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Inside Guantanamo's harsh world

msnbc.com
by Aram Roston
June 22, 2007

WASHINGTON - Documents obtained by NBC News offer the first inside look at the operations of the team charged with enforcement at Guantanamo Bay, a team that human rights groups have accused of brutality.

The documents, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, are statements to investigators by members of the Immediate Reaction Force, or IRF, and summaries of about 40 incidents. In almost every incident, the IRF was called to remove a detainee from his Guantanamo cell. Taken together, the documents allege that detainees frequently refused verbal commands until they were violently manhandled by the IRF. A pattern of biting, punching, eye-gouging and other assaults are cited in the documents.

In one dramatic incident on July 19, 2005, a guard writes that he bit a detainee during a scuffle, when the prisoner allegedly tried to fend off the IRF. "The cell was slippery with what appeared to be toothpaste and water," the solder wrote. Then, he said, the detainee "got a hold of my headgear and started to scratch my face and poke my eyes, after that he went to choke me at which point his finger went in my mouth and since I had a hold of his right leg I could not do anything to stop him from choking me but to bite his fingers."

The documents do hint at chaos that could be found in a maximum security prison in the U.S., although in every case the soldiers say they used "the minimum amount of force necessary." According to the records, members of the IRF were often threatened by detainees, struck, and assaulted with urine and feces.

In one case, a detainee struck the duty commanding officer with feces "on the wrists and legs," and in another case, a detainee lobbed a container, covering an officer with "a large amount of urine in the face and upper torso." Many of the assaults against the guards are ineffectual, such as attacking guards with a towel and with flip-flop sandals, or in another case trying to stab a guard with a plastic spork.

In one incident, a detainee allegedly said, "If I have knife, I kill my interrogator. I kill him if he ever let me out of my cuffs. He is a dead man, that [bleep]."

In another case a detainee said, "I'm not an animal. I will not allow the MPs to humiliate me. If they come in I will fight like a man. If they do this I will throw [bleep] in their [sic] face every time they open the bean hole." (The bean hole is the opening through which detainees receive food.)

At one point, the documents also refer to a Quran that was damaged during a scuffle when a detainee "received lacerations to his lip and forehead." The issue of damage to Qurans received widespread publicity in 2005 when Newsweek reported erroneously that a Quran was flushed down a toilet. In May 2005 the Pentagon said it found only five cases of damaged Qurans at Guantanamo. This incident took place two months after that announcement.

Human rights attorneys have long accused the IRF of brutality. According to a report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, "some of the most severe physical abuse reported at Guantanamo is attributed to the IRF." The report says "physical abuse is often meted out systematically" by the IRF.

"[The IRF] "has been used to soften detainees for interrogation," says Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It was an opportunity for soldiers to vent all their angers on the detainees."

Inmates lawyers say the IRF was used at the slightest pretext to punish detainees with their severity. The IRF gained some notoriety in 2004 after members of the unit beat a U.S. soldier during a training mission, causing brain damage.

The records indicate that the IRF teams were used chiefly for "Forced Cell Extractions," in which a team wearing protective gear entered the cell of a detainee and quickly overpowered him. Each member of the team would grab a limb of the detainee — an arm or a leg — to subdue him. It was a violent, dynamic and effective way to make sure that any resistance would be futile. Guards who were involved in IRF say the system was a way of making sure they weren't injured as detainees were transferred from site to site within the compound.

Each incident was videotaped as it took place. The military has refused to release the videotapes to NBC News.

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