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Camp X Ray And The Problem Of Torture


On 4 February 2002, the New York Times ran an article on the humanity with which the “detainees” are being treated at Camp X-Ray at the US base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. One detainee had a long-standing injury to his eyes from a cricket ball, and the surgeon at the camp was going to take care of it. The article recounted many such tales of giving, so as to tell us that all the criticism of the Camp is but ideological flab.

Beside the article, however, the editors had the good grace to run a photograph of an injured detainee being carried on a stretcher to, as the caption put it, his “interrogation.” In other words, between the eye surgery and the trust between captor and prisoner, the overworked US intelligence services have time to have a chat with these men caught in the “axis of evil.”

Interrogation, of course, is permissible by the rules of the Geneva Convention. The detaining power can interrogate prisoners and ask them all manner of questions, but the prisoners of war (PoWs) are only obliged to offer their name, rank, serial number and date of birth, but nothing else. Such information is insufficient for the war against the planet declared by George W. Bush during his 11 September 2001 televised address and recently restated and elaborated in his 2002 State of the Union Address. Currently US intelligence forces and political officers are putting pressure on the governments of the world to crack down on al-Qa’ida cells, but also to crush, in the process, any anti-US dissent that comes with a Muslim face.

Early in the Camp X-Ray discussions, the US Department of Defense noted that these prisoners would be interrogated for information about both the Taliban-al-Qa’ida links, but also about al-Qa’ida networks around the world. Former US ambassador to Indonesia and now wolfish Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz warned, “Going after al-Qa’ida in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after al-Qa’ida has been uprooted from Afghanistan,” and indeed by late January 2002, 650 US “advisors” made their way to the Basilan Islands of the Philippines to take on the Abu Sayyaf group so that, in the words of US Pacific forces commander Admiral Dennis C. Blair, “Asia is not the last bastion of al-Qa’ida” and to “make it inhospitable for terrorists to come here.” The forward strategy of the US requires intelligence from those human beings who had been part of the al-Qa’ida network and can perhaps provide names and networks to the CIA.

This intelligence will not come from CIA contacts and networks around the world, or so we are told by Seymour Hersh, but from the detainees at Camp X-Ray. But how do you break these people whose ideological armor is stronger than the inducements of consumerism, or even of liberty? What tangible rewards can the military intelligence offer them but immunity from prosecution or else less jail time? Would these provide the sort of currency that makes a hardened Talibanist or al-Qa’ida convert speak out against the Jihad? Probably not. So how does the US government plan to get its information? If the government sent these detainees to Israel or to Jordan, then the ruthless torture of the bodies of the men may pay some dividends. Both the intelligence services of Israel (Shin Bet) and Jordan (Muhabarat) are notorious for their strong-arm tactics as well as for their use of innocent family as bargaining chips for those held in violent detention. Besides the US signed the 1994 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punish ment, whose second article notes, “no exceptional circumstance whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” This means that the terrible events of 11 September 2001 do not suffice as a reason for the US to use extraordinary techniques to extract information on future attacks on its soil.

The interrogations in Afghanistan proved difficult, and the most hardened and senior people in the Taliban and al-Qa’ida are now in Cuba where they will be asked to “cooperate” with US intelligence. What better strategy to “soften-up” the prisoners than to expose them to the elements and to give them as little intellectual stimulation as possible. Short of the Shin Bet-Muhabarat techniques, the brutal conditions at Camp X-Ray may assist the US intelligence officers to extract information on al-Qa’ida networks in Indonesia, the Philippines and the rest of the oil lands, this to assist ongoing US operations in the area.

Within days of the arrivals of the 158 prisoners to Cuba, several of the US’s main allies began to offer criticisms of the detainee policy. The prisoners arrived at the eastern end of this controversial US base in shackles and with hoods over their faces. The US military transferred them into wire cages where they live exposed to the elements, with no protection against the snakes and rats that run rife over the undomesticated regions of Cuba. Winds, heat and rain will batter the exposed prisoners as they sit, with one Koran among them, to pray, to eat and to suffer the indignity of their capture. These are not conditions in which the US troops live, a marker of their conditions as PoWs as reported by the 1949 Geneva Convention to which the US is a signatory. For this reason, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other international human rights groups, immediately challenged the US legal position. The governments of France and the United Kingdom also weighed in with their concerns: France over the treatment of all the “suspects,” and the UK over the treatment of five Englishmen held at the camp.

The Cuban government, up to the challenge of this most recent provocation at Guantánamo, denounced the use of the base as a holding pen for the status-less person as well as the conditions of the camps themselves. The US could very well have taken these prisoners onto the mainland and settled them at any number of the penitentiaries set-up during the prison boom of the last two decades, so it is significant that they the government chose Cuba as the site for Camp X-Ray.

In late January, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef (even the Saudis!) weighed in with a comprehensive criticism against the treatment of the hundred Saudis at the camp (the largest detachment). “I know about them,” he said, “but we don’t know the charges against them except that they were arrested in Afghanistan. The issue of prisoners if important to us and we ask that they be handed over to us so we can interrogate them, since they fall under the kingdom’s regulations.” In response, the Pentagon’s spokesperson Victoria Clarke noted that the US military would return those prisoners to “those countries that we feel will handle them appropriately. We have no desire to hold onto large numbers of detainees of any kind for any great length of time. But we want to make sure these people are not back out on the streets.” The aim of the camp, by this declaration, is not to hold the prisoners until trial, but to retain them in a situation of life imprisonment forthwith. The US calls them “unlawful combatants” (invoking a spurious term it first used with German saboteurs in 1942), while much of the international community (even Salman Rushdie, the latest cheerleader for US imperialism!) calls them “prisoners.” PoWs, yes, but importantly, those who are under conditions akin to torture for information about the war that continues, breathlessly.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is War Against the Planet: The Fifth Afghan War, US Imperialism and Other Assorted Fundamentalisms (New Delhi: Leftword Books, 2002, [email protected]).

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