Guantanamo Bay: ‘The scar on our collective conscience’

Clive Stafford Smith reflects on how his clients remain in the detention centre without charges or a trial, 20 years on.

Detainees in orange jumpsuits at Guantanamo Bay
In a February 2, 2002 photo, detainees from Afghanistan sit in their cells at Camp X-Ray at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [File: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo]

I am on my 40th visit to the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

My clients have been locked up without charges or a trial for almost two decades now, somehow proof to the American people that the government is combating “Islamic extremism” – when in truth we are provoking it.

I took a walk early on a Sunday morning – before the tropical sun got too high in the sky – 4 miles (6.4km) along Sherman Avenue in search of Camp X-Ray, the notorious tangle of wire that was home to the first “war on terror” detainees almost 20 years ago.

I wanted to see what remained.

The FBI had “investigated” Camp X-Ray in 2009, supposedly searching for evidence of the abuse of prisoners. Perhaps they should have intervened when the well-documented torture was going on.

I thought the Camp had been torn down, but I was mistaken. The scar on our collective conscience remains.

The site immediately carried me back to my father’s favourite poem, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dad used to recite it to me when I was perhaps six, before I went to sleep, resounding with the futile vanity of a king who thought the world was awed by his power. The statue he built to himself inexorably collapsed, leaving only the feet with their boastful pedestal: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck …”

Special series - The Guantanamo 22
On June 27, 2013, a watchtower is seen in the currently closed Camp X-Ray which was the first detention facility to hold ‘enemy combatants’ at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [File: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

There is a fair amount left of Camp X-Ray, as it is only 20 years on. The wire fence, topped with a DNA helix of razor wire, still runs around an area perhaps 200 square metres (2,153 square feet) in size, sitting in a hollow that must have trapped the tropical heat.

There are no longer any hooded prisoners in their iconic orange uniforms, cowed by soldiers and their attack dogs. But I could make out seven or eight open cages, each with a tin roof like a lean-to parking space. At the corners were the wooden guard towers, redolent of a German Prisoner of War camp in World War II, with plywood walls turned to a dirty brown. I noticed a tree that has grown inside the wire – perhaps now 10 metres (33 feet) tall, a tribute to the passage of time since the original folly.

All around, though, the signs remained: “Photography and Videography Forbidden”. To be sure, it would be a shameful reminder of the birth of the disastrous Guantanamo experiment, but why should this be kept secret? Why not learn from history?

‘A sorry lie’

Indeed, the history of Guantanamo teaches us that some things never change. On April 30, 1494, Christopher Columbus sailed into the Bay, in search of a better world. He stayed less than 24 hours, recognising that El Dorado was not to be found in this tropical wasteland. The US was never likely to learn why Osama bin Laden launched 9/11 on the World Trade Center here either.

The Guantanamo detention camp was born a sorry lie and it remains one. The US military first announced the prison to the world in carefully censored choreography on January 11, 2002. Along with two colleagues, I sued to open it up to proper public inspection just about a month later. It took more than two years to reach the US Supreme Court, but we won Rasul v Bush before conservative justices who were shocked that the Bush administration would claim the right to hold prisoners entirely beyond the rule of law. I was allowed here to meet a client for the first time in November 2004.

Back then, US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld assured us that the 780 detainees were the “worst of the worst” in the world. I knew the government would have made some mistakes, they always do, but I was operating primarily on principle – there is nobody who may be denied the right to notice of the charges against him and a fair trial.

guantanamo hunger strike outside image
A ‘non-compliant’ detainee is escorted by guards after showering inside the US military prison for ‘enemy combatants’ on October 27, 2009, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [File: John Moore/Getty Images]

Nevertheless, I thought I would encounter many men who had been captured on the battlefield of Afghanistan, and that we would have some explaining to do.

Instead, to my surprise, there were very few “terrorists” here.

