Guantanamo Bay

In the US controversy has arisen on the question whether or not the tapes showing the force-feeding of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp should be released or not. Early October US District Court Judge Kessler had ordered limited release of the tapes while two weeks later she granted the US administration a one-month delay on the release of these videotapes.

Guantanamo Bay is a United States military prison in Cuba which was established in January 2002 as one of the measures taken in the War on Terror launched by president George Bush after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. The idea was to transfer the most dangerous terror suspects who had been captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places to Guantanamo Bay in order to interrogate and prosecute them there. The reason why these detainees were held at this US base in Cuba –rather than in the US itself- is because the detention camp was considered to be outside US legal jurisdiction and the detainees thus did not have the protection of the US Constitution which is generally afforded to prisoners detained in the US. This would make it a lot easier for the interrogators to use whatever measures they deemed necessary to interrogate the detainees and to keep them secured in prison without filing any charges. Initially the US government even declined to acknowledge that these detainees had any rights under the Geneva Conventions as the prisoners were considered ‘illegal enemy combatants’. Human rights organisations have opposed this practice as of the start as a clear and flagrant violation of international human rights and humanitarian law. In 2006 the US Supreme Court ruled in Hamden v. Rumsfeld that the detainees were entitled to the protection afforded by the Geneva Conventions under common article 3. This acknowledgement did however not prevent the US from further abusing the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The New York Times noted that a total of round and about 780 men have been detained at Guantanamo including a number of minors. Many of these prisoners were held in custody without being charged. The idea was to only detain high security prisoners and terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. In practice however many completely innocent people were detained there – amongst the detainees there is only a small group which are leading terrorists. One of them is Khalid Sheik Mohammed who is believed to be an important Al Qaeda leader. He as well as some of the other suspects have allegedly been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many others however did not have any connection with terrorists but were mistakenly considered terror suspects or were handed over to the US authorities by bounty hunters. As off 2004 the US started to release prisoners and by mid-2011 most detainees had left Guantanamo Bay. During his election campaign Obama promised to close down Guantanamo but he has not fulfilled his promise yet. Up till today (October 2014) there are still 149 detainees who remain at Guantanamo amongst whom 46 who have been qualified as too dangerous to be released.

Right from the start when this detention centre started operating  there have been allegations and reports of the systematic abuse and torture of the detainees. Many of the techniques used where authorized by Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state at the time. These techniques included stress positions, isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, forced grooming, inducing stress and the exploitation of phobias. On Youtube a documentary is available called the Guantanamo Guidebook  which shows the effects of these so-called enhanced interrogation  techniques. The US administration nevertheless justified the use of these measures by arguing that only measures which lead to organ failure, impairment of bodily function or death qualify as torture. This interpretation clearly diverts from how international human rights bodies define torture. One of the means to enhance the pressure on the detainees is to abuse cultural and religious sensitivities. This led to the systematic sexual humiliation and abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other prisons all over the world at which terror suspects were held, such as most notably the US led prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. The pictures of the abuse at Abu Ghraib were published by CBS program 60 minutes in April 2004. The abuse featured on these pictures and described in the reports on Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other places have enraged many people around the world. The consequences of the treatment received at Guantanamo Bay are devastating to the victims and by abusing prisoners in this way the US has dug its own grave: detainees might have been completely innocent when entering the camp but the treatment within the camp might have made them start to hate the US and everything it stands for. It is not unlikely that many detainees have been transformed in potential terrorists while being detained at the camp looking for a chance to strike back.

Detainees at Guantanamo have protested against the treatment they received. Some started to riot, others committed suicide while yet others embarked on a hunger strike. More than 100 out of the 149 detainees still left at Guantanamo have joined a hunger strike which has started in 2013. The authorities at Guantanamo have however decided to force feed these detainees despite the fact that this is against the rules and regulations of the World Medical Association. US District Judge Kessler has requested Obama to stop the force feeding as it is ‘a painful, humiliating and degrading process.’ The videos which are about to be released now show this process of force feeding and are described as barbaric. One of the inmates who is force-fed in the video states: “I want Americans to see what is going on at the prison today, so they will understand why we are hunger-striking, and why the prison should be closed.” This is a genuine and legitimate reason,  the downside however is – and that is the reason why the release has been delayed- that publication of the videos will inevitably lead to another outrage within the world related to the American treatment of Muslims. At a time when IS (formerly known as ISIS) is publicly beheading US citizens who are symbolically dressed in the very same suits the detainees at Guantanamo Bay wear, the release of these video’s might well further inflame an already very critical situation. The release of the videos would probably do more harm than good. It is however equally important that the abuse at Guantanamo Bay should stop immediately and that those who are responsible should be prosecuted. This is necessary in order to stop people and especially Muslims from around the world from starting to sympathize with IS.

Suggested literature

  • Greenberg, K.J. & J.L. Dratel (Eds.) (2005). The torture papers – the road to Abu Ghraib, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Physicians of Human Rights (2008). Broken, law, broken lives – medical evidence of torture by US personnel and its impact.
  • Saar, E. & V. Novak (2005). Inside the wire – a military intelligence soldier’s eyewitness account of life at Guantanamo, New York: The Penguin Press.
  • Smeulers, A.L. & S. van Niekerk (2009). Abu Ghraib and the War against Terror – a case against Donald Rumsfeld, Crime, Law and Social Change, 327-349.