Horror at Guantánamo
It really doesn’t get any worse than this.
Candace Gorman, lawyer for Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan detainee at Guantánamo, reports that her client has been infected with AIDS. Mr. al-Ghizzawi explained to his lawyer in a letter that he was told about his infection by a doctor at Guantánamo, adding that he believes that the infection took place in 2004, when he was given a blood test, which "resulted in alarm amongst the hospital staff," although he was not given any explanation for the alarm at the time.
On January 28, Candace Gorman filed an emergency motion with the US Supreme Court, asking for the US military to provide urgent medical treatment to Mr. al-Ghizzawi, and also asking for access to her client’s medical records. Yesterday morning, however, Chief Justice John Roberts denied the motion.
While this news is so alarming that it almost defies description, Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s plight is compounded by the fact that he already suffers from tuberculosis, which he also contracted in Guantánamo, and hepatitis B, which was dormant before his arrival at the prison.
In an affidavit filed with the US District Court in September 2006, Dr. Ronald Sollock, the Chief Medical Doctor at Guantánamo, confirmed that Mr. al-Ghizzawi "was subjected to complete medical tests by the military upon his arrival in Guantánamo in 2002," and that he "entered [the prison] in good health," although he admitted that "a history of hepatitis B was identified in tests performed in August 2002" (even though Mr. al-Ghizzawi was never informed of this fact), and that he "was exposed to tuberculosis while at the base."
Dr. Sollock also claimed that Mr. al-Ghizzawi "does not want to be treated for his life threatening illness[es]," although this is strenuously denied by Mr. al-Ghizzawi himself, who insists that he has never been informed about his health problems, and has never been offered any kind of medical treatment whatsoever.
Despite the gravity of Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s condition, the authorities at Guantánamo have refused to either confirm or deny his claim that he has been infected with AIDS. When Candace Gorman approached Andrew Warden, the Department of Justice attorney assigned to the case, Warden also refused to be drawn, stating only, "We are not privy to the particulars of what your client may have been told by his doctor, if anything, but Guantánamo provides high-quality medical care to all detainees."
Even before this latest awful revelation, Candace Gorman had documented the suffering of her client in painful detail, explaining, in a habeas corpus submission to the District Court last August, that during her first visit with him, in July 2006, it was apparent that he was seriously ill. She described him as "very noticeably jaundiced," adding that he was "constantly rubbing his back, his leg and his abdomen," and that he appeared to be "in constant pain."
Mr. al-Ghizzawi confirmed that his health had begun to deteriorate during his first year at Guantánamo, and had "progressively worsened" each year. He explained that he had lost 10-15 kilos since his arrest, that he had "severe pain in his abdomen, left side and back that travels down his legs," that the pain was "constant when walking or standing," that his stomach area was "bloated with two black lines appearing horizontal across his stomach," and that he had "digestive problems including vomiting and diarrhea." In this first meeting, Mr. al-Ghizzawi also explained that "the increased intensity of the pain in the previous months" had been "so severe that he had been unable to get up from a lying down position."
During further visits, in September and November 2006, and in February, May and July 2007, Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s health evidently deteriorated further, prompted, in part, by the conditions in which he was held. On one occasion, he was dressed in orange (reserved, in recent years, for "non-compliant" detainees), and had been stripped of all "comfort items," including a thermal shirt that provided a meager defense against the cold, because he inadvertently had some toilet paper in his pocket when he went for a shower, and in December 2006 he was moved to Camp 6, a new supermax facility designed to hold the "general population" at Guantánamo (including those who have been cleared for release).
The conditions in Camp 6 are, bluntly, barbaric. Held in severe isolation, the detainees, in contrast to convicted criminals on the US mainland, are only allowed one book a week, are prevented from reading newspapers, watching TV or listening to the radio, and are, of course, completely cut off from their families. Mr. al-Ghizzawi explained that he was "compelled to complain to get so much as clean clothes," and his health problems are compounded by the fact that, despite Guantánamo’s tropical heat, the solid metal cells, which "admit no natural light," are air-conditioned and freezing cold. In addition, "the men are not provided blankets but instead are given plastic sheets that are cold and smelly."
Just as severe is the men’s physical and mental isolation. As Candace Gorman explains, they "cannot converse with anyone unless they kneel on the floor and attempt to shout greetings through the tiny gap where the food is pushed in." As a result, Mr. al-Ghizzawi, like all the other detainees, "passes his days in tedium and loneliness." During the July 2007 visit, he told Gorman that, "in his total isolation he had begun talking to himself." He added that he "recognized that this was a sign of a fraying mental state" and was "very distraught" about it.
Even if Mr. al-Ghizzawi were one of the "worst of the worst" — say, a committed terrorist with blood on his hands — this state of affairs would be deplorable, but as it is, the "evidence" against Mr. al-Ghizzawi, who, like all the other Guantánamo detainees, has been held for years without charge or trial, is so weak that, in his Combatant Status Review Tribunal in 2004 — those pale substitutes for justice, in which the detainees were denied representation by lawyers, and prohibited from seeing or hearing the "classified evidence" against them — his military-appointed panel declared that there was insufficient evidence to declare him an "enemy combatant," and that he should therefore be released.
We know this because one of the members of this particular tribunal, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, spoke out last year about the systematic failings of the tribunals, deriding them as severely flawed, relying on intelligence "of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status," and concluding that they were designed merely to rubberstamp the detainees’ prior designation as "enemy combatants."
