When three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide last week it focused attention once again on this top secret prison. The US military has identified the three men as Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen, and Saudis Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal al-Zahrani. Since 2002 the United States has used Guantanamo to hold prisoners in the “war on terror” because it exists in a kind of a legal limbo that, according to the Administration, puts it outside of any legal oversight.
The US established the Guantanamo Bay base during the Spanish American war over 100 years ago. That war “liberated” Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, while firmly establishing an American presence, including extended periods of American military occupation and the establishment of a dictatorship friendly to American business interests. The original lease for the Guantanamo base was signed in 1903 under terms established by the Platt Amendment, which set the terms for ending the US military occupation. In 1934, the lease was rewritten with the provision that it could not be changed or canceled without the agreement of both the US and Cuban governments, or until the US abandoned the base. In other words, the US can maintain a base in Cuba, even against the wishes of the Cuban government and since the revolution in 1959, this has been the situation. Cuba contests the legality of the lease, refuses to cash the checks the US dutifully sends it, and demands that the US leave but recognizes that they don’t have the ability to force the question.
The Bush Administration finds this situation very convenient. They claim that because Guantanamo is outside the US, that US laws and the Constitution do not apply there and since Cuba does not recognize the American presence, they have no oversight either. This is quite different than US military bases elsewhere in the world, which are subject to agreements with the host countries that have to be periodically renewed. This gives them some leverage. Furthermore, the Administration claims that the Geneva Conventions and the international laws of war do not apply because the prisoners aren’t technically soldiers in an established army. Rather they are relegated to the status of “enemy combatants” who have neither the rights accorded to Prisoners of War, or to civilians. Logically this position doesn’t make much sense. Either we are fighting a war, or we aren’t. If we are fighting a war, then our enemies must be recognized as fighting a war as well, and should be treated as enemy soldiers under international and military law, and as POWs when they are captured. If we aren’t, then prisoners should be brought to trial under the criminal justice system.
The “Enemy Combatant” label is a convenient fiction that is maintained to allow the government carte blanche in their treatment of these prisoners. They want to be able to hold people indefinitely with no standards of treatment and no accountability to anybody. Guantanamo is actually the most public of these prisons. Others exist in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Bagram Airbase and Abu Graihb. Add to those the CIA prisons reported to have been established in secret locations around the world. Apparently the Eastern European locations were closed after their cover was blown. And in a process known as rendition, prisoners are secretly transported to other countries, apparently so they can be tortured without any restrictions that might appl under American custody.
Although they don’t like the word, torture is central to what goes on in all of these secret prisons. Interrogation techniques employ a sophisticated combination of physical and psychological techniques to break them down. The military claims that it is necessary to obtain information. The classic argument is that torture would be justified in order to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. I assume that if that ever happened it would have been trumpeted as a major victory. In fact, studies have shown that torture is remarkably ineffective. Prisoners will either resist despite extreme pain or break down and say anything they think the torturer wants to hear, neither of which is useful. Psychological methods, such as isolation, sensory deprivation and humiliation aimed at breaking down personal identity and resistance have been developed by the CIA and are being put to widespread use now.
The continuing resistance of prisoners at Guantanamo calls these techniques into question, even on the grounds of effectiveness, to say nothing of morality or the effects on world opinion of America or the treatment of Americans who are held as prisoners or hostages.
The suicides are a matter of great concern to the military, not out of concern for the prisoners, but because of the effect on public opinion. Amazingly the military considers itself the victim here. This is made clear by the statement of Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who said, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantanamo, We have men here who are committed jihadists. They are dangerous men and they will do anything they can to advance their cause." (From the Department of Defense defenselink website story Three Guantanamo Bay Detainees Die of Apparent Suicide.)
There is plenty in the conditions of their confinement that could lead to suicide as the only way out. They are at the complete mercy of their captors with no prospect of ever being released, looking forward to the rest of their lives spent under conditions of physical and psychological abuse. Their only avenue of protest has been hunger strikes, which have been combatted by tying the prisoners down and forcing feeding tubes down their throat. It may also be true that the suicides are a last ditch attempt to sacrifice a hopeless existence on the chance that it will attract enough attention to improve conditions for their fellow prisoners.
The new film, “The Road to Guantanamo” documents these conditions, while telling the story of three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan and held for two years at Guantanamo before being released with no formal accusations or charges ever being leveled.
Clearly the veil of secrecy is ever so slowly being pulled aside, leading to pressure to close the prison. At the same time, the publicity and court decisions giving a little bit of access to lawyers and requiring some legal process for prisoners are a hindrance to the policy of total isolation that the Administration thinks is necessary both for successful interrogations and to minimize political criticism. It might actually serve their purposes better to close Guantanamo and use other secret prisons, even more removed from public view instead.