Wednesday, June 14, 2006

No Light in Dark Corners

(Cross-posted at Blanton's and Ashton's.)

If there is one thing that the Gitmo authorities do not want, it's journalists shining light in dark corners. Which is why journalists from the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, and the Charlotte Observer were told to leave the camp today:

In the aftermath of the three suicides at the controversial Guantanamo prison facility in Cuba last Saturday, reporters with the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald were ordered by the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to leave the island today.

A third reporter and a photographer with the Charlotte Observer were given the option of staying until Saturday but, E&P has learned, were told that their access to the prison camp was now denied. An E&P "Pressing Issues" column on Tuesday covered an eye-opening dispatch by the Observer's Michael Gordon carried widely in other papers. He had listened in, with permission, as the camp commander gave frank instructions to staff on how to respond to the suicides.

All four journalists left the island today and arrived in Miami about 12:30 p.m.

The reporter from the Charlotte Observer had initially been told he could stay until Saturday, but that permission was abruptly revoked after the reporter, Michael Gordon, wrote several reports about a briefing the Guanatanamo commander gave his staff on how to respond to the recent suicides:

Michael Gordon of the Charlotte Observer was the first U.S. reporter to arrive at the Guantanamo prison camp just after three prisoners at the controversial facility committed suicide on Saturday. Since then he has filed some remarkable dispatches, culminating in the latest on Tuesday, in which the U.S. commander of the camp, Col. Mike Bumgarner, angrily declared that all the prisoners had proven to be untrustworthy.

They can't be trusted -- to not kill themselves, that is.

"Right now, we are at ground zero," Bumgarner, the commander, told his officers at his morning staff meeting, Gordon related. Bumgarner ordered a round of changes to prevent suicides amid rumors of more to come (several nooses have been seized). "The trust level is gone. They have shown time and time again that we can't trust them any farther than we can throw them. There is not a trustworthy son of a ----- in the entire bunch."

The three prisoners who hung themselves were not among the handful at the prison who have been formally charged with any crime. That, among other reasons, has prompted fresh calls for the U.S. to shutter the facility.

But the commander of the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, has complained that the suicides were a concerted act of "asymmetrical warfare" designed to bring more public scorn onto the prison. A State Department official called the suicides "a good P.R. move," inspiring outrage in the Muslim world as well as among European allies.

Gordon was there -- an Observer photographer, Todd Sumlin, is also at the scene -- as a staff meeting took place on Monday in a conference room inside the prison wire. Gordon was not allowed to attend the meeting "because classified information was shown on a screen," he explained, but was "allowed to listen a few feet away by an open door."

The article continued: "Bumgarner ordered a high suicide alert for 'the brothers,' the term used by the military personnel to describe the detainees. 'Brother' also is a term of Muslim endearment the inmates use among themselves. 'If any brother says he's going to kill himself ... or says the death chant, anything. That brother will immediately go to a suicide blanket and smock,' Bumgarner said."

The suicide blanket apparently is made of a tightly wound material that is hard to puncture or strip. The smock, Gordon explained, keeps a detainee from ripping apart his shirt, pants or underwear to knot a rope.

Later in the discussion, as Gordon recounted, Bumgarner ordered a smock for another detainee. "Sir," one of his officers said, "we're going to run out of smocks."

"Order some more," Bumgarner said. "I want them in the next 72 hours if I have to put you on a jet to get them."

As many times as it's been pointed out, it bears repeating that of the 460 or so detainees who remain in Guantanamo, only a handful at most have been charged with any crime. All of them have been held for up to four and a half years in arbitrary detention, with no legal counsel, no habeus corpus, and no indication of when, if ever, they will be freed.

The vast majority of the prisoners at Guantanamo are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- like Mourad Benchellali, who was arrested in Pakistan shortly after 9/11, and spent the next two and a half years at Guantanamo.

I WAS released from the United States military's prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in July 2004. As I was about to board a plane that would take me home to France, the last detainee I saw was a young Yemeni. He was overwhelmed by emotion.

"In your country, Mourad, there are rights, human rights, and they mean something," he said. "In mine they mean nothing, and no one cares. So when you're free, don't forget what you've been through. Tell people that we are here."

I now know that this Yemeni was not among the three prisoners who committed suicide at Guantánamo last weekend, but since then his words have been echoing in my head. Although I'm now a free man, the shared pain endlessly takes me back to the camp.

