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Guantánamo's lost souls

The Guardian
Brent Mickum
January 8, 2007


January 11 2007 marks the confluence of two ignominious anniversaries. The first is the five-year anniversary of the opening of the notorious prison camps run by the United States at the Guantánamo Naval Air Station in Cuba. In the five years since the United States started shipping prisoners from around the world to Guantánamo, approximately 99% of the prisoners have never been charged with any transgression, much less a crime.

Approximately 400 of these prisoners, characterised by the Bush administration as "the worst of the worst", have been released without charge, many directly back to their families. That any prisoners have been released is due almost entirely to the outrage of the civilised world. What most of the world does not yet realise is the extent of the misinformation disseminated by the Bush Administration and the US military: for example, American forces captured only 5% of all the prisoners at Guantánamo; 55% of the prisoners were found by the military never to have committed a hostile act against the United States or its coalition allies; the vast majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo were turned over to the Americans in exchange for large bounties paid for by the United States.

The second anniversary marks the start of my clients' - British residents Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna - fifth year of captivity in various prisons around the world. They are prisoners because British intelligence expressly tipped off the CIA that they were travelling from the UK to Gambia and falsely described them as Islamic terrorists. We know this because the British government produced copies of the telegrams from MI5 to CIA in a court proceeding in 2006. Although the names are redacted from the documents, we know that the CIA was the recipient because the judge in the case, when referencing the telegrams, inadvertently noted they were sent to CIA.

In these telegrams, MI5 provided knowingly false information to induce their arrest and his subsequent rendition. A recently issued report from the European Parliament notes "that the telegrams from UK security service to an unspecified foreign government, which were released to the Chairman [of the All Party Parliamentary Group], Andrew Tyrie, suggest that the abduction of Bisher Al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna was facilitated by partly erroneous information supplied by the UK security service MI5." The European Parliament "condemn[ed] the extraordinary rendition of Bisher ... and Jamil ... who were arrested by Gambian authorities in Gambia in November 2002, turned over to US agents, and flown to Afghanistan and then to Guantánamo, where they remain detained without trial or any form of judicial assistance." As a result of MI5's involvement, Bisher and Jamil have spent time in the Dark Prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, one of the early "Black Sites" in the CIA's archipelago of secret prisons and interrogation centers around the world; Bagram Air Force Base, also in Afghanistan; and, finally, Guantánamo, where each has languished for four years.

Bisher and Jamil remain prisoners because, up until March of this year, Britain refused to demand the release. In March, the Foreign Secretary made what appears to be a half-hearted request for the release of Bisher in the face of public exposure of his connections with MI5. Britain, however, still refuses to demand the release of Jamil and seven other British residents. Neither will ever be charged; there is no evidence in the record I have reviewed that can withstand even the slightest scrutiny. No court in the remotely civilised world would countenance convictions based on the evidence contained in Bisher's and Jamil's records. Moreover, Bisher's and Jamil's treatment has been so appalling, the Bush Administration would never allow their treatment to be exposed to the world in a systematic fashion in open court. And, of course, some of that story directly implicates British officials.

Bisher and Jamil have withstood various forms of physical torture during their five years as prisoners. Both have suffered numerous beatings (Bisher suffered broken ribs and, perhaps, a broken foot because of beatings by guards - both injuries went untreated despite Bisher's requests for medical assistance), stress positions, temperature extremes, extreme sleep deprivation, death threats, threats to family, and, at various times, starvation and the lack of potable water.

At the start of Bisher's fifth year in prison, it pains me to report that the once healthy and extremely articulate Bisher al-Rawi is failing. He is no longer able to withstand the most insidious form of torture being used by the United States military: prolonged isolation coupled with environmental manipulation that includes constant exposure to temperature extremes and constant sleep deprivation.

Bisher al-Rawi is, slowly but surely, slipping into madness. British officials have long been aware of Bisher's treatment. To my knowledge, they have done nothing to intercede on his behalf. They have done nothing to end his torture and constant mistreatment. They have done nothing to address the constantly changing list of spurious, new allegations that the military is uses to justify continued imprisonment.

