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People the law forgot (Part 1)

By James Meek
The Guardian Unlimited
December 3, 2003

It is almost two years since the Guantanamo prison camp opened. Its purpose is to hold people seized in the 'war on terror' and defined by the Bush administration as enemy combatants - though many appear to have been bystanders to the conflict. Images of Camp Delta's orange-jumpsuited, manacled detainees have provoked international outrage. But the real horror they face isn't physical hardship, it is the threat of infinite confinement, without trial or access to legal representation. James Meek has spent the past month talking to former inmates and some of those involved in operating the Pentagon's Kafkaesque justice system. He has built an unprecedented picture of life on the base, which we present in this special issue

One summer's day in Cuba in 2002, a 31-year-old Pakistani teacher of English named Abdul Razaq noticed something unusual in the familiar patterns of movement among the orange-suited figures in the mesh cages on either side of him. Two or three cages along from his own, a fellow Pakistani prisoner, Shah Mohammed, was silently going about trying to hang himself from a sheet lashed to the mesh. He had the cloth around his throat and he was choking.

Other prisoners in neighbouring cells had noticed and, as they usually did when a detainee in the United States prison camp in Guantanamo Bay tried to kill himself, they raised a hue and cry in their many languages.

"First we shouted at Shah Mohammed to stop, but when he didn't, we called the guards," says Razaq, who was released from Guantanamo in July, and returned to his home town in October after three months' detention by the Pakistani authorities. "The guards came in and saved him. It was the first time he attempted this in my block, then he was taken to another place. He appeared to be unconscious."

It was one of four suicide attempts by Mohammed while he was in Guantanamo. He was released in May and lives in the Swat Valley, on the far side of the Malakand Hills from Peshawar, a few dozen miles from Razaq's home. It is a district of God-fearing, conservative, cricket-loving yeomen, who are passionate about their land and liberty, and protective of their right to bear arms; the fields of sugar cane and tobacco are well tended, and prices in the gun shops are more reasonable than their counterparts in America. In the mornings, a crocodile of small boys in black berets, walking to school, stretches for miles.

Mohammed, who is 23 and a baker by trade, is 5ft 3in and light on his feet. He has been having nightmares ever since he came back. His face peers out from behind a lustrous black beard and long hair like a child hiding between the winter coats in a wardrobe. In Kandahar and Guantanamo, he was interrogated 10 times.

His face only lights up when you ask about fishing. He has been doing a lot of it - mostly for trout - since his return. The other day he caught a five-pounder with his Japanese rod. "The biggest damage is to my brain. My physical and mental state isn't right. I'm a changed person," he says. "I don't laugh or enjoy myself much."

Asked why he tried to commit suicide so often, Mohammed is vague. He talks about worries over troubles at home; his mother's health, his brother's business, and "my own problems". But his attempts at self-harm at Guantanamo began after he was confined, without explanation, in a sealed punishment cell for a month - not, it seems, because he had broken camp rules, but because the American authorities had nowhere else to put him while they were finishing new facilities.

In India Block, as the block of punishment cells is known, "there were no windows. There were four walls and a roof made of tin, a light bulb and an air conditioner. They put the air conditioning on and it was extremely cold. They would take away the blanket in the morning and bring it back in the evening. I was kept in this room for one month. We'd ask them: 'Is this a sort of a punishment?' And the translator would say, 'No, this is being done on orders from the general.'"

As treatment for Mohammed's suicidal state of mind, US medics injected him with an unknown drug, against his will. "I refused and they brought seven or eight people and held me and injected me," he says. "I couldn't see down, I couldn't see up. I felt paralysed for one month - this injection, the effect, I couldn't think or do anything. They gave me tranquillising tablets. They just told me: 'Your brain is not working properly.' They were forcing me to take these injections and tablets and I didn't want to do that. Some people were being injected every month."

In trying to learn what life is like at the US prison camp at Guantanamo, the few score of released detainees - almost all Pakistanis and Afghans - are among the scant sources available. Journalists are allowed to "visit" the facility; the Guardian has been three times, and I was offered a slot, but journalists, like family members, lawyers and human rights investigators, have no access to the detainees themselves. Like a tour of the White House, the visits offer a superficial openness about the lives of the main occupants.

