In commemorating the 230th anniversary of America’s independence last July, President George W. Bush noted that the patriots of the Revolutionary War believed that all men are created equal, and with inalienable rights. Because of these ideals, he proclaimed, the United States “remains a beacon of hope for all who dream of liberty and a shining example to the world of what a free people can achieve.”
But, at the same time, his administration was holding approximately 400 prisoners at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Some of them have now been there for more than five years. None of them has ever been put on trial.
Last month, a highly reputable source confirmed that the Guantánamo prisoners are suffering from more than indefinite detention. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation released documents showing that an FBI agent witnessed “on several occasions” detainees who were “chained hand and foot in [a] fetal position to [the] floor,” without a chair, or food or water. In these conditions, “most urinated or defecated on [them]selves.” They were left there for 18 or 24 hours, or more.
On one of these occasions, the agent reported, “the air conditioning was turned up so low that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold.” On another occasion the room was unventilated, the temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him – “he had apparently been pulling it out throughout the night.”
Another FBI agent was laughingly told by a civilian contractor, “[Y]ou have to see this.” He was then taken to an interrogation room where he saw a longhaired man with a full beard who was gagged with duct tape that “covered much of his head.” When the agent asked how the tape would be removed, he was not given any answer.
Other FBI agents reported seeing prisoners left in shackles for 12 hours or more, again in cold conditions, being subjected to strobe lights and loud rap music for many hours, or being forced to wrap themselves in an Israeli flag. The FBI report noted these incidents with the comment: “doesn’t seem excessive given Department of Defense policy.”
Several of the detainees told the FBI agents that they had no connection with terrorism and had no idea why they had been abducted and taken to Guantánamo. Many prisoners were not captured fighting in Afghanistan. Some were picked up in Bosnia, Indonesia, Thailand, Mauritania, and Pakistan.
The Bush administration says that the detainees are “enemy combatants” in the global war against terror – a war that is being waged around the world, and that could last for decades. The commander of the Guantánamo task force, Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., recently defended harsh treatment of his prisoners, claiming, “They’re all terrorists; they’re all enemy combatants.”
But the CIA has made mistakes before. For example, Murat Kurnaz, a German-born Turkish man, was held in Guantánamo for four years before being released last August. The case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, appears to be another of these errors. Seized by the CIA in Macedonia, he was taken to Afghanistan and interrogated for five months before being released without charge. A German court has now issued arrest warrants for those involved in his abduction.
If there are any human rights at all, the right not to be locked up indefinitely without trial is surely one of them. The US Constitution’s Bill of Rights puts considerable emphasis on that right, specifying in the Sixth Amendment that in all criminal prosecutions, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” and “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” None of the Guantánamo inmates has been granted these rights. So it has never been proved, by the standards laid down in the US Constitution that any of them really are terrorists.
But the Sixth Amendment does not apply to the Guantánamo prisoners, because they are not US citizens and are in a facility that, technically, is not part of US territory, although it is under the full control of the US government.
Whatever US courts say about it, abducting people all over the world, locking them up for years without establishing that they are guilty of anything, and subjecting them to harsh and abusive treatment is a flagrant violation of international law. By any standard of justice, it is also just plain wrong.
Tom Paine, the great American revolutionary and author of The Rights of Man, wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.” If America would only follow that advice, it might really be a beacon of hope and a shining example. But as long as it continues to hold and abuse prisoners without giving them a fair trial, America’s professed ideals will continue to sound to the rest of the world like the deepest hypocrisy.