Human Rights

Guantanamo: What the World Should Know

Why Guantanamo represents everything that is wrong with the U.S. war on terrorism. A conversation with the Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The following is an excerpt from the book Guantanamo: What the World Should Know by Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray, forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ellen Ray:Why should American citizens be concerned about Guantanamo and what is taking place there?

Michael Ratner: Americans should care about what goes on at Guantanamo for a number of reasons. First of all, the way we are treating the prisoners there is a scandal, an embarrassment to the people of this country and an outrage to the people of the world. That you can take someone and put him in a prison offshore with no legal rights whatsoever for two and a half years is simply inhumane.

Second, our treatment of these people, who are primarily Muslims and of Arabic ethnic origin, should be a cause of tremendous consternation because of the message it sends to the Muslim world. Guantanamo has become iconic in the Arab and Muslim world; it stands for the United States doing wrong and abusing people. If we want to live in a safe world, the message we should send is that we will treat people not like animals but like human beings. Although we should be trying to lessen the anger toward the United States within the Muslim and Arab world, we are not doing that; we are, in fact, doing the opposite.

Third, we should care about Guantanamo because we should care about how others are going to treat our citizens. If Americans -- soldiers or civilians -- are picked up overseas, how do we want them to be treated? Do we want them treated lawfully, in accordance with either criminal law or the Geneva Conventions, or do we want them treated like we are treating the prisoners at Guantanamo? The United States is setting an example for how international prisoners are to be treated, and it is a terrible example.

A fourth reason we should care is what this all means for the future of the rule of law, and for the building of societies that are based upon the rule of law and not on the dictates of kings or presidents. For nearly eight hundred years, since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, our laws have insisted that every single human being is entitled to some kind of judicial process before he or she can be thrown in jail. The United States is trying to overturn one of the most fundamental principles of Anglo-American jurisprudence and international law. This is a principle that is found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We have gone back to a pre-Magna Carta medieval system, not a system of laws, but of executive fiat, where the king-or in this case the president-simply decides, on any particular day, I'm going to throw you into some prison. You are not going to have access to a lawyer or anybody else, or even know if there are any charges against you, or if you will ever be released from this prison. Guantanamo has become our Devil's Island, our Chateau d'If from The Count of Monte Cristo. The consequences of this unilateral abrogation of fundamental law are grave, not merely for the people in Guantanamo and for citizens of other countries, but also for every person in the United States. If we care about civilization and the rule of law and justice, we cannot keep treating people like this. There should be no place in the world that is a law-free zone, no place in the world where human beings have no rights...The key point here is that everyone picked up in a war is protected by the Geneva Conventions. No one is outside the law. No one can be treated arbitrarily at the discretion of his captors.

Ray: How are the Guantanamo camps set up?

Ratner:There is a series of cell blocks, one after the other, just like storage facilities. Within Camp Delta there are levels one through four. Within each camp there are different levels, depending on how much you've cooperated. Level one is for the cooperators, levels two through four for the people who don't cooperate. Then there is level four-minus. Once you get into level fourminus, from what I understand, you're essentially in isolation, with no utensils, maybe a little bit of cloth or something to sleep on, but really very, very harsh conditions. There is another camp, Camp Echo, which is considered solitary, and is primarily for those people who are going to face commissions. There may also be people there whom the captors consider problems. They have built two new camps, Romeo and Tango, "R&T," which are going to be worse than the others: total isolation camps. In these camps the detainees can be put in stripped, and after a few days given shorts-that is all they are given to wear-which only go down to about half a foot above the knee. These are for Muslim men who pray four or five times a day, men whose knees are supposed to be covered. When they sit and pray in these shorts, anyone can look into the pants and see their genitals. This is obviously meant to embarrass them and tear down the human personality of the people involved.

Ray: But the Pentagon claims it is treating the prisoners at Guantanamo well, that it is a model institution, that it is respecting the prisoners' religion, providing Muslims with prayer rugs, the Koran, and "culturally appropriate meals."