Yet the testimony of those former detainees, together with rare scraps of information from censored mail, official statements and the odd comment from guards and others who have been inside, overlaps into a coherent portrait. In the almost two years since the Guantanamo prison camp opened to hold people seized by the US in what the Bush administration has designated "the war on terror", it has settled from a rough and ready, occasionally brutal place of confinement into a full-grown mongrel of international law, where all the harshness of the punitive US prison system is visited on foreigners, unmitigated by any of the legal rights US prisoners enjoy. To this is added the mentally corrosive threat, alien to the US constitution, of infinite confinement, without court or appeal, on the whim of a single man - the president of the US. The question, "What is Guantanamo really like?", has all the appeal of the unknown. But inside it lurks a darker question, with all the implications for freedom in America and beyond that its answer contains: "What is Guantanamo?"

One of the few political statements to slip past the censors by a man still detained there is contained in a short postcard from a French prisoner, Nizar Sassi, to his family, dated August 2002. "If you want a definition of this place," he wrote, "you don't have the right to have rights."

The US executive acted quickly in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Within 26 days, Afghanistan was being attacked from the air; Kabul fell in nine weeks. Eleven weeks after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, resistance by Taliban fighters and their non-Afghan allies in northern Afghanistan was crushed.

But, as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the military in a revealing slip in April 2002, "We have been successful in not eliminating al-Qaida." Having failed to find the suspected mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, his Taliban ally, Mullah Omar, or much in the way of terrorist infrastructure, the US set about constructing, behind razor wire on a secure Caribbean island, an incarcerated model of what its "war on terror" rhetoric implies. It has gathered terrorism suspects from all over the world, imposed discipline and order on them, encouraged them to hate the US and kept them together for years. It was as if the Bush administration so wanted the Hollywood fantasy of a central terrorist campus to be true that they built it themselves.

Because the roughly 660 detainees still on Guantanamo have no voice, and because the US has never explained case by case why it locked them up, the outside world has only the accounts of their families and the catch-all US definition of "enemy combatant" to understand who they are and why they are there.

Most were arrested in Afghanistan but many were handed over to the US by other countries. "They are an extremely heterogenous group. There are some 40 different nationalities, there's 18 different languages," says Daryl Matthews, a forensic psychiatrist based in Hawaii who spent a week at the Guantanamo prison camp in May. "There's a big division between Arabic-speaking and Urdu-Pashto-speaking ones. There are some people who are extremely well educated and westernised, and some people who are not at all. There are some very young people and some very old and wise people. There are people who speak English well, people who don't speak English at all. There are some who go in with mental disorders there are some very secular, and some deeply devout."

There is Shafiq Rasul from Tipton in the West Midlands, who took his wardrobe of designer clothes with him to Pakistan, was captured with his friends Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed by the Northern Alliance, and was handed over to the US in Shebergan in northern Afghanistan in December 2001. Jamil al-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, two refugees living in Britain, were arrested in the Gambia in west Africa and handed over to the US by the Gambians. Moazzam Begg and Richard Belmar, two other Britons, were arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the US by the Pakistanis. David Hicks, an Australian, who had previously led a life of shark fishing and kangaroo skinning, and had fathered two children, ended up in the Shebergan prison after fighting with the KLA in Albania and the Kashmiri insurgency group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mehdi-Muhammed Ghezali, who grew up in the Swedish town of Rebro and whose father was Algerian and mother Finnish, had a promising career as a footballer ahead of him before turning up with the Taliban in Afghanistan and being captured. Nizar Sassi and Mourad Bechnellali grew up in Venissieux, a suburb of Lyons. Their lives came to revolve around the mosque on Lenin Boulevard before they travelled east. Ibrahim Fauzee, a citizen of the Maldives, was arrested in Karachi while staying in the home of a man with suspected al-Qaida links. Tarek Dergoul, from east London, thought to have been arrested during the battle for Tora Bora in southern Afghanistan, is reported to have had an arm amputated as a result of wounds. Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese assistant cameraman with the al-Jazeera TV station, was picked out and held while leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan after the fall of Kabul with the rest of his crew. They never saw him again. Another Briton, Martin Mubanga, from north London, was handed over to the US by Zambia. Jamal Udeen, from Manchester, born into a devout Catholic home, and converted to Islam in his 20s and was seized in Afghanistan only three weeks after he left England. Airat Vakhitov, one of eight Russians on Guantanamo, thought he had been liberated when a reporter from Le Monde discovered him in a Taliban jail, where he had sat in darkness and been beaten for seven months on suspicion of spying for the KGB. But he only exchanged the Taliban prison for an American one. And there is Mish al-Hahrbi, a Saudi schoolteacher. After he tried to kill himself on Guantanamo, he suffered severe and irreversible brain damage.

The road for many detainees, including the small number who have since been released, began with, they claim, a non-combatant reason for being where they were when they were caught. Mohammed says he went to work for the Taliban as a baker; Razaq says he was a missionary. They were held by the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan, selected by the Alliance to receive a cursory interview from US special forces or the CIA, and flown to Kandahar, where they were held for weeks or months before being flown to Cuba.

