Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, November 21, 2005

Inside Guantanamo

Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith regularly visits clients in the prison camp he calls America's "law-free zone". This is his chilling report on life behind the wire.

by Clive Stafford Smith

New Statesman Cover Story (November 21 2005)

The twelve-seater Air Sunshine plane sets down at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base just as the sun descends behind the hangar. I am met by a military escort. We josh about the threat that the legal profession poses to national security: lawyers are required to stay the night on the leeward side, safe across the bay from the main base and the prison. He drops me off at the motel, the Combined Bachelors' Quarters or CBQ, where a sign boasts that it is "the pearl of the Antilles".

Here, for $12 a night, a bachelor can share a room with three other soldiers. Even in this age when "Don't ask, don't tell" is the official line on homosexuality in the US forces, the notion of combined bachelors strikes me as incongruous. They give me a room with four beds to myself. After eight visits I am an old hand here and I have my favourite room with a view of the placid Caribbean.

The motel sign also trumpets the base's motto, "Honour Bound to Defend Freedom", but freedom is a relative term here. Iguanas are free enough, and if my escort accidentally runs one over it's a $10,000 fine, as US environmental laws apply in Guantanamo. On the other hand, if you feel the need to hit one of the 500 prisoners who are now four years into their captivity it is called "mild non-injurious contact" and there are no consequences. Two years ago in the Supreme Court, we argued that it would be a huge step for mankind if the judges gave our clients the same rights as the animals.

At the motel, television is the only diversion. I am unsure whether the CIA organised this to spook me, but on each of my recent visits to the base I have had the option of watching Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray waking up over and over again to the same morning. As his clock radio clicks over to 6 am, Sonny and Cher are inevitably moaning, "I got you, babe".

Guantanamo Bay is Groundhog Day. It's reveille at 5.30 am for breakfast. The cook nonchalantly crushes a scorpion that has wandered into the chow hall and greets me with the same cheese omelette as yesterday. I am pinioned to my table by television monitors shouting the American Forces channel at me.

I walk a mile down the road to meet the 7 am ferry. A bus always passes me at the same place and, as usual, I wave to the driver. The tarmac steams as the sun rises over the Cuban hills, stillness and beauty clashing with the rusted barbed wire. I wonder whether the ten-foot snake that was outside my motel door this morning lives in one of the wooden Second World War bunkers that adjoin the road.

Cresting the hill, I see the ferry coming across the bay. As it approaches the landing, tinny music can be heard above the drone of the engine. Each morning for a week it has been Jimmy Buffett belting out "Margaritaville". I have a fantasy that one day we will progress a track or two on that Buffett album to a song called "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)". But it never happens.

Most of the lawyers complain about staying on the leeward side, but I enjoy the morning cruise. High in the hills, as the pilot steers us in to the windward dock, four wind turbines slowly rotate. They are majestic, an unlikely sign of environmental sensitivity in such an otherwise harsh world.

The escort meets us at the dock and calls his code in to our un-seen monitor. We stop off at Starbucks and then drive down to McDonald's. A soldier smartly salutes his superior, "Honour Bound, sir!" The officer salutes his reply, "To Defend Freedom, soldier!" The first time I saw this I chuckled, thinking they were joking. It's mandatory. It's the motto.

"Recreation Road" runs alongside Guantanamo Golf Course, grass sparse, leading to the prison camp. I cannot write about the layout of the camp, because that would violate the security rules.

The various camps have been given names steeped in irony. "Papa" is where the prisoners on hunger strike are force-fed. "Romeo" is where the military sexually humiliated prisoners by forcing them to wear only shorts. Forty Muslim men, forsworn from alcohol, live in "Whiskey". I can't decide whether the irony is inadvertent, as is generally the case with irony on this side of the Atlantic, or deliberate and cruel.

