The first images to come out of Guantanamo nearly 15 years ago caused a global outrage. These pictures showed detainees hooded, shackled, blindfolded, wearing ear defenders and gloves, depriving them of all their senses. Drawing on symbolisms of transatlantic slavery, the kneeling men in orange jump suits were stripped of all that made them human, and they were identified by only a number.
Guantanamo represented the harsh realities of the War on Terror, better identified as the War of Terror. Through a sustained media campaign, the world was led to believe that the men held there were the ‘worst of the worst’, to be regarded as ‘enemy combatants’, a label that denied them all the rights afforded to prisoners-of-war under the Geneva convention. In one swipe, the US government invented a new language, a new terminology of the ‘War on Terror’, with words like ‘rendition’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’, designed to circumvent and evade international laws that protect human rights.
These men – the vast majority of them we have now learnt were swept up by Afghan and Pakistani warlords and intelligence services in answer to US bounties offered for ‘terrorists’ – were undeserving of any compassion or rights, the US-dominated media told us.
It is in this context that CAGE (then CagePrisoners) was born. Our goal was to to defend these men’s basic rights to a fair trial and freedom. Since then, the narratives which justified the existence of Guantanamo have seeped into our everyday lives and manifested themselves in discriminatory policies like PREVENT, Schedule 7 and successive counter terrorism laws.
The bare fact remains that in the vast majority of cases at Guantanamo Bay, the men have been found innocent and yet they have had to endure undeniable torture.
Afghan Abdul Zahir, 44, was one of ten men released to Oman this week, in one of US President Barack Obama’s last transfers of men from Guantanamo Bay prison to a third country besides their home. All had been held unjustly for 14 years.
Zahir was released after US intelligence admitted he had been confused with someone else who shared his nickname. In an outrageous revelation, “suspicious chemicals” seized at the time of Zahir’s capture as a suspected bomb maker turned out to be salt, sugar and petroleum jelly. Unfortunately this is far from an isolated case.
This farcical turn of events is just one of many in the absurd legal black hole that Guantanamo has come to be known. Through its history Guantanamo has held over 700 men without charge and to date still holds 45 men, including 10 men charged with war crimes, 26 indefinite detainees known as “forever prisoners” and five men who were cleared for release but could not be released as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was not satisfied with the security guarantees of countries that offered to have them. Six of these men face execution.
The “trials” of prisoners held there have occurred in violation of international legal standards, even by the admittance of lawyers, with “evidence” presented that has been garnered from torture, horrific treatment which has included sleep deprivation, waterboarding and rape. One rape case detailed a detainee who had experienced such horrifying treatment that he had to have ‘corrective rectal surgery’ due to the damage caused by what the CIA euphemistically termed – and here’s another one for the ‘War on Terror’ dictionary – “rectal hydration”.
A common tactic of the states driving the ‘War on Terror’ is to delay justice. When justice is delayed, men and women wait in prisons indefinitely, or suffer interminably long trials, itself a torturous exercise. As their cases drag on, it is hoped that activists lose interest and Muslims the world over turn their attention to other causes, or more sensational topics.
Indeed, there are now very few candlelit vigils and marches for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and other prisoners held without charge in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. This silence grows, while outside the confines and solitary nightmare of these prisoners’ cells, the ‘War on Terror’ hype continues to create the distraction and fear needed to preserve their terror.
In the meantime, the assumption of innocent until proven guilty folds away over the years. The dehumanising process – that mixture of media spin and security service disinformation – that characterises the ‘War on Terror’ renders them guilty in the eyes of the public before they face a fair trial. In the absence of balance and courageous sources, journalists rely on security services for their information. Bare fact is lost in the noise created by the military-security-media establishment. People, even Muslims, shake their heads and say things like ‘there’s no smoke without fire’. Slowly but steadily these prisoners are stripped of their humanity both inside and outside their cells.
This process of delayed justice and absence of timeous, fair trials is happening the world over, from Uganda to Malaysia, South Africa and Australia under the guise of the ‘War on Terror’. And, to our shame, the vast majority of the world’s population is not questioning it.
The example is being set in Guantanamo Bay. The US markets itself through Hollywood and its compliant media as the bastion of human rights and “good” in the world. But the reality of the United States’ flagrant disregard for the basic notions of due process or fundamental justice has not been more accurately captured than in the blight that is Guantanamo Bay and those who champion its existence and methods.
These methods target Muslims, but can easily be expanded to target other communities that dare to counter the mainstream. As Guantanamo marks 15 years of shame, it is time the world woke up and understood the implications of its continued existence: Obama’s failure to make good on his promise has not only exposed his weakness, but has enabled his successor access to all the apparatus that will ensure its continued and enhanced operation.
CC image courtesy of V Pickering on Flickr
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)