Razaq, in his first interview with a journalist, told me he was convinced the only reason he was sent to Cuba was because he spoke English. He had been held by the Northern Alliance for a month in Shebergan prison, in crowded conditions with little food, when Alliance soldiers came and asked the group of Pakistani, Arab and Uzbek captives who among them spoke English. Razaq stepped forward.

His hands were tied and he was taken to a small room with mud walls where he was made to kneel on the ground in front of two Americans in uniform, one sitting on a mud bench projecting from the wall and the other standing. The interview took three or four minutes, and consisted of two questions: "What is your name, and why have you come to Afghanistan?" Afterwards he was taken outside. He just had time to see a group of bound men with hoods on their heads sitting in a row before he, too, was hooded. They were taken to an airfield and flown to Kandahar. No signal had passed between his interrogators and the soldiers who hooded him. In other words, on the basis that he knew English, the US had already decided to take him to Kandahar, whatever the result of this initial interview.

Another released Pakistani, Mohammed Saghir, a grey-bearded sawmill owner who is now 53, tells me that he had not even had a cursory interview at Shebergan before he was bound hand and foot, blindfolded and helicoptered to Kandahar.

Shah Mohammed was held at a prison in Mazar-i-Sharif, near Shebergan, before being sent to Kandahar. He met Hicks, the Australian, while he was there. There were early signs of the differential treatment, apparently according to national background and skin colour, that was to be one of the characteristics of the US handling of terror suspects. "I spoke to the Australian, he knew a bit of Urdu," says Mohammed. "He said he had come for Jihad. He was asked a lot of questions [by the Americans], more than us. He was taken to a navy ship and I was taken to Kandahar." Mohammed was to see Hicks again.

The released detainees recount the roughness with which they were treated at Kandahar, from the moment of their transport there. "One thing I've learned about the Americans is they are very harsh when they transport people around," says Razaq. "They had tied up my hands so tight that for two months I couldn't use my right hand. They haul you from your neck and drop you off the plane in a very disrespectful manner. For a long time we didn't know it was Kandahar. We thought they were going to kill us there."

"They would just pick us up and throw us out [of the plane]," says Saghir. "Some people were hurt, some quite badly." Mohammed says: "They kicked us out of the plane and threw us on the ground."

The accommodation at Kandahar was uncomfortable. Prisoners slept and sat in small groups under canvas canopies, on the bare earth, surrounded by razor wire and under constant surveillance. They were given a single blanket each. It was winter. Razaq says that the bottled water they were given to drink would be frozen in the mornings. He said that for the first 20 days, a strict no-talking rule was enforced. Saghir describes how no one had been allowed to sleep for more than an hour. "If someone slept for an hour they would yell at him: Get him up!"

The prisoners were interrogated steadily, with long intervals between sessions. "We used to ask them: 'Why are we being kept here?'" says Mohammed. "They would reply: 'You will be interrogated, and whoever is found innocent will be allowed to go.' They never told us we would be taken to Cuba.'"

Razaq was one of the last to leave Kandahar. He saw the camp emptying around him. From his testimony, it appears that once a detainee was committed to Kandahar, the vast US military bureaucracy could only send people to Guantanamo. "I don't know what made them suspect me, but there were rumours that they arrested me because they thought I was a very senior Taliban official," he says. "In fact, in the last interrogation at Kandahar, the American interrogator gave me water to drink and assured me I would be released.

"This assurance was given to me on several occasions. I never knew where they were taking the people who disappeared. We asked the Red Cross, but they wouldn't give us any information. But there was this gate through which we could see people in red costumes in the distance. At the end, it seemed they just wanted to send everyone to Cuba and I was in the last group."

The last thing the US captors did before dispatching the Kandahar detainees to Cuba was shave off their beards, a process they found humiliating. Razaq was told it was because, without showers, they had picked up lice. "We resisted, but four or five commandos came and they had a machine and just shaved off my beard and moustache," says Saghir.

For the flight to Cuba, the prisoners were given the orange jumpsuits familiar from television footage of their arrival at Guantanamo. They were bound hand and foot, blindfolded, gagged, and their ears were muffled. Once on board the military transport plane, their feet were chained to the floor, their hands bound to the handrests, and restraining straps stretched across their bodies. "The translator told us: 'Don't make any movement, don't worry, you are being taken home,'" says Mohammed. "I don't remember how many hours but we left at night from Kandahar and arrived in Cuba in the evening. We stopped somewhere and changed planes."

