first set up its detention camp in Guantánamo Bay for prisoners of the "war on terror," administration officials claimed that only hardened al-Qaeda fighters would be detained. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, those jailed at Guantánamo were "very tough, hard-core, well-trained terrorists."

But recent reports show that not only are most of the 500 prisoners detained at Guantánamo not hardened al-Qaeda fighters--many aren't even accused of committing any act of aggression against the U.S.

Some four years after the U.S. first began operating its camp, a group of five United Nations (UN) envoys recently concluded that prisoners housed at Guantánamo Bay have been subjected to physical and mental abuse that has amounted to torture at times.

According to the report, which was based on interviews with former prisoners, families and lawyers over the course of 18 months, the combination of interrogation techniques, brutal force-feedings of hunger-striking prisoners, withholding of medical treatment, and excessive violence in transporting prisoners constituted inhumane treatment at best, and in some cases rose to the level of torture.

As the report states, "Some of the [interrogation] techniques, in particular the use of dogs, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation for several consecutive days and prolonged isolation" caused severe suffering. The report also cited the abuse of prisoners' religious freedom--including depriving prisoners of religious items like the Koran, and the forced shaving of beards--as well as prisoners being subjected to isolation and solitary confinement for periods of up to 18 months.

"We very, very carefully considered all of the arguments posed by the U.S. government," UN Special Raporteur on Torture Manfred Novak told the Los Angeles Times. "But we concluded that the situation in several areas violates international law and conventions on human rights and torture."

The Bush administration dismissed the report out of hand--complaining that UN investigators based their report on interviews with former detainees and lawyers, rather than visiting the camp themselves. "I think it's a discredit to the UN when a team like this goes about rushing to report something when they haven't even looked into the facts," White House spokesman Scott McClellan complained to reporters.

What McClellan failed to add is that when UN investigators requested to look into all the "facts" at Guantánamo, the U.S. prohibited them from speaking directly with prisoners--so the UN refused to visit under those conditions.

But as the report made clear, in addition to interviews with prisoners subjected to force feedings, as well as doctors, nurses and guards, there is also photo and video evidence showing "beating, kicking, punching, but also stripping and force shaving by [guards] where detainees resisted, which have been corroborated by testimonies of former detainees."

The White House dismisses all allegations of torture and complaints made by detainees as fabrications. "We know that these are dangerous terrorists that are being kept at Guantánamo Bay," said McClellan. "They are trained to provide false information, and al-Qaeda training manuals talk about ways to disseminate false information."

But according to a recent study by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux and lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, Defense Department documents on 517 current and former Guantánamo prisoners show that the vast majority are not connected to al-Qaeda--and most aren't accused of committing a hostile act against the U.S. or its allies.

According to the definition set out by the Bush administration, an "enemy combatant" is an "individual who was part of or supporting the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."

According to the study, of the 517 "enemy combatants" studied, examples of evidence the government cited as proof that detainees were "enemy combatants" included, in some cases, the possession of a rifle or a Casio watch, and the "wearing of olive drab clothing."

Overall, just 8 percent of detainees were characterized in government documents as al-Qaeda fighters and 16 percent as Taliban fighters. Thirty percent of detainees were considered "members" of a prohibited organization like al-Qaeda or the Taliban--under a definition so broad that it could apply to anyone believed to have spoken at any time to an al-Qaeda or Taliban member.

A full 60 percent of detainees did not have even this minimum level of contact. Instead, they are listed as "associated with" one of the prohibited organizations.

Records show that the entire case against one detainee--held at Guantánamo to this day--is that he was conscripted into the Taliban as a cook's assistant, and that he fled and later surrendered when this unit came under attack.

And this case is not unique, according to the recent report. "Many of the detainees held at Guantánamo were involved with the Taliban unwillingly as conscripts or otherwise," the report reads.

The report also raises questions about who has been handed over into U.S. custody. Among detainees where the location of their capture was listed, only 5 percent were captured by U.S. forces. More than 80 percent were captured by Pakistani forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or by the Northern Alliance, the notoriously corrupt Afghan militia that helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban.

Some were sold to the U.S. by bounty hunters--and it's unknown how many were victims of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the days during and following the Afghan invasion, the U.S. military blanketed parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with flyers encouraging people to turn in suspects, in return for large sums of money. "Get wealth and power beyond your dreams," reads one flyer. "You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers."

As the Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Bill Goodman said in a recent statement, "For five years now, the government has detained prisoners without due process; lied about who these people are; concealed their treatment from the public and denied basic information to the very people who are authorized to represent the detainees."

Green light for CIA torture

THE U.S. government has a green light to torture innocent people. That's the meaning of a recent decision by Brooklyn District Court Judge David Trager to dismiss a lawsuit against the Bush administration brought by Canadian citizen Maher Arar--who was imprisoned and tortured for months by Syrian authorities, apparently working with the CIA.

In September 2002, Arar--a Syrian-born engineer living in Ottawa--was arrested while changing planes in New York City, on his way home from a vacation in Tunisia. Arar was interrogated for 13 days before being blindfolded, shackled and shipped to Jordan, and then driven into Syria. There, he was beaten--often, he says, with electrical cables--and held in a dank underground cell about the size of a grave.

After 10 months, Arar was finally released--with no charges ever being filed against him.

Today, it's known that Arar's arrest, detention and "rendition" to his Syrian torturers was likely arranged by the CIA--and as the Washington Post reported last year, dozens of other prisoners have experienced a similar fate.

Yet Trager, in an 88-page decision handed down last month, refused to allow Arar's case to go forward--on the grounds that it would damage "national security."

Trager acknowleded the possibility that Arar had been subjected to torture, citing the U.S. State Department's own report on Syrian human rights abuses. But, he said, the courts shouldn't intervene. "A judge who declares on his or her own...authority that the policy of extraordinary rendition is under all circumstances unconstitutional must acknowledge that such a ruling can have the most serious of consequences to our foreign relations or national security or both," Trager wrote.

As an outraged Arar told the Toronto Star, "If the courts will not stop this evil act, who is going to stop this administration? Where do we go? The United Nations? We--me and others who have been subjected to this--are normal citizens who have done no wrong. They have destroyed my life. They have destroyed other lives. But the court system does not listen to us."

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