|Some prisoners say conditions have deteriorated at Guantanamo Bay this year [GALLO/GETTY]|
On the night that Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, 21-year-old Mohammed el Gharani was sitting in a segregation cell in Guantanamo Bay’s high security Echo Block.
He remembers the excitement among his fellow prisoners at the prospect of an Obama presidency. “Everyone was very hopeful; people were saying he was going to change things, that he would close the prison,” Gharani, who was released in June, says.
“Even the guards were telling us that if he won, things would improve for us.”
They were to be disappointed. A year after Obama’s election win, Al Jazeera has learnt that despite the new president’s pledge to close the prison and improve the conditions of detainees held by the US military, prisoners believe that their treatment has deteriorated on his watch.
Authorities at the prison deny mistreating the inmates, but interviews with former detainees, letters from current prisoners and sworn testimony from independent medical experts who have visited the prison have painted a disturbing picture of psychological and physical abuse very much at odds with White House rhetoric on prisoner treatment.
While no-one is alleging a return to the early days of the prison, when detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are today widely regarded as torture, prisoners say day-to-day life at Guantanamo has become harder under the Obama administration.
Within days of Obama’s inauguration and subsequent announcement that he would close Guantanamo, prisoners say authorities introduced new regulations and revoked previous privileges at the prison.
“They took away group recreation for prisoners in segregation, which was the only time we saw anyone,” Gharani remembers. “They took away the books we had from the library. They even sprayed pepper spray into my cell while I was sleeping, so I’d wake up unable to breathe.”
Gharani says he was beaten so badly by guards that he is still suffering pain today.
Al Jazeera has obtained letters written by those currently being held in Guantanamo that tell a similar story. In one, written in March, a prisoner, who has asked that he remains anonymous for fear of repercussions, says he is writing to “depict to what degree our conditions inside Guantanamo detention have deteriorated” since Obama took office.
“I am in the very same cell, wearing the same uniform, eating the same food, yet treated much worse compared to mid-2008,” the prisoner writes. “We are unable to understand the goals of the policy of more restrictions and inflexibility.”
|Letters describe ‘fading hopes’ [GALLO/GETTY]|
According to the letter, prison authorities inflict “humiliating punishments” on inmates and prisoners face “intentional mental and physical harm”.
“The situation is worsening with the advent of the new management,” the prisoner writes, noting, like Gharani, that the new rules were imposed in January this year. Conditions, he says, “do not fit the lowest standard of human living”.
Separately, two prisoners have complained to their lawyer that their belongings, including their bedding, were removed from their cells on several occasions for no reason. Each time, they were told that the removal was a “mistake,” and the belongings were returned, only to be confiscated again.
More disturbingly, the same two prisoners say that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, their recreation time was moved to prevent them from taking part in traditional group prayer.
Using religion to punish prisoners is illegal under international law. Authorities at Guantanamo deny the prisoners are kept from practising their religion, although they concede that recreation times are sometimes moved “due to operational needs”.
They say that personal belongings are not removed from cells “unless detainees misuse the items”; the prisoners categorically deny that they did so.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors prisoner treatment at Guantanamo, declined to comment on specific allegations at the prison, but says that it recognises the cumulative effect low-level abuse can have on the well-being of prisoners in general.
“In some cases, a single act may amount to torture,” ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno says. “In others, ill treatment may be the result of a number of methods used over time, which, taken individually and out of context, may seem harmless.”
For the Guantanamo prisoners, avenues of protest against their treatment are limited and many have resorted to hunger strikes. Now there is concern that the force-feeding regime to which hunger strikers are subjected is having a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health.
Abdul Rahman Shalabi has been on hunger strike since August 2005. He has been force-fed twice a day by Guantanamo personnel, who insert a feeding tube through his nose in order to administer a liquid diet aimed at keeping him alive.
But independent doctors who have evaluated him say that the insertion of the tube has done permanent damage to his nose and throat, making inserting new feeding tubes difficult and stopping him from receiving the calories he needs.
His lawyers say that persisting with the current treatment could be doing more harm than good. Shalabi was hospitalised in March, and his weight has dropped to just 107 pounds, 30 per cent below his ideal body weight and at the threshold of major organ failure.
|Doctors say force feeding methods are causing permanent damage [GALLO/GETTY]|
Shalabi’s lawyer, Jana Ramsey, is bringing a case aimed at forcing the government to allow medical specialists to work with Guantanamo personnel to prevent the further weight loss she says is inevitable if his current treatment persists.
“While participating in the strike, Abdul Rahman has, among other things, been overfed to the point of vomiting, had tubes inserted and removed repeatedly until his nose bled, choked until he passed out and been blasted by pepper spray more times than he can remember,” she says.
“He is now dangerously underweight. We are deeply concerned that the medical staff at Guantanamo have no plan to keep Abdul Rahman from starving to death.”
As part of the case, Ramsey arranged for independent medical experts to examine Shalabi at the prison over the summer. Dr Sondra Crosby, an ear, nose and throat specialist who examined him in August, said that without a change in treatment, the prisoner will die.
“Mr Shalabi has been on a hunger strike for four years, and only recently has his condition severely deteriorated,” her testimony notes.
His current treatment is also having a negative impact on his mental health, experts have found. Dr Emily Keram, a psychiatrist who evaluated him in July, told the court he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.
“Mr. Shalabi exhibits symptoms and disorders consistent with his reports of coercive interrogations and other mistreatment,” she said, adding that some of this trauma occurred this year.
“The medical records do indicate that Mr. Shalabi was subjected to Forced Cell Extraction in connection with his feeding multiple times per day through the months of January and February. Mr Shalabi’s psychological symptoms are consistent with the distress he reported experiencing as a result of these extractions.”
Shalabi himself attributes his weight loss to his treatment at the prison.
“My weight has dropped from sadness and provocations, daily humiliations and harassments and the sickness,” he says in a letter written in September. “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.”
Authorities at Guantanamo deny that hunger strikers are subject to different treatment to other prisoners and say that no-one is being mistreated.
|The Guantanamo File|
“All allegations of abuse are fully investigated and if warranted, further action taken,” says Lieutenant Commander Brook DeWalt, a military spokesman for the prison. “As with any facility of this nature, we receive many allegations and we investigate any claim, no matter what the source, and take appropriate action when warranted.”
But lawyers say that efforts to raise these issues with the relevant authorities have been met with inertia.
Ahmed Ghappour, who represents Guantanamo prisoners, has lodged several requests to initiate investigations since Obama took office.
“I have requested four investigations regarding prisoner abuse just this past year,” he says. “The military responded to my first request indicating that they would investigate, but have been radio silent since then.”
Released after a federal court found him to be entirely innocent, Mohammed el Gharani is now adjusting to life outside prison. He says that the allegations made by current inmates match his experience of Guantanamo during the months leading up to his release.
“I recognise all of this,” he says. “There are still more than 200 people in Guantanamo. Since Obama became president, less than 20 have been released. I don’t know why, but he has broken his promises.”