Saghir says that, as with the arrival at Kandahar, the detainees, still bound, gagged and blindfolded, were thrown off the plane on arrival in Cuba. Some had their noses broken, he says. "I got a bruise under my left eye where my face hit the ground."

The first prisoners were moved from the runway to a truck, from there to a launch across the bay, and from there to the bare mesh cages which would be their home for the first few months of 2002, the original detention centre, Camp X-Ray. Those initial images of blinded, deafened, mute and bound men in glaring orange became a potent weapon in the hands of those who opposed the manner in which the Bush administration was coping with terrorism, particularly in Europe and the Muslim world. A country which would not countenance an international criminal court, the pictures seemed to say, had built a harsh international jail. The bizarre setup of Guantanamo itself, a fortified American toehold in one of the world's last outposts of communism, added to the sense of prisoners being cast into the centre of concentric circles of isolation. Cubans remember, if few others do, that the world's first concentration camps were built on their island by the Spanish in the 1890s.

In the first few weeks of Camp X-Ray's existence, the regime was even harsher than it looked from the pictures of tiny cages. The prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, not even in a whisper. "I spent the first month in utter silence," says Mohammed.

According to Saghir, in this initial, relatively brutal phase of Guantanamo, there was little tolerance for the practice of Islam, with its requirement of prayer five times a day. "In the first one-and-a-half months they wouldn't let us speak to anyone, wouldn't let us call for prayers or pray in the room," he says. "We were only given 10 minutes for eating. I tried to pray and four or five commandos came and they beat me up. If someone would try to make a call for prayer they would beat him up and gag him. After one-and-a-half months, we went on hunger strike."

US officials at the camp have admitted hunger strikes did take place there - in some cases, prisoners were force fed - but in the minds of the detainees, they have been associated with protests that have achieved results. According to Saghir, it was only after a mass four-day hunger strike that the no-talking rule was lifted, a loudspeaker was put up to broadcast the call to prayer, more time was given for meals, and Korans and other books were provided. Mohammed says that an eight-day hunger strike when a guard had thrown the Koran on the ground had ended with a personal apology from a senior officer and a promise that the Koran would not be touched again.

Razaq, who arrived after Camp X-Ray had already shut down, said that the culture of protest was a feature of life in Guantanamo. "In the beginning there was a mass hunger strike, but later on there were individual cases of people not eating," he says. In other cases detainees would take off their plastic tags carrying their US identification codes and throw them at the guards, or would bang on their metal benches. Sometimes the guards would use a disabling gas in response.

"When we threw off our tags the guards asked us to hand over our blankets, but two of our colleagues didn't oblige, so they sprayed them to make them unconscious, tied them up and took them to the punishment block; during that transfer they were quite brutal," says Razaq. "But I didn't see any slapping."

Life in X-Ray became easier after the no-talking rule was lifted. The camp authorities appear to have instituted a kind of linguistic mosaic, giving detainees a reasonable chance of finding someone to talk to, but without allowing too large a cluster of people speaking the same language. Mohammed sketches out the group of 10 cages he was in in X-Ray. His immediate neighbours were Hicks, a Bangladeshi, two Arabs whose names he does not remember, and Rokhanay, from northern Afghanistan. Slightly further away, but still in talking distance, was Asif Iqbal from Tipton, another Arab, Abu Nakar, and two southern Afghans, Wasiq and Nurullah. "Asif was at an advantage because he was able to speak to the Americans in English," says Mohammed. "He was like my translator. He had just come for a visit to Pakistan and then went to Afghanistan. He never intended to wage Jihad. He would swear at the guards from time to time. Sometimes, on some issue, he would just start yelling at them but the Americans would not respond. David Hicks knew some Urdu as well, so I would speak to him, and he would speak to Asif."

The Guantanamo prisoners have no way of knowing what is happening in the outside world, whether it concerns football scores or the war in Iraq. Apart from the guards and interrogators, the only contact the prisoners have is with officials of the international committee of the Red Cross and with occasional visitors from the intelligence services and foreign ministries of their home countries. The ICRC never talks about conditions in Guantanamo and little else has leaked out.

Swedish activists campaigning for the release of Mehdi Ghezali have used Sweden's freedom of information laws to obtain a censored version of a report by an intelligence officer, Bo Eriksson, on a visit to Guantanamo with another Swede in February 2002. It and other documents reveal that the US was so obsessed with security that it drafted in a Swedish-speaking US army officer to listen in on the meeting between the agents and Ghezali, and, even so, got an envoy in Stockholm to ask the Swedes for a copy of their report into the meeting that they had already listened in on.