Meetings between client and lawyer are held in Camp Echo. Before June 2004, when the Supreme Court ordered that the prisoners be allowed lawyers, this used to be the harshest camp, where prisoners were held in total isolation. Each cell is hermetically sealed from the others and divided down the middle - the prisoner lives on one side and is brought into the other half only for interrogation sessions or, lately, lawyer visits. I am going to stay there all day, until 5 pm. I am glad that we arrived in plenty of time. At 8 am the warning siren will sound on the Tannoy, followed by the national anthem. Everything will come to a stop and the soldiers stand rigid, saluting the nearest flag until it is over.

I go into the camp and must wait for the clients to be prepared. We sit at the "picnic table" by the cells. The guards live a monotonous life and most are friendly. One tells me he saw me recently on CNN, where I said that most of the military were decent people consigned to a terrible task. He smiles as he asks whether he is one of the decent folk or one of the bastards.

Another confides in me that he has been told to keep his distance from the lawyers. I am curious about the minefield that apparently still separates the naval base from the perfidious Cuban communists. "Every now and then you hear an explosion at night", says the soldier. "Those are Cubans trying to escape to freedom". I laugh because I assume he is kidding me, but he is serious. I suggest that any mine that goes off is probably taking out an errant iguana. He is clearly unhappy. I am a cynic, and he does not talk to me again for several days.

A guard takes his hat off and puts it on the table. To remind him of his mission, he has written inside the rim: "Al-Qaeda are pussies".

Many of the guards are from quiet American backwaters and Guantanamo represents their first foray abroad. They have been subjected to the most extraordinary propaganda. One of my clients is only a little over five feet tall, very mild-mannered and cultured. Some months ago he told me about the times before the cameras were installed, when a soldier sat outside his Camp Echo cell 24 hours a day, watching him. He noticed a female guard shaking on her chair and asked her what the matter was. Eventually she asked him whether he truly was a serial assassin - she had been told that he was another Hannibal Lecter and might bite her through the bars. When he finished laughing he devoted many therapeutic hours to calming her down. The US military got its intelligence thoroughly wrong on him, and his guards grew to disbelieve the stories. A number gave him their e-mail addresses for when he got out.

Finally, the time comes to see my first client. There is a cooler full of "Freedom Springs" water bottles, the name printed over an American flag. One soldier suggests that I strip the flag off before passing a bottle to the prisoners, because they might desecrate Old Glory. I recall how surprised some Americans were at the Muslim outrage when Newsweek reported how the Koran had been thrown into the toilet. The parallels seem obvious: insults to their flag reduce many Americans to apoplexy.

Talking to my clients is draining. Even gaining their trust is not easy. After the right to counsel was won, the military tried to outflank us by sending interrogators in pretending to be lawyers. Given that all the real lawyers have to be American citizens, what is to distinguish us in the eyes of our clients from the deception that went before?

We talk about torture. I now have a checklist of the abuses used by the US military and those who do their dirtier work for them. Every now and then I get a flash of perspective: when I went to law school in 1984, did I ever think such a checklist would be necessary? Did I believe that an American tribunal would admit a confession exacted at the point of a razor blade? The soldiers seem to accept the Guantanamo reality without blinking. A minority of the government prosecutors are horrified; the majority go with the flow.

In addition to being devoid of law, Guantanamo sometimes seems like a truth-free zone. I am scheduled to see my client Mohammed el-Gharani. The military says he is 26 and denies that there are any juveniles on the base. Let us assume the camp authorities really believe this: what does it say about the quality of Guantanamo intelligence if they cannot even work out his age after four years of interrogation? Mohammed was not quite fifteen when he was seized, and is still a teenager. I got the birth certificate from Saudi Arabia to prove it, but they still won't believe me. "He sure does look young", says one of the guards.

The prisoners are depressed. There were 32 suicide attempts in the first six months. This was bad PR for the military; something had to be done. Six months later we were told that suicide attempts had zeroed out. Was this true? No. Attempting suicide had merely been renamed "self-injurious behaviour" and another 42 prisoners had become SIBs.

In similar semantic vein one soldier says that he cannot say the word "prisoner", as he has been ordered to refer to my clients as detainees. It is deemed defensible to "detain" a person, where "imprisoning" him without trial is not.