Among the latest new allegations: the military alleges that Bisher received terrorist training in Bosnia and Afghanistan. British officials know these charges are false beyond conjecture. Bisher has never been in Bosnia and has signed an affidavit to that effect. The only time Bisher has been in Afghanistan was when the CIA rendered Bisher and Jamil there aboard CIA Gulfstream V-N379P out of the Republic of the Gambia to Cairo, Egypt, where the aircraft refuelled, then went on to the notorious Dark Prison. The reports Bisher and Jamil have given us have matched exactly the flight logs of CIA flights we have obtained. In the Dark Prison, Bisher and Jamil spent weeks underground, encased in total darkness, chained to a wall and shackled in leg irons, starved, and assaulted 24 hours a day with cacophonously loud noise before being transferred to Bagram. The British government's silence in this regard is reminiscent of its previous silence involving the Tipton Three, whom the military claimed were in Afghanistan at a time when British authorities knew they were living and working in England.

The diminution of Bisher's mental faculties has not taken place all at once. Gradually, over time, Bisher simply has worn down. He no longer has the power to withstand the ravages of psychological isolation and the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of the Bush Administration, allegedly in the name of freedom. This is not just my opinion; it is an opinion independently shared by all three of the attorneys who have visited with Bisher since April, most recently the week of December 11 2006. To be sure, Bisher is not the only affected prisoner; attorneys representing other prisoners at Guantánamo report that clients who are being kept in isolation are going insane. But many of those prisoners have spent much less time in solitary than Bisher.

Until March 2006, the British government adamantly refused to intercede on behalf of any of the British residents still interred at Guantánamo. That changed suddenly when the government asked for Bisher's return on non-humanitarian grounds, belatedly conceding that Bisher had worked for MI5. Unfortunately for Bisher, this long-overdue admission and the British government's request for his immediate repatriation coincided with Bisher being thrown into isolation. He remains there more than nine months later, with no end in sight.

Bisher's world is a 6 by 8-foot cell in Camp V, where alleged "non-compliant" prisoners are incarcerated. After years and hundreds of interrogations, Bisher finally refused to be interrogated further. Despite the fact that Guantánamo officials have publicly proclaimed that prisoners are no longer required to participate in interrogations, Bisher is deemed non-compliant and tortured daily.

Solitary confinement is but a single aspect of the torture that Bisher endures on a daily basis. While in isolation, Bisher has been constantly subjected to severe temperature extremes and other sensory torments, many of which are part of a sleep deprivation program that never abates. Frequently, Bisher's cell is unbearably cold because the air conditioning is turned up to the maximum. Sometimes, his captors take his orange jumpsuit and sheet, leaving him only in his shorts. For a week at a time, Bisher constantly shivers and is unable to sleep because of the extreme cold. Once, when Bisher attempted to warm himself by covering himself with his prayer rug, one of the few "comfort items" permitted to him, his guards removed it for "misuse". On other occasions, the heat is allowed to become so unbearable that breathing is difficult and labored. For a week at a time, all Bisher can do is lie completely still, sweat pouring off his body during the day when the Cuban heat can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature inside Camp V is even higher.

Bisher is allowed no contact with fellow prisoners. Bright lights are kept on 24 hours a day. Bisher is given 15 sheets of toilet paper per day, but because he used his sheets to cover his eyes to help him to sleep, his toilet paper - considered another comfort item by his beneficent constabulary - has been removed for "misuse". Accordingly, he is no longer receives his daily ration of 15 sheets of toilet paper. Imagine being in the position of having to make a choice between using your tiny allotment of toilet paper for the purpose for which it was intended or using it to sleep, and then having it removed altogether.

Dinner never arrives before 9.30pm and sometimes comes as late as 12.00am. It is almost always cold. Changes of clothing take place at midnight when prisoners are given a single, thin cotton sheet for sleeping. Thereafter, a noisy library cart is dragged through the corridors; Bisher has been denied library privileges for some time, but the library cart and the noise are constant reminders that he is afforded no intellectual stimulation. Prisoners are unable to sleep until close to 1.00am. They are awakened at 5.00am, when each is required to return his sheet. All of Bisher's legal documents and family photographs were seized in June and have never been returned.

What the British government knows and the British public needs to know is that Bisher's treatment is designed to achieve a single objective: causing an individual to lose his psychological balance and, ultimately, his mind. Every aspect of Bisher's prison environment is controlled and manipulated to create constant mental instability. Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, has written about the interrogation program at Guantánamo, noting that it has "mov[ed] beyond the CIA's original attack on sensory receptors," McCoy writes:

Guantánamo interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by exploring Arab "cultural sensitivity" to sexuality, gender identity, and fear of dogs. General [Geoffrey] Miller also formed Behavioral Science Consultation teams of military psychologists who probed each detainee for individual phobias, such as fear of the dark or attachment to mother. Through this total three-phase attack on sensory receptors, cultural identity, and individual psyche, Guantánamo perfected the CIA's psychological paradigm.

What is so ineffably sad about all this is that Bisher realises he is losing his mind. He is constantly stressed and tired. He has told us that he knows that he is no longer normal. He reports talking to himself all the time in his cell. He reports that Guantánamo Bay "has taken an extreme toll on my body - even more on my mind." His descriptions are heart-rendingly sad: "Sometimes you are so hurt by what is done to you, by the conditions, that you lose your balance."

Jamil, too, is suffering. His diabetes, which abated during his early imprisonment due to the fact that he was starved and lost more than 100lb, has manifested itself again. Unfortunately, Jamil is not being properly treated, primarily because he refuses to trust the medical staff at Guantánamo. That mistrust is the direct result of the Guantánamo medical staff's active and direct involvement in the interrogation and torture of prisoners. He is experiencing constant pain in his legs and reports that his eyesight is deteriorating. Although the medical staff at the prison has ordered that Jamil be provided with a special diet, the guards who dispense food refuse to provide it, apparently because no one on the medical staff ever thought it important enough to bring the matter to the guards' attention.

Jamil reports that although he continues to meet with his interrogator, he talks little. His interrogator constantly baits him, trying to turn him against his friend Bisher. Jamil says his interrogator claims that Bisher has accused Jamil of being a terrorist and supplying money to terrorist organisations. Jamil dismisses such accusation with a wave of his hand. He knows Bisher would do no such thing. The friendship between my clients is truly touching. Each feels genuine affection for the other, and each has told me he would gladly remain if the other were released. Each says he doesn't want to leave unless his friend is able to leave as well.

As part of a general pattern of mistreatment, mail from prisoners' families is heavily censored, generally for no reason other than as part of the prison's calculated program of cruelty. The military routinely redacts portions of letters where a family member tells a prisoner that he or she loves or misses him. This has happened to Jamil. Jamil is the father of five young children the eldest of whom is 10. Jamil has never seen his youngest daughter who was born after he was arrested in the Gambia. I have see letters from Jamil's youngest children on my visits to Guantánamo, one-page letters that are heavily redacted by military censors. What is the offending language that the military has seen fit to redact? Language like "Daddy, I love you" and "Daddy, I miss you." How do I know? Because on my instructions, Jamil's wife has saved copies of the letters her children sent. The father of another prisoner, David Hicks, reports that similar language was blacked in his letters to his son. It is all part of a deliberate effort to weaken and destroy prisoners psychologically.

The Bush Administration, of course, continues to deny that the United States uses torture, prating endlessly about the Administration's humane treatment of the prisoners and its robust compliance with the Geneva Conventions. It long ago defined away torture in the now infamous "Torture Memo" commissioned by now Attorney General Alberto Gonsales. But thousands of pages of memoranda generated by FBI field agents at the prison camps in Guantánamo and released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act litigation belie the Administration's hollow assertions and paint a grim and accurate picture.

One FBI memorandum stands out because of the litany of horrors it depicts in the space of a single paragraph. Document number 5053, dated August 2 2004, reads as follows:

"As requested, here is a brief summary of what I observed at GTMO: On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position on the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. When I asked the MPs what was going on, I was told that the interrogators from the day prior had ordered this treatment, and the detainee was not to be moved. On another occasion, the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the floor."

These memoranda expose in detail only some of the "torture techniques" employed by the military. They document abuses that include "strangulation, beatings, [and] placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees ear openings" (document 4911 entitled Urgent Report). Mamdouh Habib, a former prisoner at Guantánamo who was rendered first to Egypt for unmentionable torture before being transferred to Guantánamo, arrived there without fingernails and bleeding from the ears and nose where cigarettes had repeatedly burned him. Habib, one of the few prisoners actually charged by the military, was summarily released to his home in Australia once the extent of his abuse was exposed. But before placing Habib on the aircraft that would eventually take him home, military officials could not resist one last gratuitous torture: they told him he was being transferred back to Egypt! Among the horrors I have been exposed to in this case, this particular story haunts still.

These FBI memoranda also document efforts by the military to cover-up the abuses. Document number 3977 is a memorandum entitled "Impersonating FBI at GTMO". It informs FBI superiors in Washington, DC that military interrogators at Guantánamo are impersonating the FBI when torturing prisoners. It goes on to state: "These tactics have produced no intelligence of a threat neutralisation nature to date and [the Department of Defense, Criminal Investigation Task Force] believes that [the torture] techniques have destroyed any chance of prosecuting this detainee. If this detainee is ever released or his story made public in any way, DOD interrogators will not be held accountable because these torture techniques were done [by] the 'FBI' interrogators. The FBI will be left holding the bag before the public."

If I alone were making these claims, I would expect at least some readers to doubt the reliability of my account. But FBI field agents wrote these documents. The FBI withheld them until a US court ordered their production. Notably, no one in the Bush Administration or the military has questioned the veracity of these FBI accounts. Thus, there is no debate regarding the authenticity or accuracy of the information contained in these documents.

But if corroboration is needed, the FBI accounts are confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which reports that the methods used at Guantánamo have, over time, become "more refined and repressive" than those witnessed by the Red Cross on previous visits. Red Cross officials are on record stating that military interrogators seek to make detainees dependent upon them through "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions". They confirm that prisoners are exposed to loud and incessant noise and music and were subjected to "some beatings".

The Red Cross also reports that interrogators not only used psychological and physical coercion, but also enlisted the participation of medical personnel in what the report called "a flagrant violation of medical ethics". Doctors and other medical personnel work directly with military officials at Guantánamo, conveying data about prisoners' "mental health and vulnerabilities". The Red Cross reports these medical professionals become part of the torture and interrogation machine. Their chief function is not the medical care of prisoners, but assisting interrogators in extracting information. As a result, prisoners no longer trust doctors and others to whom their treatment is entrusted.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the Red Cross concluded that "[t]he construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture."

As indicated above, the damage to Bisher's psyche is not unexpected. To the contrary, it is the natural and expected result of prolonged isolation and the elimination of all stimulation and human contact, other than guards and interrogators. The ravages of extended isolation and sensory deprivation leave no marks, but destroy the mind. Consider the fate of Jose Padilla, an American citizen held by the United States military for three years as an "enemy combatant". According to a psychiatrist who examined him over a 22-hour period, "the treatment Padilla received at the hands of the military in a South Carolina brig was such that he now 'lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense.'" Stated in more stark terms: Padilla lacks the ability to think clearly enough to talk with or assist his defence lawyers.

I have conveyed my concerns about Bisher and Jamil to the British Embassy in Washington, DC for some time now. Most recently, I provided detailed Declarations, submitted under oath, detailing Bisher's deteriorating mental condition and his appalling treatment. Although I have been assured that great progress has been made negotiating the terms of his release, his release is uncertain and, I'm told, at least four more months away. If Bisher spends four more months in the conditions I have described, the Bisher al-Rawi I met in September 2004, who was healthy, articulate, thoughtful and humorous, in all probability, will no longer exist. He will likely to slip into a madness that is permanent like Jose Padilla. If that state of affairs comes to pass, Britain must recognise and accept the grave culpability it bears.

Almost 100 prisoners that we know of have died in US custody; 33 of these deaths are formally classified as homicides by the military. Not since the second world war, when the US imprisoned American citizens of Japanese descent has this country experienced such a constitutional nadir.

If the world is to fight this war on terror, morality must not be allowed to become collateral damage. The time is long past for the British government to demand Bisher's and Jamil's immediate return. Paradigms of innocent suffering, they will remain wraiths that hover above the political and moral landscape, constantly reminding us that the destinies of those who would wage just war and those against whom that war is waged are mingled.

In the process of reasserting the moral high ground in this war, Britain must not forget to reclaim the war's innocent victims. The United States' victims are too innumerable to count. Britain has Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna.

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