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No Justice Today at Guantanamo

Washington Post
by Barry Wingard
July 1, 2009

Like his fellow prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Kuwaiti detainee Fayiz Mohammed Ahmed al-Kandari hoped that President Obama's election would finally bring justice. Judges, not political appointees, would prevail and restore the rule of law.

Unfortunately, nothing seems to have changed. The Obama administration is reportedly considering an executive order that would "reassert presidential authority to incarcerate terrorism suspects indefinitely," and the situation at the prison itself is worsening.

Fayiz, who has been my client for about 10 months, has been confined at Guantanamo for more than seven years. He has been subjected to harsh treatment and "enhanced interrogation techniques," resulting in physical and psychological pain.

Although most guards have continued to act in a professional manner since Obama signed an executive order directing Guantanamo's closure, Fayiz reports that a small number of military guards have begun to punish any detainee resistance or infraction, even minor ones such as talking back or hanging towels in the wrong location. The special unit of guards known as the Immediate Reaction Force -- whom the cell-block guards call for assistance -- has increased its number of bruising "cell extractions," he says; almost every day, a detainee is forcibly removed from his cell as the guards show the prisoners who is in charge. Fayiz was extracted from his cell three times in a 10-day period this spring.

Meanwhile, pictures, videos and even Fayiz's prayer rug and cap have been taken recently (though since returned) because Fayiz refused to shower in front of guards. While he once wore white prison clothing, the color reserved for compliant detainees, Fayiz was given an orange jumpsuit (reserved for noncompliant detainees) in March.

According to Fayiz, the "human" guards -- those who have typically shown respect for the prisoners -- have been warned to stop any interaction with detainees. A few guards who have been more aggressive toward the prisoners have been promising detainees "a farewell to remember," Fayiz told me ruefully this spring.

Fayiz was captured by the Northern Alliance in 2001 and probably sold to the American forces in Afghanistan. At first he believed that he would be released because of his circumstances -- he was doing charity work in an impoverished nation to fulfill his religious duties. Nonetheless, Fayiz has been held for nearly eight years at various locations and suffered harsh interrogations. One such session left him with broken ribs and extensive bruises.

Despite all that's happened to him, Fayiz is at times upbeat. His sense of humor shows as he describes his ordeal, which included "accommodations" in Afghanistan that he rated as "five dark stars." Threats, including with weapons, were common, as were beatings with objects such as chains and plastic hoses.

Fayiz has told me about arriving at a U.S.-controlled prison overseas where he was welcomed with an "orientation party" -- guards kicked him and beat his back with a chain. A doctor later inquired about the bruising on his back in the shape of chain links. The doctor asked through an Arabic translator how it happened. Fayiz responded, "How do you think?" An American official in the room then made a call on his cellphone: "We are seeing too much bruising," the official said. "Go back to the traditional way."

Sometime in May 2002, Fayiz told me, he was drugged, his ears were plugged, he was diapered and a sandbag was shoved over his head. He was hustled into an aircraft, where he was short-shackled to the deck before a rough takeoff. Many hours later, he arrived at Guantanamo, his home to this day.

At Guantanamo, Fayiz reports, he was occasionally short-shackled to the floor of the interrogation room, sometimes for as long as 36 hours. It's painful to hear him describe watching hours pass on the clock on the wall as water was thrown on his shackled body or barking dogs brought into the room. The combination of blaring music and the chill from air conditioning turned up high heightened his pain.

When international media attention on Guantanamo grew, such "enhanced" interrogation techniques stopped. But since Obama pledged to close the prison, cell extractions, slurs and petty persecutions have increased. In some cases, the guards are reacting to antagonism from the detainees. But some guards have also become more aggressive toward the prisoners and even read their mail.

Guantanamo has become a dark symbol of the standard of justice the United States has meted out in the "global war on terror." Protecting American lives is paramount, but it is not true that we can be safe only by ignoring our country's values and imprisoning people for the better part of a decade without their legal rights.

Each time I travel to Guantanamo Bay to visit Fayiz, his first question is, "Have you found justice for me today?" This leads to an awkward hesitation.

"Unfortunately, Fayiz," I tell him, "I have no justice today."

The writer is a lieutenant colonel in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and an Air Force judge advocate general. He began his career in the Army as an enlisted infantry soldier.

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