Sami al-Laithi knows all about this. An Egyptian, he was minding his own business in Pakistan when the Americans seized him, and he was then badly abused in Guantanamo. He'll certainly never play football again, as he is confined to a wheelchair with two fractured vertebrae after being ERF'd (that's a recent addition to the Guantanamo lexicon, describing the habits of the Emergency Reaction Force guards, who dress up in Darth Vader outfits and rough up recalcitrant prisoners).

Because Sami complained repeatedly they held him in solitary confinement at Camp V. Three years into this ordeal, Sami's tribunal found him "innocent" - as he had said all along, he never was an enemy combatant. So what did he get for it? The guards came into his cell and offered him a white uniform instead of an orange one. Sami got angry. It took them another five months to set him free.

It is a long day. I have to speak my questionable French to some prisoners, my even more dubious Italian to others. We laugh a good deal, but goodness only knows what they understand of their rights. At 5 pm I have to leave.

En route back to the ferry landing we stop at the NEX, the Navy Exchange. Posters advertise an impending visit by Miss Teen USA, a reminder that the overwhelming majority of the 9,000 soldiers are male. I am surprised that the US military does not treat them better. They cannot bring their families to the base, and are often cut off from their children for six months at a time.

Outside the NEX, stalls sell Guantanamo Golf Course T-shirts, and others that say "Behaviour Modification Instructor". I cannot resist a Lilliputian version for my seven-year-old nephew that says "Future Behaviour Modification Instructor". Will I be liable if he beats my brother up?

The ferry has stopped for the day, so in the evening I take a faster boat back across the bay. Waiting for it to leave, I check out the plaque fifty yards away. This is where Christopher Columbus beached on his second trip, on 30 April 1494. He found nothing of interest in Guantanamo and left the next morning.

The trip across the bay takes no more than ten minutes. As I walk back up the hill to the CBQ, the sun is setting and the Tannoy crackles to life again. It's time for the bugle to blare retreat, the rather defeatist end to every military day.

I stop at the Clipper Club, perhaps the most boring bar in the Caribbean. The management's "standards of appearance" sign prohibits "clothing with bizarre, drug-promoting, obscene and offensive insignia". Patrons are warned that "shirts must cover excessive body hair on the chest, abdomen, and under arms". I pass the test and it's good to have a drink.

"Al-qaeda" supposedly means "the base" in Arabic. Guantanamo means "the naval base" here, and one of the military defence lawyers has developed his own response when any soldier confronts him with, "Honour Bound, sir!" He returns the salute sardonically, "To defend the US constitution!" Guantanamo should consider a change of motto.

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for people facing the death penalty and other human rights abuses. He has represented forty of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. For more information go to

The books they ban

It is said that when Jeremy Paxman was told that the British prisoner Moazzam Begg's bookshelf contained only two books - the Koran and Paxman's own The English - a Newsnight colleague remarked: "So it's true they torture people in Guantanamo". Begg's problem with reading material, of course, was censorship, which is as sweeping as it is perverse.

Banned magazines have included National Geographic, Scientific American and Runner's World. John Pilger's Hidden Agendas was returned, stamped "Denied". An anthology of First World War poetry was also excluded, as was Robert Hughes's history of Australian colonisation, The Fatal Shore, and, even more curiously, The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary.

In the case of Scott Turow's legal thriller Presumed Innocent the title alone may have been the problem, but perhaps the strangest cases were the four books returned with the note: "These Items were not Cleared for Delivery to the Detainee(s)". They were Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Beauty and the Beast.

The torture trail

Binyam Mohammed, originally from Ethiopia, lived in north Kensington, London, for several years, seeking asylum, and in 2001 went to Afghanistan. After the invasion he fled to Pakistan, where he was seized for using a passport that was not his own and turned over to the US. He surfaced late last year in Guantanamo.

What happened in the intervening three years? Binyam describes how, in Pakistan, an FBI agent said, "If you don't talk to me, you're going to Jordan. We can't do what we want here; the Pakistanis can't do exactly what we want them to. The Arabs will deal with you." When he asked for a lawyer, the FBI told him he did not have the right to one.

