Why should one be interested in the conditions at Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo Bay? Why should one care about the legal position of detainees in Guantánamo? After all, this camp was set up by the American Government to hold Al-Qaeda prisoners, members of an organisation that had precious little respect for the rules of war or human rights. David Rose, an English journalist, has, since late 2003, been researching the answers to these questions.
“These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort” – Dick Cheney, Jan 27th, 2002 commenting on Guantánamo detainees [ Fox News]
“Few of the approximately 750 individuals who have passed through Guantánamo or are still imprisoned there were devoted to killing Americans in any active sense, and the people who really fit this description now in US custody have never been held in Cuba. The evidence suggests that large numbers of the Gitmo prisoners, running into the hundreds, were absolutely innocent of the least involvment in anything that could reasonably be described as terrorist activity” – David Rose, Guantánamo. America’s war on human rights [Pg9]
In November of 2001, President George W. Bush issued a presidential order, that captured Al-Qaeda terrorists would be tried by special Military commissions, free of the restrictions imposed by civilian courts. This order was later expanded to include members of the Taliban. Detainees would be treated as unlawful combatants, and under legal advice provided by the Justice department in the person of Alberto Gonzales (in an internal memo dated January 25th2002), would not come under the jurisdiction of the Geneva Convention. These were/are decisions with huge consequences for all those who came into American custody.
“The big lie, or one of the many big lies, that the administration has told about the people held in Guantánamo, is that they are people that were captured on the battlefield”, explains Rose. “Now, in many cases nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, very few people held at Guantánamo were captured on the battlefield. The number is probably in the low tens. David Hicks, the Australian who is facing trial, is one of the very few that I can think of. Many people held in Guantánamo were not actually captured in Afghanistan at all. They were literally kidnapped or abducted in flagrant contravention of various national and international laws from places like Zambia, Gambia, and Pakistan. There have been a number of British cases where British citizens have been kidnapped from Zambia and Pakistan, with the direct connivance I might add of British intelligence and security services. That’s on one side.
On the other side, it’s assumed that if you were in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, then you had to have been fighting with the Taliban, or siding with Al-Qaeda, and you were thus indistinguishable from a terrorist. There are many truths hidden here. You could have been someone sympathetic to the Taliban, perhaps at a training camp, and perhaps even fighting, in what was, after all, an Afghan civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Or you could have been innocent of even that. I think there’s a very big difference between sympathy for the Taliban and participation even in that civil war, and real participation in terrorism. Many people weren’t even involved in that [fighting with the Taliban]. Many were betrayed by bounty hunters. Sold to the Americans by bounty hunters who were running with the Northern Alliance. There were others who were denounced as the result of grudges. There were people involved in land disputes. Rival clans suddenly found themselves shipped to Guantánamo bay. Human Rights Watch have documentation of cases such as these, where that type of land dispute has led to someone being locked up in Guantánamo Bay for a couple of years.
What you have is a system, with a number of different shades of people, if you like, in terms of their actual involvement in islamisist causes, but when you have no process, no open forum in which to confront evidence, to have some kind of representation to challenge allegations that are put, then I suppose that this is inevitable. Since none of these checks exist, the Administration has told this massive lie, that all the detainees were captured on the battlefield, and, despite work of people such as myself, have gotten away with it.”
There are those who would argue that abuctions of suspects from countries like Pakistan and Zambia must be based on hard intelligence, and that to worry about national and international law in the face of terrorism is sophistry (the danger of terrorism has also led a number of legal academics to argue that torture should be legalised). An examination of the case of Moazzem Begg shows this presumption, that people who have been sent to Guantánamo have been sent for good reason based on intelligence, is a dangerously naïve one.
“He used to run an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham – recounts Rose, who has interviewed the now released Moazzem Begg – They used to get visits from a guy who called himself Steve, who turned out to be with MI5. He was looking for information on possible extremist networks in England. Moazzem and his partner Tahir were very happy to cooperate with him, saying ‘look, we have no links with terrorism – drop in any time, we’ve nothing to hide’. Moazzem later moved to Afghanistan with his family , up until September 11th, at which point he fled as he didn’t want any part in what was clearly going to be a war. So there they were in Islamabad, renting a house. MI5 didn’t have a clue where they were. Steve went up to Tahir, asking where Moazzem was. Tahir responded ‘he’s in Pakistan actually’, at which point Steve asked him to put him in touch, for a chat. Tahir called him, and told him that Steve was looking for him, for a chat. Moazzem indicated that this was fine, to give him his number, and that if he was in Islamabad he could call over for dinner. Well, in fact, two days later, Moazzem was arrested, or rather kidnapped, bundled into a car and taken to a secret detention centre in Pakistan where he was held for six weeks [In july of 2002 CNN was reporting that Begg had been captured in Afghanistan]. Almost the first person he saw when he got there was Steve.” Begg was subsequently transferred to Guantánamo, from where he was released in March 2004, without charge.
Of those captured in Afghanistan itself, one could presume that anybody captured there and sent to Guantánamo would have been carefully selected by military ‘intelligence’. A handy presumption to make from the safety and relative legal protection of your armchair. Rose interviewed Rumsfeld’s former adviser lieutenant-Colonel Lietzau about how detainees were identified. His response was as illuminating as it is ill-informed: “There aren’t really any factual disputes. No one is saying ‘well, wait a second, I wasn’t part of the Taliban'”. In fact, as Rose and many other courageous voices have pointed out, there were plenty of people taken to Guantánamo who were not part of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and were protesting their innocence, to deaf ears. Some have been released, thanks in part to international pressure, but not before having been subjected to interrogations, extreme reaction forces, solitary confinement and various forms of humiliation.