Writing of Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s tribunal, Lt. Col. Abraham stated, "On one occasion, I was assigned to a CSRT panel with two other officers, an Air Force Colonel and an Air Force Major, the latter understood by me to be a judge advocate. We reviewed the evidence presented to us regarding the recommended status of [Mr. al-Ghizzawi]. All of us found the information presented to lack substance." He added, "On the basis of the paucity and weakness of the information provided both during and after the CSRT hearing, we determined that there was no factual basis for concluding that the individual should be classified as an enemy combatant."
Lt. Col. Abraham also explained — as was backed up in October by a second whistleblower, an Army Major who had taken part in 49 tribunals — that unfavorable decisions were overruled by those in overall charge of the operation, who then convened a second tribunal to produce the desired result, and added that this is what had happened in the case of Mr. al-Ghizzawi.
Confirming that all he said was true, Lt. Col. Abraham and his fellow tribunal members were prohibited from taking part in any more tribunals, and a second, secret tribunal was held in Washington D.C., at which it was duly decided that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was an "enemy combatant" after all. As mentioned above, this was not the only case in which an unpopular decision was reversed by the authorities, but in Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s case the implications could be fatal, perhaps fulfilling a fear that Lt. Col. Abraham expressed to me in October, when he wrote, "I am saddened by the fact that more detainees, about whom there is no evidence of involvement in terrorism, will likely die before something is done."
That Mr. al-Ghizzawi is one of these men "about whom there is no evidence of involvement with terrorism" seems abundantly clear from a comparison of his story with the allegations compiled by the administration.
A former meteorologist, Mr. al-Ghizzawi, who was born in 1962, had been living in Afghanistan since the collapse of the last remnants of the Soviet-backed Communist regime in the early 1990s. Married to an Afghan woman, and with a daughter who was only a few months old when he was captured, he and his wife ran a shop in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where they "sold honey and spices and later expanded to include a bakery."
In October 2001, when US forces began bombing the Jalalabad area, the family fled to the countryside, where his wife’s family lived, thinking that they would be safer there. In December, however, as news spread that the US authorities were paying handsome bounties for suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members, "armed men came to the home and told the family to turn over ‘the Arab.’" Fearing that his family would be harmed, Mr. al-Ghizzawi complied, and was then sold to soldiers of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who in turn sold him to the US military.
Against Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s story, the administration has struggled to establish a coherent narrative. In his CSRT, in November 2004, all the authorities managed to come up with were claims that he was part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an organization opposed to the rule of Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi (the former terror-backing pariah, who now, of course, is a great friend of the West), and that he had received military training at camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
By the time of his review board in September 2006, this tissue-thin Summary of Evidence had been augmented with additional material, most of which was evidently made by other detainees, either in Guantánamo or in other secret prisons. It was alleged that he had met members of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and had stayed at an LIFG house in Jalalabad in 1997. Additional allegations included a claim by a "noted jihadist" that he "was a security leader for Osama bin Laden during a trip to a guest house in Jalalabad," that "an al-Qaeda operative stated he saw the detainee several times between 2000 and 2001 in Jalalabad," and that he "believed the detainee was in charge of a guest house for the Libyans," and that a member of the LIFG "stated the detainee took part in the fighting in Afghanistan."
Mr. al-Ghizzawi countered all the allegations, insisting that he was not a member of either al-Qaeda or the LIFG, denying "receiving any terrorist training or being a fighter," and explaining that he "had gone to Pakistan originally to find work, not to fight as a jihadist." He added that "he did not fight at all in Afghanistan and that he did not have the will to fight, stated that he "was pressured to train as a fighter, but he refused," and also stated that "the only support he gave the jihad was to teach the children of the mujahideen." The most glaring contradiction in the allegations against him, however, was provided by another "al-Qaeda operative," who stated, unambiguously, "the detainee is not a member of al-Qaeda or of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group."
After a detailed study of the statements of Lt. Col. Abraham and the other Guantánamo whistleblowers, and armed with the copious evidence I uncovered, during my research for The Guantánamo Files, of false allegations made under duress, or through bribery, by detainees against their fellow detainees, I know whose story I am inclined to believe.
What matters more, however, is that the correct venue for these allegations and counter-allegations to be tested is in a recognized court of law, not in military tribunals whose integrity has been critically undermined by former officers who served on them. Given that Chris Mackey, a former interrogator at the US prisons in Afghanistan, stated in his book The Interrogators that there was, effectively, no screening process in Afghanistan, because every Arab who ended up in US custody was automatically transferred to Guantánamo, it’s clear that the allegations not only against Mr. al-Ghizzawi, but also against the majority of other detainees still held in Guantánamo, have never been tested in any meaningful way whatsoever.
As I noted at the start of this article, however, compounding six years of lawless brutality with this latest evidence of severe medical malpractice almost beggars belief. As the Supreme Court ponders whether or not to rule that the detainees have a constitutional right to habeas corpus (after their statutory right, granted by the Supreme Court in June 2004, was taken away in 2006’s Military Commissions Act), I can only hope that this analysis of the administration’s disdain for the law and for human suffering will help the justices to rule for the detainees, and that in the meantime Mr. al-Ghizzawi does not die in Guantánamo, scorned by a corrupt administration, and neglected and abandoned by the medical profession.
ANDY WORTHINGTON (www.andyworthington.co.uk) is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org