Guantanamo's Cost to Our Humanity
By Retired Colonel Ann Wright
t r u t h o u t | Columnist
Thursday 04 January 2007
January 11, 2007, will mark the fifth anniversary of the first detainees to be imprisoned in the US military prison at the US Naval Base, Guantanamo, Cuba. What are the costs to our own humanity when, after five years of imprisonment, only ten of 770 prisoners have been charged by the "Guantanamo process" and most have suffered abuse at the hands of the American military and CIA?
One of the greatest costs to our humanity is when one who has been falsely imprisoned takes his own life in desperation. According to Guantanamo medical personnel, after years of imprisonment and endless interrogations, depression, hopelessness, despondency, and anxiety are present in all those imprisoned in Guantanamo. However, on June 10, 2006, three Guantanamo prisoners took their own lives, rather than continue the uncertainty of detention without trial. Yasser al-Zahrani was only 21 years old when he committed suicide. He had been detained by the Bush administration for over four years since he was 17. He was to have been released in three days - but no one told him. So, in desperation and with no hope for the future, he committed suicide - the same day that two other prisoners also committed suicide. There had been 41 suicide attempts among 29 prisoners prior to these three suicides.
Rather than expressing concern that the 21-year-old took his life when freedom was within his grasp, Bush administration officials made remarkably insensitive and misleading statements about the suicides. Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said the suicides were part of a "strategy and a tactic to further the jihadi cause" and a "good PR move to draw attention." She also said the men did not value their lives or the lives of those around them.
Guantanamo prison commander US Navy Rear Admiral Harry Harris commented that the suicides were "not acts of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us." The statements of Harris and Graffy are remarkably callous. Both Bush administration officials would have known of the upcoming release of Yasser al-Zahrani.
The prisoners themselves were unaware that one of them was soon to be released. Joshua Denbeaux, a lawyer who volunteered to represent Guantanamo prisoners through the Center for Constitutional Rights, said prison authorities were withholding the prisoner's identity because US officials had not decided where he would be sent.
Department of Defense officials purposefully kept information of his impending release from al-Zahrani. With remarkable lack of care or concern, they gave cryptic information to his lawyers about the release of an "unidentified prisoner." The lawyers knew that many of the prisoners were in despair about the lack of progress in resolving their detention at Guantanamo. For days, the lawyers frantically tried to get the name of the prisoner who was to be released, so they could notify that prisoner. Many of the prisoners had been on a long-term hunger strike earlier in 2006 to protest their four-year in-limbo status.
Initially, the Department of Defense revealed only that two of the men who committed suicide were Saudi Arabian citizens and one was a citizen of Yemen. Saudi government officials then released the names of the two Saudis on June 11, 2006. Later, DOD identified the suicide victims as Saudi Arabian citizens Mani al-Utaybi and Yasser al-Zahrani, and Yemeni Ali Abdullah Ahmed.
Bahraini detainee Abdulla Majid Al Naimi was released from Guantanamo on November 8, 2005, and he knew the three men who committed suicide. Al Naimi said that Al-Utaybi and Ahmed were captured while studying in Pakistan and were interrogated for only a brief time after their arrival in Guantanamo. Their interrogators talked with them only during their first month of detention, then told them that they were not regarded as a threat and that they could expect to be released. Al Naimi said the three were left alone by interrogators for more than a year before he left Guantanamo in November, 2005. Al Naimi said that Al Zahrani was only 16 when he was captured, and by the laws of virtually every country, he should have been turned over to juvenile authorities, not kept in a military prison.
DOD officials told the world that Camp Iguana in Guantanamo held only three minors. But when US District Court judge Jed Rakoff ordered the Department of Defense to provide the identities of the prisoners at Guantanamo, DOD was forced to acknowledge that dozens of minors had been held in the adult portion of the prison. Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch in New York, said that the suicide victims had probably been driven by despair because they were being held lawlessly with no end in sight. They have not been charged, much less convicted of any crime.
British Muslim Moazzam Begg, who spent three years in Guantanamo, commented that the prisoners are in a worse situation than convicted criminals. Their suicides are acts of desperation. The Department of Defense has acknowledged 41 suicide attempts among 29 prisoners. The June 10, 2006, suicides were the first inmate deaths at Guantanamo. Some prisoners tried suicide almost immediately after their arrival in 2001. By mid-2002, there had been numerous suicide attempts, and DOD renamed these acts as "self-injuries." On January 25, 2005, the New York Times reported that there had been 350 incidents of "self-harm" in 2003. Of those, 120 were attempts by prisoners to hang themselves. Twenty-three prisoners participated in a simultaneous mass-suicide attempt.
The suicide attempts at Guantanamo are not over. Joshe Natreen, the American lawyer of seven Saudi prisoners, reported that a Guantanamo official informed her that another Saudi attempted suicide sometime after June 10, 2006. Under the Military Commissions Act (MCA) passed in October 2006, the Bush administration and the US Congress retroactively shielded from prosecution for illegal criminal activities those who have been involved in illegal detention, torture, and rendition - including those who created the conditions of despondency and depression at Guantanamo that led to the suicides of the three.
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Warner (R-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) capitulated to the administration's "alternative" definitions of torture, which essentially means that torture techniques continue to be used by the United States military, the CIA, and contract employees. Attempts by Senator Alan Specter (R-Pa.) to preserve the rights of habeas corpus through hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee failed. Remarkably, he then voted for the MCA! Twelve Democrats voted with the Republicans to give President Bush and the executive branch extraordinary powers over prisoners.
There is little doubt that Bush will continue to have the CIA secretly detain and abuse terrorist suspects. With the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress, his interpretation of the Geneva Conventions is now authorized by US law. He will continue to use Justice Department opinions that authorize hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation as authorized interrogation techniques. The capitulation of Congress gives Bush the domestic legal authority, but not international legal or moral authority, to use these techniques. But, now, Congress has allowed the president to prevent prisoners from appealing to the US courts. The MCA also immunizes government personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses.
Senior US military lawyers have strongly stated that undercutting the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners and torture is harmful to the good order and discipline of the military, as well as being ineffective in getting information from suspects. CIA operatives know that torture is wrong and illegal.
The Bush administration pushed the military to sacrifice its own time-honored and time-tested regulations. The president then did an end run around the Supreme Court and pressured Congress to capitulate to change by US domestic law our country's interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. The president has placed our military forces in a dangerous position. They will be the recipients of inevitable retribution that will come when other forces turn the tables on US military personnel whom they capture and imprison.
No wonder the three in Guantanamo committed suicide - and they did so five months before the Military Commissions Act was passed. One can only imagine the desperation of those still detained when they hear of how the president and the Congress have conveniently disposed of historic common law (habeas corpus) and international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions).
For the citizens of the United States to stand by and let these abuses continue would mean our own moral and ethical suicide.
On the fifth anniversary of the first persons imprisoned in Guantanamo, we the people must stand up to the president and to the Congress and say:
Repeal the Military Commissions Act!
Re-establish habeas corpus for the prisoners!
Place the trials into the federal court system!
And close Guantanamo!
Ann Wright is a retired 29-year US Army Reserve colonel and a 16-year US diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war in Iraq. From January 9 to 13 this year, she will be a part of an international delegation of former prisoners, families of current prisoners, US lawyers and human-rights activists who will march on the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to demand that the prison there be closed. The march is a part of the January 11 International Day to Shut Down Guantanamo.