Guantanamo torture victims should be allowed UN visit

Why does the US think it is acceptable to deny ‘high-value detainees’ at Guantanamo medical and psychological help?

Camp Delta, Guantanamo Naval Station, Cuba [EPA]
Camp Delta, Guantanamo Naval Station, Cuba [EPA]

From Guantanamo, Ammar al-Baluchi, one of 15 “high-value detainees”, known as HVDs, has written to Professor Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, to ask him to visit him and fellow prisoners.

Baluchi, with four others, is charged with involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and was held in CIA “black sites” for three and a half years before his transfer to Guantanamo 10 years ago. Since then, he and the other HVDs have largely been held in silence, as the United States strives to prevent them discussing the torture to which they were subjected.

Every word uttered between a prisoner and their lawyer is presumptively classified, and notes of meetings have to be submitted to a Pentagon censorship board  – the “privilege review team” – before anything anyone has said can be made public.

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However, while the release of unclassified notes has been a fairly frequent occurrence within the general population at Guantanamo, almost every word uttered by the HVDs has remained classified.

Breaking through the silence

Baluchi’s letter to Mendez, dated April 11, 2016, and recently unclassified, breaks through this silence.

He writes that his torture, dramatised in the movie Zero Dark Thirty and “including waterboarding and sleep deprivation”, led to him receiving “a traumatic brain injury” and suffering severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to this day.

Baluchi’s claim of being waterboarded is actually a reference to “water dunking”, another form of controlled drowning, often involving total immersion in water.

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The US government has only ever admitted that three men – all HVDs – were waterboarded, but the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA detention programme, published in December 2014, and subsequent investigations have established that at least 12 other CIA prisoners were subjected to “water dunking”, as The Guardian reported last October. Baluchi was not included in that list, but his lawyers confirmed to me that he, too, was subjected to the technique.

A uniform and other supplies that are given to detainees lie on a bed in a cell at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba [Getty]
A uniform and other supplies that are given to detainees lie on a bed in a cell at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba [Getty]

Various forms of water torture are not the only forms of torture that were used by the CIA.

The Senate report also revealed that the CIA had used “rectal feeding” on prisoners – in which food was pureed and then anally administered – and that one of the HVDs subjected to this, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who was subjected to “rectal exams conducted with excessive force” in a “black site” in Afghanistan, was later “diagnosed with chronic haemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse”.

However, despite the fact that the use of torture on the HVDs is now well known, Baluchi notes in his letter to Mendez that the US authorities are not interested at all in addressing the prisoners’ psychological and medical issues arising from their torture.

He writes that, “even though the United States government has admitted that they tortured me, the priority here is hiding the torture, and so they will not discuss the details of what happened to me”.

He adds: “The medical staff, in particular, cannot possibly do their job if they do not address the torture; mostly, they just prescribe pills for my pain, anxiety, and sleep problems. There is no psychological therapy.”


Solitary confinement

Baluchi also describes his isolation, which can also legitimately be seen as a form of torture.

“I want to highlight that I have now been in solitary confinement in Camp 7 for 10 years,” he writes, adding: “Other than meetings with my legal team members, the only interaction I can really have with the outside world are the occasional letters to and from my family members. We do not have the ability to have phone calls or real messaging with our family. I feel that my torture continues here at Guantanamo, and my mental and physical health is deteriorating from the conditions.”

In President Barack Obama’s last months in office, he is still working towards the closure of Guantanamo, although this is an effort that will probably remain stymied by Congress, which maintains a ban on using any funds to move men from Guantanamo to the US mainland. However, as this wrangling continues, the HVDs are not the only prisoners deprived of adequate treatment.

Because of its remote location, Guantanamo is hideously expensive to run, currently it costs over $7m a year to hold each prisoner, and personnel there will struggle to meet the demands placed on its facilities by an ageing population.

The recent decision to close one notorious isolation block at the prison, Camp 5, and replace it with a new clinic and psychiatric ward reflects this, but the most practical course of action would be for Congress to allow Obama to close the prison once and for all, as he promised when he first took office in January 2009.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.