End the Disgrace of Guantánamo

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Amnesty International has embarked on a campaign to close Guantanamo detention facilities, adding an important voice to the rising demands to end Guantanamo disgrace. For years, Amercians have been reluctant to criticize the Bush administration’s efforts to keep the detention of terrorism suspects outside the preview of both American and International law. However, with the disturbing revelations of abuse and violation of detainees’ human rights, and with recent reports of the ways several unsuspecting bystanders ended up in the ranks of Guantanamo detainees, anyone who cares about justice and rules of law must join the call to close the infamous facilities, and end the moral and legal excesses committed under the veil of secrecy, and in the name of promoting freedom and the rule of law.

Gunatanamo Detention Facilities represent a sad and painful moment in US international conduct, as it runs contrary to the American founding principles and the self-pride of many Americans who see their country as the guardian of democracy and human rights. This moment of infamy was born out of arrogance, exaggerated fears, self-delusion, zealotry, and disregard to American and International law. In prosecuting the “Global War on Terrorism,” the Bush administration has committed several serious mistakes that undermined the world standing of the United States as a leading advocate for human rights. None of these, however, rivals the negative impact caused by Guantanamo detention facilities.

The anger over the treatment of Guantanamo detainees reached a new height in November 2006, when German attorney Wolfgang Kaleck filed war crime complaint with the German Federal Attorney General against 14 high ranking officials and advisors in the Bush administration. The list included Robert Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Stephen Cambone, Ricardo Sanchez, and Geoffrey Miller. The complaint cited complicity in torture and other crimes against humanity at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib>Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mr. Kaleck acted on behalf of 11 victims of torture and other human rights abuses, as well as about 30 human rights activists and organizations who are co-plaintiffs. The co-plaintiffs to the war crimes prosecution include 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Argentine), 2002 Nobel Peace Prize winner Martín Almada (Paraguay) and Theo van Boven, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Robert Gonzales, former US Attorney General, and Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, were particularly implicated in the making of the Guantanamo’s disgrace, as the former led the efforts to authorize torture, while the latter introduced the “extended interrogation techniques,” to US military manuals. So was Geoffrey Miller, Guantanamo detention facilities commander, who was evidently responsible for setting up procedures in both Guantanamo and Abu Graib that led to the revelation of the appalling practices of degradation and torture.

Up until 2002, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was used to house Cuban and Haitian refugees intercepted on the high seas on their way to the United States. On June 8, 1993, United States District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. declared the holding of the refugees who fled Haiti unconstitutional, and the last Haitian migrants departed in late 1995. In 2002, US military designated the camp a military prisons for terrorism suspects.

The legal status of the detainees and their treatment came under criticism from the outset. The criticism was initially sporadic and focused on the designation of prisoners as “illegal enemy combatant” and the open cage-like cells were the prisoners were kept. The international criticism prompted the US military to build better facilities. The Bush administration, however, rejected calls to treat prisoners under the Geneva Convention rules.

A series of abuses that was made public in the last five years mobilized international public opinion, and led to increased demand by American political leaders to close it. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and Amenity International, have repeatedly called for opening up the Guantanamo detention facilities for outside inspection. Other humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross and the United Nations, have raised serious concerns about the conditions in the facilities. Members of Congress have also voiced their concerns about both interrogation procedures and the negative impact the camp has had on the US moral standing in the world. Charges of mistreatment of prisoners included degradation, physical and metal abuse, torture, violation of religious rights, and desecration of the Qur’an that led to worldwide Muslim outrage.

Calls for closing Guantanamo can now be heard even from once strong supporters of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Thomas Friedman declared, in a recent New York Times’ opinion piece, that he “will not vote for any candidate who is not committed to dismantling Guantánamo Bay and replacing it with a free field hospital for poor Cubans.” Friedman, like many other Americans troubled by the way the “War on Terror” has often used to further narrow political and ideological agendas, has come slowly to realize that the policies adopted to fight terrorism are strengthening the hands of the terrorists and extremists and weakening civil rights at home and undermining US standing in the world.

The outrage over Guantanamo is by no means an opposition to the international efforts to confront terrorism and hold terrorists responsible for their horrific actions. It is rather a clear rejection of the attempts to sidestep established legal and constitutional requirements, and to violate basic human rights. Guantanamo detainees have been deprived of the due process of the law, required by the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, and by International Law, which states that anyone who is deprived of liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to review by a court of law to decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention.

Donald Rumsfeld approved in 2002 a list of 16 harsh interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo, most of which were general and allowed for interpretation by interrogators. Many of the techniques involving humiliation were part of a standard “futility” or “ego down” approach, but some have permitted acts that generally considered blatant acts of torture, including “water-boarding,” a technique of simulated drowning. Sadly, US Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed openly the use of water-boarding for interrogation of terrorist suspects, even though the technique makes a person feel that his death is imminent. In responding to a radio interviewer from North Dakota station WDAY who asked whether water boarding, was a “no-brainer” if the information it yielded would save American lives, Cheney replied: “It’s a no-brainer for me.” The promotion of “extended techniques of interrogation” by high ranking members of the Bush administration prompted Congress to pass a bill outlawing torture. Senator John McCain referred to water-boarding as “an extreme measure” and led the congressional endeavor to outlaw it.