Ratner: This is not at all true. There are many different levels to consider in the abuses suffered there. First, there is a psychological level. People, as far we know, have been (and are still being) rounded up and taken to Guantanamo from all over the Islamic world, where they are put into wire-mesh cages for observation. They are isolated from each other and repeatedly taken into separate interrogation booths-trailers, really. A critical psychological issue is that these people have no idea if or when they are ever getting out. For all they know, each time they are taken out of their cells they may well be put up against a wall and shot.

The Red Cross has said one of the most psychologically devastating things happening to people in Guantanamo is the notion that they have reached a dead end, that there is no way out. The psychological harm is horrendous. In fact, one of the threats employed to make prisoners in Iraq talk, even after they had been subjected to abuse and torture, was to threaten them with going to Guantanamo, because everyone understood that there was little or no chance of ever getting out of there. About one in five of the prisoners have been put on antidepressants, psychotropics, and other drugs. In addition to hunger strikes, there have been more than thirty suicide attempts. Guantanamo is like Dante's ninth circle of hell. The temperature is often 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and of course the prisoners have no such thing as air conditioning. The place is infested by scorpions and banana rats. The detainees sleep on concrete floors, with no mattresses; the toilet is a hole in the ground. It is a horrific situation from a physical, psychological, and legal point of view.

Unfortunately, we have very limited information as to precisely what is happening at Guantanamo, and there will always be dangerously cynical arguments about whether certain conduct is literally torture or whether it is simply cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But both are abhorrent and contrary to the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. We don't have any real observers in Guantanamo. The Red Cross goes there, but its people cannot examine the interrogation rooms, which are separate and secret. The Red Cross has made clear that their inability to speak publicly on this issue should not be taken to mean that torture is not happening there.

In May 2004, it was reported that the Red Cross had issued a report on conditions at Guantanamo and furnished that report to the U.S. government. While Red Cross reports are not made public, some of the details have come out. These include stripping of inmates, short-shackling, and the use of medical information to coerce detainees into cooperating. These coercive techniques are precisely thosethat the released British clients have spoken about publicly for a few months. The Red Cross publicly addressed the issue of mental torture at Guantanamo, without using the word torture. They say that what is happening to people's mental stability and mental health is extremely serious, and they have condemned it very strongly, pointing out that keeping people in a camp for two years with no rights, no lawyers, no charges, no sense at all of if or when they might be released, has caused a quantifiable deterioration in their mental health. One could certainly argue that that fits the definition in the Convention of severe mental pain or suffering. We do know from a number of the people who have been released from Guantanamo that mental torture, the breaking down of the human spirit, is the norm there. This is an interrogation camp, and they are consciously trying to take away people's identities. Prisoners get toothbrushes, decent food, and other amenities only as a reward for cooperat

Ray: But it is now abundantly clear that there is much more to their poor treatment than the withholding of amenities and the granting of rewards, isn't it?

Ratner: There is definitely physical brutality. There are squads of U.S. military personnel -- the IRFs I mentionedearlier -- who occasionally beat people up, sometimes quite severely. They have held back food from recalcitrant prisoners. There are reports that during interrogation, prisoners are forced to kneel, sometimes for hours while they are chained to a ring on the floor. The sleep deprivation I mentioned earlier has been openly admitted and authorized in Guantanamo by the Pentagon. As a result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Pentagon has said it is banning the use of sleep deprivation in Iraq; it remains to be seen whether its use continues in Guantanamo. The goal of breaking down people's will is to make them faceless, take away their culture, their religion, and their identities. The only chance they have to stop the endless interrogations is to cooperate. And the fact is that eventually many of the victims do cooperate, although cooperation may often lead to the signing of false confessions.

Ray: How intensive are the interrogations?

Ratner:The government has admitted that it conducts three hundred interrogations a week. In mid-2004, it had 2,800 soldiers and civilians (including interrogators) running a camp with somewhat more than seven hundred prisoners for two years. Some of the prisoners recently released from Guantanamo said they themselves had been interrogated as many as two hundred times, with all kinds of different techniques. The United States is planning to use information gained during these interrogations in the military commissions. It is awful enough to try to gain intelligence for the so-called war on terror through torture and coercion, but to compound that by using coerced information in criminal proceedings is to double the outrage. These are obviously coerced statements and totally unreliable. After being held in isolation for two years, people will say anything, particularly if their next meal or the avoidance of coercive techniques depends on it.

