Guantanamo Prison

In August 2004, a special panel set up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to investigate American abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq reported that “Interrogation techniques intended only for Guantánamo came to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq.” By this time, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib had helped to force the first U.S. concession of any rights at all for the hundreds of “unlawful combatants” confined in zoo-like cages at the U.S. naval base on Cuba’s strategic Guantánamo Bay. The profound historical connections between Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib are filled with revealing ironies.

Ever since New Year’s Day of 1959 when the Cuban Revolution took power, Washington has promoted “freedom and democracy” for Cuba. Yet, in the one section of Cuba occupied by U.S. military forces, Washington has instead created a prison that has become notorious around the world.

In 1902, when Cuba was still under military occupation by U.S. troops who had invaded ostensibly to bring freedom, the nation was forced to incorporate Washington’s Platt Amendment into its constitution. The Platt Amendment gave the United States the right to lease a 45-square-mile area at Guantánamo Bay. The lease specifies that the area is “for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.”

Use of the base as a prison began in November 1991. After the first overthrow of the elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, this time under the first Bush Administration, Washington announced it would build a “tent shelter” at Guantánamo for thousands of Haitians fleeing the military dictatorship. The “shelter” was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by U.S. troops.

When forced repatriation began in February 1992, the argument used by the George H.W. Bush administration presaged the 2004 argument before the Supreme Court by the George W. Bush administration: the detainees were not entitled to any U.S. rights because they were being held on territory under the sovereignty of Cuba.

In June 1993, when only HIV refugees along with their relatives remained, a federal judge ordered the camp closed, calling it “nothing more than an HIV prison camp,” where, “surrounded by razor barbed wire” and “subjected to pre-dawn military sweeps,” people lived under continual threat of abuse by “400 soldiers in full riot gear.” However, thousands of Haitians were again detained at Guantánamo in 1994, leading to uprisings.

At the same time, Washington built a huge tent city surrounded by barbed wire to detain Cubans who were attempting to reach the United States. Miserable conditions led some Cuban detainees to attempt suicide. Their numerous uprisings were met by U.S. troops in riot gear with fixed bayonets. Some Cubans managed to escape back to unoccupied Cuba by scaling the barbed wire, climbing down a 40-foot cliff and swimming about a mile to Cuban territory. Children suffered from bronchial viruses, pneumonia, diarrhea, and fear.

On January 18, 1995, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that detainees at Guantánamo could be forcibly repatriated because constitutional rights “bind the government only when the refugees are at or within the borders of the United States.”

The way was paved for creation of Camp X-Ray, a prison for captives in President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” The first captives arrived from Kandahar, 8,000 miles away, on January 11, 2002, to be incarcerated in wire cages. The Defense Department labeled them “unlawful combatants,” not “prisoners of war,” in order to disregard rights guaranteed to POWs by the Geneva Conventions. On January 16, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stated that the captives are prisoners of war entitled to rights protected by the Geneva Conventions.

On January 20, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asked Washington to explain the photograph that went around the world showing captives kneeling on the ground in leg shackles and handcuffs with eyes, ears, and mouths covered and wearing mittens in the tropical heat. “The Mail” captioned one photo “Tortured.” Among more than 600 prisoners from 43 countries, 27 tried to kill themselves by June 2003. The International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations argued for POW status.

More than two years later, when the Defense Department delivered five British citizens from Guantánamo to British custody, British prosecutors released all of them without charges the following day. The men described being repeatedly beaten and subjected to solitary confinement in the sensory deprivation isolation wing. Guards staged races of detainees in short leg shackles, violently punishing them if they fell. Under pressure one of the three confessed to being the man in a videotape with Osama Bin Laden, but British intelligence later proved he was in England at the time.

A Swede released in July 2004 said, ?They put me in the interrogation room and used it as a refrigerator? where he sat in chains for 12 to 14 hours, partially losing the feeling in one foot. Deprived of sleep, he was assailed with flashes of light in a dark room, loud music and noise.

The CIA?s ?Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual?1983? justifies ?coercive techniques? when subjects resist noncoercive techniques. It points out that pain inflicted ?from outside himself? may be less effective than ?pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself.? If ?required to maintain rigid positions? for a long period, the source of pain becomes not the interrogator but the prisoner himself. ?After a period of time the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength.?

In December 2002 Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, overseer of captives at Guantánamo, requested that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approve a number of “nondoctrinal” interrogation tactics, some of which he had already used on ?unlawful combatants? at Guantánamo. These included hooding, physical contact like poking or grabbing, and 20-hour interrogations. Rumsfeld approved a list of 17, withdrew the list in January and approved a revised list of 24 in April 2003 for use only at Guantánamo.

Then, in August 2003, Gen. Miller led “intelligence specialists” to Iraq where some officers who met with him believe tortures at Abu Ghraib were “partly rooted” in Miller’s “determination to apply his Guantánamo experience in Iraq.” In October, at the urging of Gen. Miller, the Defense Department sent intelligence teams from Guantánamo to train teams at Abu Ghraib for 90 days, the period when the worst prison abuses occurred.

More than two years after Washington established Guantánamo as a site where the United States could hold prisoners of the “War on Terror” indefinitely without allowing them any rights, the public was shocked to discover what such captivity could mean. On April 28, 2004, CBS television aired the first of those graphic photographs of U.S. guards torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This set off a string of further exposures, including CIA secret detentions at prisons known and unknown around the globe.

Which in turn led to that August 2004 report to Rumsfeld by his own committee that “Interrogation techniques intended only for Guantánamo came to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

What does the future hold for Cuban land occupied by Washington? One official speculated that a new prison being built at Guantánamo could hold the CIA’s secret detainees, the disappeared, indefinitely.

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