Many of the conditions in Guantanamo are in violation of Geneva Convention, which govern treatment of enemy combatant. Article 17 of the Convention states that “no physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.” The Bush administration denied that Geneva Convention applies to Guantanamo detainees, but the US Supreme Court disagreed, insisting that the humane treatment requirements apply to all detainees in the War on Terror.

Although known al Qaida members are imprisoned in Guantanamo, many detainees were picked from locations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, and other countries in very mysterious circumstances, and without any clear connection to terrorist groups. The New York Times reported, in June 2004, that not much more than two dozens of the around 750 detainees were closely linked to al Qaida and that only very limited information could have been gotten from questioning them. An Associated Press report claims that some detainees were turned over to the US in return for cash bounties. Amnesty International documented the case of Omar Deghayes, a Libyan living in the U.K. as a refugee, who decided in 2001 to travel to Malaysia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to look for work. In Afghanistan, he was married and had a son. After September 11th, he moved his family to Pakistan. They planned to return to the U.K. but he was arrested in Lahore, Pakistan in April 2002, for a bounty of $5000.

The New York Times reported in November 2004 that the International Committee accused, in a confidential report issued in July 2004, the U.S. military of using “humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions” against prisoners. The Red Cross inspectors concluded that “the construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture.” The United States Government has reportedly rejected the Red Cross findings.

The US Government denial was, however, unconvincing given the contradictory statements by key members of the Bush team in charge of implementing the “War of Terror” policies. One of the key figures in the Guantanamo’s controversy is Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who commanded the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and later helped set up U.S. operations at Abu Ghraib. The Washington Post reported its July 14, 2005 edition that Gen. Miller was accused by investigators into the interrogation of Guantanamo detainees of failing his duties and was recommended for reprimand by investigators. Miller would have been the highest-ranking officer to face discipline for detainee abuses, but Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, declined to follow the recommendation.

Miller traveled to Iraq in September 2003 to assist in the setting of Abu Ghraib’s prison, and he later sent in “Tiger Teams” of Guantanamo interrogators and analysts as advisers and trainers. Within weeks of his departure from Abu Ghraib, military working dogs were being used in interrogations, and naked detainees were humiliated and abused by military police soldiers working the night shift.

Colonel Thomas Pappas, head of the military intelligence brigade at Abu Ghraib, claimed that it was Miller’s idea to use attack dogs to intimidate prisoners. He insisted that the same tactics were used at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo. Several of the photos taken at Abu Ghraib showed terrified and naked detainees surrounded by dogs. Photos also showed that one of the detainees was even bitten by a dog.

Miller initially denied charges against him, and testified in May 2006 at the courts martial of the Abu Ghraib dog handlers that his instructions on the use of dogs had been misunderstood. Miller testified that he instructed that dogs should be used “only for custody and control of detainees.” Miller’s testimony was directly contradicted by the commander of Abu Ghraib’s Military Police detachment, Col. Jerry Phillabaum.

This was not the only incident Miller’s statements were contradicted by his colleagues, as he reversed himself in several other occasions. In July 2005 “discrepancies emerged between Miller’s May 2004 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and sworn statements he made three months later.” Miller told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had only filed a report on a recent visit to Abu Ghraib, and did not talk to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his top aides about the fact-finding trip. But in a recorded statement to attorneys three months later, Miller said he gave two of Rumsfeld’s most senior aides–then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary for Intelligence Steve Cambone–a briefing on his visit and his subsequent recommendations.

Similarly, Major James Yee, the Muslim chaplain who spent one year in Guantanamo, and was responsible for developing the manual for safeguarding the religious rights of the Muslim detainees, charged in his memoir, God and Country: Religion and Patriotism Under Fire, that Miller routinely incited the guards to hate the detainees. He was arrested on Miller’s orders and accused of treason. However, after spending several months in solitary confinement and suffering sensory deprivation, all court-martial charges against him were dropped on March 19, 2004. Miller appealed to secrecy as the ground for not providing any evidence against Maj. Yee, “citing national security concerns that would arise from the release of the evidence.”

Guantanamo has been a knee-jerk reaction to a horrific tragedy committed by misguided terrorists full of anger and vengeance. We already know that a large number of the detainees where arrested because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and were kept in custody because of zealotry and disregard of the rules of national and international law. The detainees were kept for years under extreme conditions of deprivation of basic human rights and dignity, even though the majority of them have not been charged with crimes, and were eventually let go because of the lack of evidence after spending many years of abuse, degradation, and mistreatment. It is about time that these detainees are given their day in a court of law, like any person accused of crime. Doing that is not only important for the sake of justice, but also for the sake of ending acts of gross excess, human pain, and international disgrace.

Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership qualities and skills. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam and the West,, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at: http://blog.lsinsight.org