"The cells measure approximately 2x3 metres with walls of wire mesh, concrete floors and metal ceilings," wrote Eriksson. "Inside the cells, the detainees have a mattress, a blanket, a hand towel, a couple of buckets and water bottles made from soft plastic. Outside their cells, the detainees wear orange overalls and plastic slippers. Their freedom of movement is not restricted to the cells, although outside their cells they wear hand and feet restraints. The handcuffs are fastened to a belt around their waist allowing them only restricted movement with their hands and arms. [Ghezali] only just managed to drink water from a mug with hand restraints on.

"The leg restraints mean that when detainees are moved they have to move forward taking very small steps. One of the guards keeps a hand on the back of the detainee's neck the whole time, bending the detainee's head forwards so that he is looking at the ground the whole time he is being moved.They are not tortured, nor do they receive any other degrading treatment. The mesh cell walls mean of course that the detainees never have a moment's privacy. On one occasion, detainees had suspended a plastic sheet on the fence to prevent people from looking in but they had been forced to remove it since it became unbearably hot despite the cool breeze from the sea."

In April 2002, the prisoners were moved to new accommodation, Camp Delta, and Camp X-Ray was closed. Their beards grew back. The new facilities, which make up the main part of the prison camp to this day, feature blocks of 48 cages each, with two rows of mesh cages separated by a narrow corridor. The blocks have no external walls, only a pitched roof; they stand on concrete bricks in areas of raked gravel surrounded by high, opaque green fences topped by razor wire. The cages are about as long and wide as a tall man lying down, and contain a metal bunk, a tap and a toilet. Besides this standard type of accommodation, there are at least six others. There is the more relaxed regime of Camp Four, where docile, cooperative prisoners are rewarded with dormitory-style living and free association with other detainees. Within Camp Four, there is a further category of prisoners, believed to include Britons Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi, kept isolated from other prisoners in preparation for being put on trial. In Camp Delta, there is a special block set aside for three juvenile prisoners, with a view of the ocean and a less repressive confinement. There is Delta Block, where prisoners with mental problems are kept under special observation; and India Block, and possibly one other block, which contain the punishment isolation cells.

The Guardian has also learned that a very small number of prisoners, thought to be between two and five, are kept permanently isolated in a special, super-secure facility within Camp Delta.

Mohammed, Saghir and Razaq all had experience of the punishment cells. Saghir says that he was locked up in one of the windowless metal boxes for more than a week when an Arab spat at a guard and the entire line of 24 cages was punished with solitary.

One of the US justifications for holding the Guantanamo prisoners for so long in isolation is that they need to be interrogated for valuable intelligence. There has been an enormous amount of interrogation; each prisoner has typically been questioned between 10 and 20 times, which would, assuming interviews last 90 minutes on average, have generated some 15,000 hours of transcripts, containing perhaps 200 million words, the equivalent of around 250 Bibles. Yet without exception, the detainees say they were questioned by different interrogators each time, and each time the questions were the same.

Prisoners describe the interrogation room as a small, windowless, air-conditioned, plywood space, lit by fluorescent ceiling tubes. One, two or three Americans ask questions, through a translator if necessary. The only furniture is a wooden table with metal legs and metal chairs. Interviews are recorded on tape and by written note. There is a metal ring fixed to the floor; while they are being interrogated, the prisoners sit in a chair and have their chains fixed to the ring.

"They would ask: 'Where is Osama? Do you know any of the al-Qaida leaders? Have you met them?' Things like that," says Saghir. "They would not get angry with my answers. We would ask them and they would say: 'We don't know when you will be let free. Only our bosses know, we are here to do our job.'"

Sometimes it seemed that the interrogators wanted the detainees to show sympathy with the victims of 9/11. Saghir was once told by a translator that he had got closer to being released by giving a "right" answer. "In my last interrogation I was asked: 'These people who attacked the twin towers, would you call them Muslims?' I answered: 'I won't call them Muslims, but I'm not a religious scholar, I couldn't judge these people.' The translator then said: 'You have gone one stage further, there will be no more interrogations.'"

After Kandahar, none of the released prisoners has described torture or even aggression by the interrogators, but Razaq said detainees who refused to answer questions were sometimes put in isolation cells as punishment.

The interrogated and the interrogator do attempt mind games with each other. In one interrogation, the interrogators effectively told Razaq he was free to go. "They said: 'OK, your file is clear. Where do you want us to drop you?'"

Daring to hope, Razaq answered: "Peshawar?" Immediately, the interrogators began questioning him again as if for the first time, and made him take a lie-detector test. "Maybe this was one of their tactics," says Razaq. "They first made me happy and accept that I will be free, then they changed direction."

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