Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 5 Issue 100 | June 23, 2006 |

   Cover Story
   Straight Talk
   The Common Cold
   Photo Feature
   View from the Bottom
   Food For Thoughts
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home

Food For Thought

TruTh JusTice and oTher FairyTales

Farah Ghuznavi

The recent suicide of three inmates at the US military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay brought a number of issues into sharp focus (however briefly). It forced global public opinion to take a good look at the ugly business that is being conducted - highly opaquely - within the auspices of that camp. It forced the authorities running the prison to face the fact that their actions have consequences. And above all, it reminded us that in the 21st century, there is no justification for the legal black hole that is Guantánamo Bay.

The fact that terrorism and militancy are real issues, and must be dealt with in practical terms, is not likely to be denied by any reasonable person. The issue is, of course, how these matters should be dealt with. And as any scientific problem-solving approach will confirm, treating the symptoms without treating the cause is unlikely to be successful. If, to make things worse, the symptoms are suppressed by means which are debatably as a bad as the disease itself, the chances of success plummet even further...

The conditions under which inmates have been held at Guantánamo, and the treatment that they have received at the hands of their captors, might reasonably be termed less than satisfactory. Under the circumstances, the suicides cannot have come as a surprise, no matter what is said publicly about it. What is far more surprising is that it took this long to happen.

After all, this particular prison camp has experienced a series of difficulties since it first opened in late 2001. In early 2002, doctors began force-feeding two detainees on hunger strike for nearly a month. This method of protest was to re-emerge in force a few years later.

It has since been reported that the method of force-feeding used at the camp involved "restraint chairs", and that the process was made deliberately uncomfortable - some say, painful - to deter prisoners from undertaking hunger strikes. Despite this, to date, dozens of prisoners have done so.

By April 2003, the number of suicide attempts had already reached 24, and a few months later in August of the same year, 23 detainees staged an eight day protest, trying to hang or strangle themselves. By the end of 2003, a total of 350 incidents of "self-harm" (an understatement perhaps, and one that covers a multitude of sins!) had been recorded in that year, including 120 "hanging gestures" (perhaps that should read "attempted hangings" - talk about euphemisms!).

2005 saw a mass hunger strike that lasted several months. At its height, the strike involved 131 detainees; it ended with the introduction of the dreaded "restraint chairs" and the policy of force-feeding. Last month, a group of detainees attacked guards at the camp a day after a failed suicide attempt by two prisoners using anti-anxiety drugs that they had hoarded (UK Independent).

By 2003, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only independent organisation granted access to the prisoners, had already warned that many faced severe mental health issues. It stated that the nature of their imprisonment and interrogation, which included humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes and the use of force positions, was "a form of torture".

The Red Cross was not alone in its criticisms. Campaigners have long accused the Bush administration of ignoring mounting - and somewhat predictable - mental health problems among prisoners.

After all, no human being (even so-called "terrorists") can indefinitely withstand the psychological torment of a legal no man's land, where there is no prospect of fair trial and no recourse of any kind. As the head of Human Rights Watch has stated "These people are despairing because they are being held lawlessly." Clearly, the anti-anxiety drugs given to detainees were prescribed for a reason!

To make matters much, much worse, the figures just don't add up. Lawyers have said that only 10 of the 465 inmates at Guantánamo have been formally charged with a crime. Based on the military's own documents, 55% of the prisoners are not alleged to have committed any hostile acts against the US and 40% are not accused of affiliation with Al Qaeda! The same documents suggest that only 8% of prisoners are accused of fighting for a terrorist group, and that 86% were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani authorities "at a time when the US offered large bounties for suspected terrorists" (UK Independent).

The US military states that one of the dead inmates participated in a Taliban uprising at a prison in Afghanistan, another was a member of Jamáat al-Tableeg (an Islamic group the military considers terrorists), and the third was a "mid-to high-level" Al Qaeda operative.

Given the figures mentioned above, it is hard to take these statements at face value. Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer who represents 36 of the inmates at Guantánamo Bay, does not mince his words, "From what I have seen, just a little scratching of the surface proves the allegations to be false... One client of mine was alleged to be part of a British Al Qaeda cell - at a time when he was 11 years old and living in Saudi Arabia"!

President Bush has repeatedly defended Guantánamo Bay as a necessary means of holding those who would "do great harm to American citizens". There are growing numbers of people who disagree. A Labour MEP, Arlene McCarthy, who visited the prison said, "There is a complete failure by the US administration to see why this is not the right way to deal with suspected terrorists".

The response of some US officials to the suicides has been disturbing, to say the least. Initially, the deaths were dismissed as nothing more than a "good PR stunt", by senior officials. Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the prison commander, claimed that the men died in acts of "asymmetrical warfare against us", not out of desperation. Perhaps somebody should tell him that not everything in the world is about the "us" that he so confidently refers to! And indeed, if those who are described as America's enemies are supposedly killing themselves (and only themselves!) in the process of conducting their war against the US, surely that would be a welcome, if somewhat self-defeating, tactic…

After that initial, highly cynical response, however, the Bush administration has backtracked, stating that "We are always concerned when someone takes his own life. Because, as Americans, we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country"! I'm sure that will be a great consolation to those "violent terrorists" in Guantánamo Bay against whom no charges have been brought to date.

President Bush's fear that some of the inmates of this prison could cause great harm to Americans, if freed, might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that is the tragedy of it. If there are any innocent men in Guantánamo Bay - and there is reason to believe that there might well be - they will now have a legitimate grievance against the US government. Let us hope that if they are ever freed, they will decide to pursue that grievance in a peaceful way.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006