I found Mohammed el-Gharani, a 14-year-old who had been snatched from Karachi where he was studying English: the closest he had ever been to Kabul was a little more than 1,400 kilometres (872 miles) by the fastest road. I came across Ahmed Errachidi, a Moroccan chef from London who had a long and documented history of bipolar disorder and, during one of his psychotic episodes, had announced that a large snowball was about to destroy the Earth.

I met Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman, who had been confused with another journalist, accused of the heinous offence of interviewing Osama bin Laden. He should therefore presumably have found himself in a cell with Robert Fisk of the Independent, Peter Arnett of CNN, and John Miller of ABC News – all journalists who also felt they should interview the man.

‘Sold like slaves in an auction’

It took a while to figure out what was going on, but in the end, it turned out to be a familiar story: just as American prosecutors buy their informants with lavish promises of rewards, so we were littering bounty leaflets around Afghanistan and Pakistan. As President Pervez Musharraf bragged in his autobiography, In the Line of Fire, “We have … handed over 369 [detainees] to the United States. We have earned bounties totalling millions of dollars.” My clients had been sold, like slaves in an auction.

After almost 20 years, one might think that the mighty CIA would have sorted out the intelligence wheat from the Musharraf chaff.

Sadly, this is not the case: 39 detainees remain today, and 15 of them have been cleared for release, reflecting unanimous agreement by the six top US intelligence agencies that they pose no threat to the US or its coalition. Those 15 add up to about 300 years of false imprisonment based on the initial lie.

Take Ahmed Rabbani, he was also sold to the US for a reward, on September 10, 2002, again in Karachi. He came ready-tagged as a much-wanted “terrorist” called Hassan Ghul. He insisted he was merely a taxi driver. The CIA did not know what to believe – but better safe than sorry. They took him 1,000 kilometres to the Dark Prison in Kabul for 540 days and nights of torture.

I met Ahmed more than 10 years ago, when he told me his story about how he was hanged by his wrists in a deep pit, a medieval torture called Strappado where the shoulders gradually dislocate. It was much used by the inquisition. Ironically, we would later learn from the US Senate torture report that the US captured the real Hassan Ghul and brought him to the Dark Prison to join Ahmed in January 2004. Ghul was held there for two days, and he “cooperated”, and was later sent back to Pakistan and freed – whereupon he went back to his “extremist ways”, and was killed in a drone attack in 2012.

Activists in orange prison jumpsuits protest with signs next to an American flag
Activists wearing prison jumpsuits and black hoods participate in a demonstration against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, calling for its closure and ‘accountability for torture’, near the White House, in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2020 [File: Mike Theiler/Reuters]

Better safe than sorry? Only Ahmed and his pregnant wife would be sorry.

Ahmed was not freed, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he remains 19 years later. Seven months after his original detention, his wife gave birth to their son Jawad, who has now celebrated his 18th birthday without ever having touched his father.

Ahmed was recently cleared, along with four other clients of mine, but I still represent one who is not, who is no more a “terrorist” than my grandmother.

In so many ways, Guantanamo has not changed since I first arrived here.

To be sure, it is less efficient – I used to be allowed to spend 55 hours a week with my clients, a boon since I do not come here for a tropical holiday; now they have cut it to a maximum of 23 hours, which makes a banker seem relatively hard-working. It used to be more cost-effective – but as the number of detainees shrank, the annual cost per prisoner has soared to $13m. This is almost 200 times as expensive as the second most costly prison in the world, in Colorado in the US, that costs $78,000.

But Guantanamo is and always has been a huge blot on the reputation of the US. The Afghan war was not lost recently in Kabul; it was doomed from the moment the world saw pictures of torture and abuse. If that is what democracy means, many mused, the Taliban cannot be so bad.

“It’s an international public relations disaster,” said an anonymous US senior Defense Intelligence Agency official in early 2004 to journalist David Rose. “For every detainee, I’d guess you create another 10 terrorists or supporters of ‘terrorism’.”

After almost 20 years, the intelligence agent would surely revise his view. The notorious prison has prompted thousands of disaffected youths to hate the US and wish us ill. It is perhaps the most foolish own goal in US history.

Source: Al Jazeera