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Guantanamo eclipses other US abuses
by Rhodri Davies
April 26, 2008

Wearing a pristine white thobe, a dark skinned eight-year-old boy of Sudanese descent looks into a video camera.

He says: "Ana bahibak baba" (I love you dad) - part of a message to be sent to his father.

Mohammed al-Haj, the timid boy on Al Jazeera English's studio lawn, is sending the message because he has not seen his father for six years.

And his father is desperate for any scraps of communication and support from the outside world - he is Sami al-Haj, an inmate at Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Haj is currently being force fed as he is on hunger strike and, according to Clive Stafford Smith, his British lawyer, he is also being subjected to psychological torture.

Stafford Smith says that the US authorities, desperate to get al-Haj to end his hunger strike, have resorted to new methods of control.

"They've been telling him that he is strongly suspected of having cancer of the kidney and that he can't have proper medical care until he stops the hunger strike," Stafford Smith says.

"I honestly don't know if they are trying to terrify him to get him to stop the hunger strike or whether they are just being delinquent in not giving him medical care.

"And, of course, Sami told me - in fact, I'll quote him exactly: 'I worry too much. For three days I didn't sleep at all. I'd been lying there worrying that maybe I'm dying.' It has a real psychological impact."

It is clear that al-Haj is in poor health. His hunger strike is reaching its 16th month and in the past six years he has undergone interrogation methods some say are illegal under international law.

Al-Haj was captured on the Pakistan border in December 2001. He was attempting to travel to Afghanistan to work for Al Jazeera as a cameraman.

He is yet to be charged by the US military. They say that all of the detainees in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre are "enemy combatants" and security threats.

There are currently 270 prisoners in the US centre in Cuba. A little over 500 have left since it was opened as part of the US's "war on terror".

However, none of those has had their release ordered by courts because the US authorities have not allowed them to be tried.

'Secret prisons'

Surprisingly, Stafford Smith, who represents about 30 of the detainees, has reservations concerning the dominance of Guantanamo on the news agenda.

He says the much bigger picture - the suspected 27,000 prisoners held by the US in secret prisons around the world - is being overshadowed by the abuses of Guantanamo.

These "ghost prisoners", held without charge in the dark recesses of the "war on terror" for instance Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, are the real issue, says Stafford Smith. This is what the public, and by implication the media, are missing, he says.

However bad those in Guantanamo have it, Stafford Smith believes conditions for these other prisoners are far worse.

Reprieve, the non-profit organisation that Stafford Smith founded, is attempting to name and locate these prisoners, but it is an arduous task.

And for the majority of those known to be held, there is little assistance - most do not have legal representation.

Public trial

Although Stafford Smith says that one day European courts may become the forum for litigation under the convention against torture, he says he wants the Bush administration's abuses to be exposed and tried in the public arena, much like Guantanamo.

"We'll sue them as well, but part of it is trying them in the court of public opinion and letting people know what has been going on. Just shining the bright light of day on what people have been doing," he says.

The focus will soon be allowed to move away from Guantanamo. The three most prominent presidential candidates have all said that they will close the centre.

What will remain is Guantanamo's legacy - the legitimisation of the use of torture by governments around the world.

"You should never forget that what the Chinese do is outrageous and despicable and the same is true of a lot of other regimes around North Africa and the Middle East or wherever.

"The sad truth is that they have been joined by the US at this point, which encourages those despots in these other countries because they say, 'this is what George Bush does'.

"And everyone uses the word 'terrorism' to justify all sorts of terrible things. Putin says we can do anything we like because these are terrorists from Chechnya.

"That is the major legacy of President George W Bush."

Having "won the battle in Guantanamo", Stafford Smith is now primarily concerned with highlighting the US's secret prisons.

Those in Guantanamo Bay prison remain behind bars despite holding little intelligence value, but on their release, life will never be the same again.

Al-Haj has been told by his native country, Sudan, that he will be allowed back into the country only if he does not work for Al Jazeera.

For many, particularly those from developing countries, support and resources to help them recuperate are scarce.

And for Mohammed, the father who was taken away from him, seems likely to remain a distant figure for some time to come.

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