Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Guantanamo Prisoners, Justice or Revenge?

by Terry Waite

I can recognise the conditions that prisoners are being kept in at the US camp at Guantanamo Bay because I have been there. Not to Cuba’s Camp X-Ray, but to the darkened cell in Beirut that I occupied for five years. I was chained to a wall by my hands and feet; beaten on the soles of my feet with cable; denied all my human rights, and contact with my family for five years, and given no access to the outside world. Because I was kept in very similar conditions, I am appalled at the way we – countries that call ourselves civilised – are treating these captives. Is this justice or revenge?

I was determined that my five years in captivity would not break me, and they didn’t. But I cannot say that it was easy. The hardest thing for a prisoner in those conditions is the uncertainty. You don’t know what will happen to you next: you have no rights, no one to speak to, no one to advise you, no one to fall back on. You only have your own resources. These men, who may or may not be guilty, will be experiencing that sense of isolation and dislocation.

For four years I was kept in solitary confinement and had no companionship at all. I was always blindfolded, or had to wear a blindfold when someone came into the room. I never saw another human being. The initial effect is eerie, but eventually you become accustomed to it. You learn to live from within. But that’s tough, and no one should be forced to attempt it.

I had a diet very similar to that being given to these men – bread, cream cheese, rice, beans. I was adequately fed, but not luxuriously, and I lost a lot of weight. The greatest difficulty was never having any exercise in the whole period. I had to get what exercise I could while chained to the wall. I had five minutes a day to go to the bathroom; for the rest of the time I had to use a bottle. The conditions were inhuman, but all the time I had to assert my humanity. What I experienced makes me all the more determined when I say that prisoners of whatever description must be treated humanely and justly. I would stand up for the rights of the alleged terrorist and of any other individual facing serious charges. I am not soft on terrorism – I have had too many dealings with it to be so – but I am passionate that we must observe standards of justice. I fear that unless firm action is taken to institute just and fair procedures, the long-term results for the US will be catastrophic. Terrorism is not ultimately defeated by the force of arms; you have to deal with the root causes and ask what makes people act in such extreme ways.

It alarms me greatly that the prisoners’ status seems to have been determined almost exclusively by the US president and his advisers. Their status should be determined by an independent tribunal. The US seems to be making up the rules as it goes along. First, it said that the appalling acts of terrorism in New York and Washington were acts of war; now it is saying that these captives are not in fact prisoners of war, that they are unlawful combatants. An independent tribunal should establish precisely what they are.

If the US is making up the rules, it will have no moral authority should other countries try, convict and perhaps execute American and European suspects. There will be no moral grounds on which we can stand if we allow this to continue. Americans tell me that they have little patience with international tribunals – they take a long time, and often come up with a different result from that which was hoped. But that is no argument. It doesn’t matter how long it takes – justice must be seen to be done, and be done impartially.

I was appalled when I heard a prominent American suggest that in certain circumstances the limited use of torture might be justified. That is a dreadful statement to come from a civilised nation. Torture can never be justified, and must be clearly condemned. When it comes to trial, these men are entitled to basic defence rights and ought to be tried under the auspices of the UN. It is vital that we uphold standards of international law for the protection of the innocent, and for the protection of American or European subjects who may find themselves in difficult circumstances in the future. For once, morality and pragmatism go hand in hand.

Terry Waite is the former special envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was held captive by terrorists in Beirut from 1987 to 1991.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 25, 2016
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation wasted $32.2 million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians