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Playing Games with the Quran. Religious Abuse in Guantanamo

February 15, 2005
Naseeb Vibes

We hear even more serious accusations, such as Qurans being thrown to the floor, stepped on and even wrapped in an Israeli flag, all with the obvious intent of antagonizing the detainees.


Editor's Note: We are grateful to Mr. Falkoff for this exclusive interview with Vibes, despite the sensitivity of the issue. Here he has exposed, without reservation, new shocking reports of inhumane treatment that Guantanamo prisoners are subjected to. The American Press has yet to grasp the depth of the abuse.

VIBES: How and when did you first find out about the Guantanamo Bay prisoner abuse?

MARC FALKOFF: From the very beginning of the Guantánamo misadventure we have heard about abusive treatment of the detainees. When the men were deplaned at the island, all were shackled hand and foot, blind-folded and ear-muffed. They were treated roughly from the start, shoved and beaten about the head and shoulders. Once off the plane they were ordered to assume kneeling positions for hours on end; those who tried to sit back were hit and kicked. These men had just been subjected to a nauseating 20-hour flight from Afghanistan and were now hunched over in the night air without the faintest idea of where they were. Many had already been badly mistreated while in Afghanistan and were simply in a daze. One of my clients reported that the first wave of men did not learn they were in Cuba until several months after arriving, when an ICRC representative told them; neither he nor the other men could believe it.

Their first shelters were tiny makeshift open-air cages largely unshaded from the brutal Caribbean sun. The men were supplied with two buckets, one for drinking water and one for urine and feces. These cells were their homes for months until more permanent shelter could be constructed. The new shelters turned out to be windowless shipping containers that were retrofitted with a steel bunk and toilet. The men have been repeatedly interrogated since their arrival – some at least a hundred times in the three years that they have been there – a patent violation of the Geneva Conventions. The men have been given inadequate medical care and, in many cases, barely enough food to survive. Several of our clients have lost as much as 25% of their body weight, and nearly all require substantial medical care.

We really began to learn about the physical abuse in the camp with the release of the “Tipton Three,” British citizens repatriated in Spring of 2004. They described to their lawyers inhumane conditions, including prolonged solitary confinement, sensory deprivation and routine beatings. Their detailed and disturbing account can be accessed, via the website for the Center for Constitutional Rights, at
 http://www.ccr-ny.org/v2/reports/docs/Gitmo-compositestatementFINAL23july04.pdf.

The stories from the Tipton Three were only the beginning. In June 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that the Guantánamo detainees had a right to ask the civilian courts to review the legality of their custody. This important decision opened the doors of Guantánamo just wide enough to allow lawyers into the camp, which is precisely what the Administration feared would happen. Our first visits were in September, and since then we have gathered substantial evidence of abuse. We are only now starting to see a critical mass of reporting about abuse because the military has, in the past two weeks, acknowledged that what our clients tell us is not “classified” information that could threaten the safety or interests of the United States.

VIBES: What is the exact nature of "religious abuse" that's going on there? How long has this gone on?

MARC FALKOFF: The military decided to exploit, for interrogation purposes, the detainees’ religious self-identity. The whole point of Guantánamo is to break down the prisoners – physically, psychologically, emotionally – and a key tool for achieving this goal is the exploitation of the men’s religious convictions. The key to understanding what has happened at Guantánamo is to grasp that the incidents of religious abuse now getting play in the press are not random acts committed by a few “bad apples,” but rather are the direct result of a deliberate and systematic policy of religious exploitation by the government.

Let me start by describing a Guantánamo policy that we have known about for many months but that is very rarely reported in the popular press. One of the most frequent punishments for violations of the camp’s disciplinary rules – often a refusal to talk during interrogation sessions – is the confiscation of a detainee’s trousers. I tell this to reporters and they shrug. “So why is it such a punishment to be forced to wear shorts in the 90 degree heat of Cuba?” The answer, of course, is that the punishment prevents these devout Muslim men from engaging in their prayers, since they are required to be covered from head to foot during their devotions. The punishment makes no sense except as a religious humiliation designed to coerce the men to talk. The military, in other words, has calculatedly chosen to disrupt the detainees’ free exercise of religion to further its goal of coercing intelligence from them.

Equally disturbing is that the detainees are stripped of prayer items – such as oils and beads – as their disciplinary “grade” is reduced. A detainee with a “clean” record is categorized as grade one, and is allowed a full panoply of devotional objects. If a disciplinary infraction results in reclassification to grade two, the detainee’s prayer mat is taken from him. At grade three, his prayer beads and two of three prayer oils are confiscated. Finally, at grade four, all items except for the Quran are taken from him. This type of punishment is ironic indeed, since Congress has twice passed laws in recent years – the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – designed to assure that a prisoner’s exercise of his religion cannot be unduly burdened by government action.

I recently spoke with a Washington Post reporter about sexual abuse – including threatened rape – suffered by some of our clients. I described stories from two of them that to me are as much about religious as sexual abuse. One of our clients told me about a detainee who refused to talk during questioning by a female interrogator; according to the detainee, the female interrogator “punished” him by smearing what the detainee believed to be menstrual blood on his chest. When I first heard this story I did not credit it because it sounded so ludicrous. The day after my interview with the client, however, I learned from news reports that a former guard at Guantánamo will soon publish a book in which he acknowledges that precisely such tactics were used on detainees – although he explained that, unbeknownst to the detainees, the “blood” was in fact red ink. (We have subsequently heard similar stories from released prisoners like Mamdouh Habib, whose story is recounted in the February 13, 2005 edition of the New York Times.) That the insult to the blood-smeared detainees was meant to be religious in nature is clear from the account of yet another detainee, who was jeered at by interrogators and told that he would not be allowed to wash – and in his “impure” state therefore would be unable to pray, until he talked to interrogators.

Another of our clients described a female soldier who interrogated him while she was wearing a tight t-shirt. She asked him why he was not married and said, "I know you are a young man and have needs. What do you like?" She bent down with her breasts on the table and her legs almost touching him and said, "Are you going to talk or are we going to do this for six hours?"
Other detainees have told similar stories. What strikes me about these accounts is that they are “abusive” precisely because they prey upon the detainees’ religious beliefs and their self-identity as devout Muslims. While many men would not deem it torture to be propositioned by a woman in a tight shirt, to a devout Muslim man who is striving to remain chaste in body and soul, this kind of treatment is – and was designed to be – abusive.

VIBES: Initially we heard reports about prisoners getting the Quran to read, and that the US military were honoring the prisoner's religious beliefs. What does this mean with regard to the role the media is playing?

MARC FALKOFF: As a factual matter, the detainees are all (to my knowledge) provided with their own Quran for their personal use. That said, there are frequent reports of guards “playing games” with the Quran. Policy in the camp is for the detainees’ Qurans never to be handled by non-Muslims. Many have complained, however, that their Qurans have been purposely disrespected by non-Muslim guards who have handled the holy book in an effort to agitate the detainees. Sometimes we hear even more serious accusations, such as Qurans being thrown to the floor, stepped on and even wrapped in an Israeli flag, all with the obvious intent of antagonizing the detainees. There is little reason to believe that these are mere rumors. The military has recently acknowledged that two dozen men tried to hang themselves over the course of a single day about one year ago; our clients have told us that the reason for the mass suicide attempt was that a detainee’s Quran was disrespected in the manner described above.

Turning to the media’s role: I understand the predisposition to believe the military when we are told that the detainees at Guantánamo are being treated with dignity and respect. Such pronouncements are in accord with our understanding of the role of America as the “City on the Hill,” in John Winthrop’s phrase – a beacon of justice to the world, lighting the way to the global triumph of human rights. But in my opinion, journalists, like lawyers, have an ethical duty to remain skeptical of statements emanating from the halls of power. We lawyers have been complaining about abuse at the camp since well before the presidential election in October, but the story has never really “caught on.” Do I think the media has played a positive role in unearthing the truth about what’s happening at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere? Indeed I do. Can the media do better? Certainly.

For an excellent example of such reporting, I recommend Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker article about “extraordinary rendition” – which is the transportation by the United States of terror suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan for torture – which can be found in the February 14 edition of the magazine.

VIBES: Aren't you facing some serious backlash from the US government for making rather damaging statements at a time when the Bush administration’s credibility is pretty low?

MARC FALKOFF: The Administration’s credibility problems are of its own making. I doubt many in this country support an attack on lawyers who are uncovering the grim truth about Guantánamo and attempting to protect basic human rights.

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