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“As far as I know, none of us were ever told why we were in Cuba other than we had been detained in Afghanistan. Of course, we were told that they considered us ‘unlawful combatants,’ but whenever any of us asked what this meant they refused to give us a definition.” Shafik Rasul, “Composite Statement: Detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay,” July 23, 2004, pg. 52
“The Road to Guantánamo,” or “How I Learned I Stopped Having Rights as an ‘Enemy Combatant,'” recreates the hellish journey of three British Muslims (Shafik Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, a.k.a. The Tipton Three) to the scorching cages of Camp Delta following the September 11 attacks.
Directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross interview Rasul, Iqbal and Ahmed about their stories. Their detention began in Kandahar in December 2001. Then they were transferred to Guantánamo, where they remained for over two years.
These interviews serve as the film’s narrative thread. The directors then intersperse actors (the effective Riz Ahmed, Afran Usman and Farhad Harun) to dramatize their story: the metamorphosis from post-adolescent Muslims living in provincial England into “enemy combatants.”
Their odyssey began in Pakistan in September 2001, where they traveled to attend Asif’s wedding. Then, one month later, fatefully, they decided to take a bus to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid before the US-led bombing campaign began.
Soon after, US-backed Northern Alliance troops captured the Tipton Three. Alongside others, the men were beaten, starved and stacked in suffocating carts en route to the Sherbegan prison. The three British citizens believed that US interrogators would see the folly of their ways and release them. Instead, even after repeatedly maintaining their innocence, they faced the accusation of having ties to Al Qaeda.
The film shifts to the US base in Cuba. A frustrated interrogator shouts into Rasul’s face, “Tell us where Bin Laden is.” During another interrogation round, a well-coiffed woman informs Rasul, “I come from Washington.” Showing him grainy video footage of a Bin Laden rally in Afghanistan, she points to Rasul and declares in robotic-like fashion, “That’s you.”
She scoffs at Rasul’s contention that his life’s focus in England consisted of working at an electronics store and attending university.
The film shows how the Guantánamo experience transforms young men, who like others across borders, bond over pizza, rap music and inside jokes; then, they quickly age as they enter the impersonal and cruel world where they become hooded, goggled and cuffed. They wear bright orange jumpsuits and must kneel on the burning Guantánamo pavement, when not being interrogated, taunted and abused by insensitive (“Kneel down, f—ing camel jockey,” says one guard) prison guards. In the name of gathering vital intelligence to “fight” and capture terrorists!
Before the capturers load the men onto a cargo plane for Guantánamo, the camera pans slowly to a wide-shot of black-hooded prisoners, crouching down on the tarmac of the Kandahar air force base with their hands tied behind their backs. Instead of facial expressions, we see new numbers on the men’s foreheads, the only indication of their existence.
The Bush administration insists these men are dangerous. But thus far, the majority of designated “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo (including the Tipton Three) have yet to be charged with any crime. The film allows the audience to scrutinize the world’s supposedly most blood-thirsty, dangerous, evil creatures determined to attack America, who should therefore be held indefinitely at what Amnesty International has called a “legal black hole.”
The Tipton Three case illustrates the problematic nature of the Bush assumption. Indeed, skepticism about the very existence of the Guantánamo facility should grow until each prisoner faces legal charges, receives counsel and goes to trial in accordance with international law; or else otherwise released from Guantánamo.
On June 28, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked Bush policy in Rasul v. Bush (No. 03-334.). The judges ruled that “United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay.” More recently, on June 29, 2006, the Court further decided that the Bush administration’s military tribunals at Guantánamo lack “the power to proceed” because they “violate both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949.” (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., No. 05-184)
Joseph Marguiles, the lead attorney in Rasul v. Bush, concludes, “Today, no one can credibly maintain that the prisoners in Cuba are ‘the worst of the worst.’More than two hundred fifty prisoners have been released with no intimation that they did anything wrong. The chief interrogator at the base says 75 percent of the prisoners are no longer being questioned. Even the camp commander says many of the five hundred who remain could be released tomorrow at no risk to the United States. Nor can anyone seriously suggest that Guantánamo has provided the storehouse of intelligence for which it was built.” (Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power, Simon and Schuster, 2006: 226).
Critics of “The Road to Guantánamo” might question the blurring between fact and fiction, but when has the public ever received a thorough, facts-based explanation from President Bush as to why 500 plus men currently in captivity constitute a grave threat?
On May 15, 2006, the Pentagon released the first “comprehensive” list of names of the prisoners held at Guantánamo, four years after the detention center was opened. A quick scan reveals obvious Arab and Islamic names, like Azimullah, 24, from Afghanistan, Abdul Hakim Bukhary, 51, born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia and Abdul Qadir Yousef, 53, from the West Bank. (see http://projects.washingtonpost.com/guantanamo/) Other than their names and Muslim beliefs, why have the known detainees from Bosnia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Egypt, and Algeria, among others, earned President Bush’s murky “enemy combatant” label?
While the film depicts the ordeal of the three, it does not discuss the larger issue of how Guantánamo, and prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and a web of other secret jails (exemplified by the case of the German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who from 2003-2004, was erroneously held in Macedonia and Afghanistan as part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program), have become the pillars of American anti-terrorist policy: imprisoning and interrogating suspected Al Qaeda fighters, without a trace of evidence that a court would allow. Nonetheless, “The Road to Guantánamo” focuses the spotlight on a still unanswered question: how effective is using torture as a method to extract vital “intelligence,” especially in this administration’s never-ending “war on terror”?
The film dramatizes some of the known interrogation methods used against the Tipton Three, including isolation, repeated beatings, short-shackling and the blasting of loud, migraine-inducing music (like Eminem) accompanied by strobe lights, evidently aimed at generating a confession that they are Al Qaeda -truthful or not.
“The Americans kept insisting that I say I knew Mullah Omar,” said Rasul. “I began to realize that in each interview they wanted me to admit to something more serious until they forced me to say I was in Al-Qaeda. This was not true and I started to refuse to agree with the interrogator, but I was desperate to get out and eventually I just accepted things they put in me.” (“Composite Statement: Detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay,” July 23, 2004, pg. 31)
Rasul also points out, “The behaviour of the [Camp X-Ray, replaced by Camp Delta] guards towards our religious practices as well as the Koran was also, in my view, designed to cause us as much distress as possible. They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it. It is clear to me that the conditions in our cells and our general treatment were designed by the officers in charge of the interrogation process to ‘soften us up.'” (pg. 27)
Validating the Tipton Three’s claims of abuse at Guantánamo, an FBI agent wrote in an August 2, 2004 FBI memo, “On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. The agent added, “Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours or more.” (Washington Post, December 21, 2004)
“Guantánamo” appears at a time when the lingering shadow of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the news that 14 European states colluded with the CIA’s secret prisoner flights (Council of Europe Explanatory Memorandum by Mr. Dick Marty, June 7, 2006) cover the moral landscape. Its audiences will have read about the June 10, 2006 suicides of three prisoners at Guantánamo. Rear Adm. Harry Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, claimed that the men were “determined to take their own lives” and called the remaining prisoners “dangerous, committed to killing Americans.” (CNN, June 12, 2006)
Ultimately, the film does not purport to provide answers on how to deal with detainee abuse. It doesn’t call for closing Guantánamo, as the UN Committee against Torture did on May 18, 2006. But after watching this emotionally and visually draining, alternatively fast and slow-paced docu-drama, one becomes enraged and more determined to do something. A two hour movie experience can help generate public debate about the government’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists at Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq and secret prisons across the globe without having access to the courts. Indeed, after seeing “The Road to Guantánamo,” would any sensitive person think that the Bush administration’s policies have made us “us” more “secure?”
FARRAH HASSEN is a Seymour Melman fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org