In the early days of the camp a loudspeaker would blare out the words, "Cooperate and you can go home," several times a day, spoken by the general or somebody else high up. And then another announcement followed, "A lot of people are leaving in the next few days. You can join them by cooperating." Another message was, "We know who is telling the truth and who is lying and we can tell. Tell the truth."

The "intelligence" about terrorism and terrorists that is coming out of the Guantanamo interrogations is therefore basically garbage. It is simply not reliable. Confessions and denunciations obtained under these kinds of coercive conditions are useless, not just for a criminal trial but for getting any real intelligence that might actually protect the people of the world against terrorist attacks. We see example after example of that in Guantanamo, where people have falsely confessed to knowledge about Osama bin Laden or to having been somewhere or done something, or have implicated others, all to get some kind of reward, even a pitiful Big Mac. They are constantly getting people to nail one another. They will wear someone down until, when they ask for the hundredth time "What do you know about Mr. X," he will finally say, "Okay, he was with me at an Osama training camp." And then they go to Mr. X and say, "Well, this guy says you were with him at an Osama training camp, we have the evidence, you might as well confess." Now, this prisoner has been totally incommunicado for two years, under the thumb of a military that can feed him or not feed him, keep the light on or not keep the light on, give him exercise or not give him exercise, let him shower or not let him shower, strip him or give him clothes, keep him in solitary or not keep him in solitary, sometimes have him beaten up and sometimes subject him to sleep deprivation. Eventually, he too is going to say, "Yes, I was there with the other guy at the Osama camp in Afghanistan." And there won't be a word of truth to it.

Ray:What effect does the administration's attitude toward torture have on the people committing, allowing, condoning, or averting their eyes from it?

Ratner: The legal memos to the president and from the Justice Department regarding the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Statute, which makes criminal serious violation of the Geneva Conventions (particularly with regard to treatment of prisoners), demonstrate that, at least since the war in Afghanistan, the administration was planning to treat prisoners inhumanely. Moreover, the memos indicate that the administration feared criminal prosecution for doing so. The condoning of outlawed methods of interrogation by those at the top obviously affects the people who practice those techniques. Bush's actions take us all back to the Inquisition; it really is medieval. We have to be aware that allowing Americans to engage in torture corrodes the moral fabric of our society. To the extent that a civilized society remains in this country, and to the extent that we have any remaining values, they are seriously endangered.

Guantanamo represents everything that is wrong with the U.S. war on terrorism. The Bush administration reacted to 9/11 with regressive and draconian measures worthy of a dictatorship, not a democracy. They imposed the very measures they condemned in other countries: indefinite and incommunicado detentions, refusal to justify these detentions in court, disappearances, military commissions, torture. It was a descent into barbarism. The practices at Guantanamo spread to Iraq and other U.S. detention centers around the world. The U.S. government has obviously lost any moral ability to challenge such actions when taken by other countries. It has endangered people all over the world, not only by its own conduct but giving its imprimatur to inhuman treatment, which will embolden other countries to do likewise. It has taken a thousand years to secure human dignity and basic rights for all. The struggle to do so is marked by moments like the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679, the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture. The United States has now treated these landmarks of human progress as naught. Of course, there has never been complete adherence to these documents, but rarely, if ever, has there been such open, notorious, and boastful violation of fundamental protections as at Guantanamo. But this is not to say that I am pessimistic about the chance of returning to sanity, enlightenment, and the rule of law.

For the last few years, we have been in a long dark tunnel with no fresh air and no light. The president and his cohorts, who have brought us to this state, are in trouble: trouble in Iraq and trouble in Guantanamo. That even the Supreme Court appears to think so is a cause for optimism. We are at the beginning of what will be a long struggle to repair the damage that the government has inflicted on us all.
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