In the early summer of 2001, when I was 19, I made the mistake of listening to my older brother and going to Afghanistan on what I thought was a dream vacation. His friends, he said, were going to look after me. They did -- channeling me to what turned out to be a Qaeda training camp. For two months, I was there, trapped in the middle of the desert by fear and my own stupidity.

As soon as my time was up, I headed home. I was a few miles from the Pakistani border when I learned with horror about the attacks of 9/11. Days later, the border was sealed off, and the only way through to Pakistan and a plane to Europe was across the mountains of the Hindu Kush. I was with a group of people who were all going the same way. No one was armed; most of them, like me, had been lured to Afghanistan by a misguided and mistimed sense of adventure, and were simply trying to make their way home.

I was seized by the Pakistani Army while having tea at a mosque shortly after I managed to cross the border. A few days later I was delivered to the United States Army: although I didn't know it at the time, I was now labeled an "enemy combatant." It did not matter that I was no one's enemy and had never been on a battlefield, let alone fought or aimed a weapon at anyone.

After two weeks in the American military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I was sent to Guantanamo, where I spent two and a half years. I cannot describe in just a few lines the suffering and the torture; but the worst aspect of being at the camp was the despair, the feeling that whatever you say, it will never make a difference.

David Ignatius has an excellent column today in which he writes that, in a metaphorical sense, Guantanamo keeps all Americans imprisoned. It's the prison we build for ourselves when we redraw the lines of humanity to exclude an entire segment of people:

When I hear U.S. officials describe the suicides of three Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay last Saturday as "asymmetric warfare" and "a good PR move," I know it's time to close that camp -- not just because of what it's doing to the prisoners but because of how it is dehumanizing the American captors.

The American officials spoke of the dead prisoners as if they inhabited a different moral universe. That's what war does: People stop seeing their enemies as human beings and consign them to a different category. It was discomfiting to see this indifference stated so bluntly, and subsequent U.S. statements tactfully disavowed the initial ones.

We might call it the Guantanamo syndrome -- this process of mutual corrosion and dehumanization. The antidote is to get inside Guantanamo, to see the prisoners as individuals and begin to make distinctions. That's why due process for the detainees is so important -- because it will allow courts to distinguish between prisoners who are vicious killers and deserve the harshest punishment, and those who may be innocent of any terrorist crimes. We need to stop seeing everyone in the same orange suits.

Ignatius quotes Moazzam Begg, a Pakistani who grew up in Britain and spent two years in Guantanamo:

Begg was seized in Islamabad in January 2002. Though he was never charged with any crime, he was held for three years -- at Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo. In one early interrogation at Bagram, he says, an FBI agent told him: "After 9/11, Moazzam, the rules changed. We have new laws, and according to them, you're already convicted." What's chilling about that line is that it was essentially true.

"It is considered a sin in Islam to despair," he writes, but after he was transferred to a solitary cell at Guantanamo in 2003, Begg began to crack. The guards seemed obsessed with preventing suicide. Begg received an odd plastic blanket, for example, and later learned that it was a "suicide blanket" that couldn't be torn up to make a noose. When guards found paint chipped in his cell, they worried that he was trying to poison himself.

A prison psychiatrist explained to Begg that there had indeed been suicide attempts: "She told me there were people who'd lost all sense of time, reason, reality; people who had been kept in a solitary cell, completely blocked off with no window, eight foot by six, like mine, but with absolutely nobody to speak to, nobody. She said some of them just ended up talking to themselves." A despairing Begg writes at one point to his father back in England: "I still don't know what crime I am supposed to have committed. . . . I am in a state of desperation and I am beginning to lose the fight against depression and hopelessness."

What gives me hope -- not just for Begg but for all of us -- is that he never lost his humanity at Guantanamo. He talked constantly with his American guards, asking where they were from, what they wanted out of life. When guards made racist remarks, he shamed them by answering back in perfect English. He describes a guard named Jennifer from Selma, Ala., who painted her fingernails black and dressed like a Goth on weekends, and who once confided: "I don't know if they've ever accused you of anything. But I know y'all can't be guilty." Begg says of her: "She left me with a lasting impression. All Americans were not the same."

When we think about Guantanamo, we need to follow that same rule. The prisoners aren't all the same, except in one sense: They are human beings and, as such, they have basic human rights. That recognition is our own escape from Guantanamo.

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