In July 2002, Binyam was flown by CIA plane from a military airport in Islamabad to a prison, not in Jordan but in Morocco. There, a guard told him: "America's really pissed off at what happened, and they've said to the world: either you're with us or you're against us. We Moroccans say: 'We're with you'. So we'll do whatever they want."

A man who called himself Marwan served as Binyam's main interrogator. "Give me the whole story all over again", Marwan would say. Each time, Binyam did what he could. Marwan would give the order: "Idrabo", which means "beat him" in Arabic. The guards would say: "There's worse to come"; and Binyam could hear people screaming across the hall.

Once, Marwan brought in three thugs who cut off his clothes with a scalpel and then, as Binyam screamed, used the scalpel to make a cut in his chest. Next, he says, one of the thugs took his penis in his hand and began to make cuts. The pain was appalling. He says he also suffered torture worse than this, but cannot bring himself to discuss it.

He was in Morocco for eighteen months. He asked a guard: "What's the point of this? I've got nothing I can say to them." The guard replied: "It's just to degrade you. So when you leave here, you'll have these scars and you'll never forget. So you'll always fear doing anything but what the US wants."

In January 2004, Binyam was taken to Kabul, where he endured five more months of torture, mainly psychological at this point. He says that he signed whatever statements were put in front of him. He apparently confessed to dining in April 2002 with five high-ranking Qaeda operatives - a dinner at which they discussed a plot to plant a radioactive "dirty bomb" in New York. He denies that this is true.

Binyam is now charged in a military commission where evidence based on torture is admissible.

The British men still there

Shaker Aamer, forty, is the Saudi father of four British children who live in Battersea, south London. He was subjected to severe torture at the "Dark Prison" in Kabul and at Bagram air force base. Since being sent to Guantanamo, he has been elected to the six-man "prisoners' council" and has been punished with solitary confinement for co-ordinating a hunger strike.

Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna were both in the Gambia setting up a peanut oil plant when they were seized, turned over to the United States and sent to Guantanamo. Britain had recognised Jamil as a refugee from Jordan four years previously; Bisher and his family had fled Saddam Hussein twenty years earlier. Jamil's wife and five children live in London, not far from Bisher's mother and sister.

Omar Deghayes is a refugee who escaped from Libya to Britain with his family as a teenager, after his father was murdered by Colonel Gaddafi. Omar studied law. He was seized in Pakistan, tortured and sent to Guantanamo. The main evidence against him is a videotape of a Chechen rebel, brandishing a Kalashnikov, who is now known to be a man called Abu Walid but was mistakenly identified by Spanish authorities as Omar. The British government has suggested that Omar should apply to Libya for "consular assistance" and he has received visits from Libyan officials who, rather than offering him help, threatened to kill him should he return to Libya.

Ahmad Errachidi, who worked as a cook in London for almost eighteen years, was arrested in Pakistan by bounty hunters, sold to the US military and transferred to Bagram, where the sign on the interrogation room door read "Hell" in Arabic. In Guantanamo, he was accused of being an extremist leader and dubbed "The General". Ahmad has been held in punitive isolation for more than two years, the longest period served in isolation by any Guantanamo prisoner.

Jamal Kiyemba, originally from Uganda, lived in Britain from the age of fourteen. "Ask any MP [military police] personnel in Gitmo [Guantanamo]: where's this guy from? Answer: they will say Britain! Check my incoming mail and you will find that it's from Britain. My GP, my local mosque, my teens, my education, employment, friends, taxes, home and, above all else, my family - it is in Britain. I may not be British according to some piece of paper, but in reality I am a Brit and always will be." Because Britain will not have him, the US recently gave notice that he would be sent to Uganda.

And there may be more: Abdulnour Sameur is an Algerian refugee who lived in south Harrow, London, and Ahmed Ben Bacha is an Algerian who lived in Bournemouth. Neither has yet seen a lawyer and little is known about them.

Copyright New Statesman 1913 - 2005

Bill Totten


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