People & Power

Back to Guantanamo

After a 12 year absence a correspondent returns to the infamous US military prison to ask why it is still open.

It is seen by much of the world as a terrible stain on the reputation of the US. It has become synonymous with an era of foreign policy failures and disastrous wars. But the world’s most notorious prison is still in business five years after the world’s most powerful man promised to shut it down.

In a 2009 speech President Obama said, “There is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America, and that is why I have ordered the closing of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists, because living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger”.

They got trapped in Afghanistan, turned over to the Americans for a bounty and then tortured into making statements that kept them in Guantanamo for years.

by Clive Stafford Smith, Shaker Aamer's lawyer

Few of his countrymen would disagree, aside from Congressional Republicans who fiercely oppose the closure whenever the issue is raised. Even the man originally in charge of building the place thinks it should be consigned to the past. “Should we close Gitmo? Absolutely we should. It’s a blight on our history.” So says retired General Michael Lehnert, who 12 years ago was given orders to construct cells at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which the United States has leased from Cuba for more than 100 years. The general oversaw the building of the infamous Camp X-ray, the intimidating collection of steel framed cages, open to the weather, which it was proclaimed, would house “the worst of the worst” – those responsible for the aircraft hijackings which had killed 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Lehnert says that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the opening of Guantanamo was understandable, but can now be seen to be a tragic mistake. “I think that Guantanamo stands as a recruiting poster for terrorists.”

Among the reporters watching in February, 2002 as orange clad figures, hand-cuffed and foot-shackled were dragged into their cells, was Australian correspondent Lisa Millar. Twelve years on, she’s been back to Camp X-ray, now abandoned to the weather and encroaching jungle, and to Camps 5 and 6 where the majority of the remaining prisoners are held these days. She wanted to find out why it remained open, but it wasn’t an easy assignment. Security is as obsessively tight as it has always been and she and her crew found it a frustrating experience; forever rushed down claustrophobic corridors to avoid seeing anything in detail, banned from filming the inmates or even talking to them off camera.

One of those detainees, Shaker Aamer, arrived in February, 2002. He was in terrible shape, having endured months of imprisonment in Afghanistan for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith explained. “Shaker went to Afghanistan [from the UK] with friends not long before June 2001. When they got there they had no idea that two or three months later there was going to be 9/11 and the world would descend into chaos. But that’s what happened and they got trapped in Afghanistan, turned over to the Americans for a bounty and then tortured into making statements that kept them in Guantanamo for years”. The first thing he heard on arrival was that he had missed the birth of his new son, Faris, back home in England.

But Aamer has never been charged with any crime or faced trial, and was actually cleared for release in 2006. Yet he’s still not managed to see his child. Like 153 other men he remains locked down – indefinitely. Despite President Barack Obama’s promise there is no sign that Guantanamo will be shut down any time soon, even though, as lawyer Stafford Smith makes clear, it could be a straightforward matter . “It’s the easiest thing in the world. The vast majority of prisoners should just get sent home. There’s only a very small rump of people who need to be put on trial and if they’re convicted you punish them and if they’re not you set them free”.

Back to Guantanamo is a film by Lisa Millar, Greg Wilesmith and ABC.