Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the last four years, no place has symbolized the brutality and moral ambiguity of the war on terror more than the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Camp X-Ray, to which inmates were sent to in 2002, and its successor Camp Delta have become a symbol of despair and evidence of President George W. Bush’s disregard for international law.
Last week, Asharq al Awsat visited the secret interrogation rooms in Camp X-Ray, located on a steep hill that descends into the Caribbean sea . Inmates were detained here for 4 months in 2002, before being transferred to Camp Delta. Asharq al Awsat also visited the interrogation rooms in the air-conditioned Camp V , where al Qaeda prisoners are held.
Despite persistent denials by guards and officials in Camp Delta that no method of torture is used and that no psychological pressure is applied on inmates, the sight of the interrogation chambers and the way detainees are dragged to their cells are enough to confirm the horrific tales of abuse and mistreatment.
Every chamber in the interrogation rooms in Camp X Ray is divided into two small rooms, separated by a lobby where guards and translators are seated, after inmates are handed over to the investigators and CIA agents. Staff Sergeant Vincent Oliver, the camp’s media liaison, who accompanied Asharq al Awsat on a tour of the detention facility, said that transporting prisoners on a wooden cart, pushed by guards from their cells to the interrogation chambers was easier than having them walk under surveillance.
Nowadays, prisoners are transported from their cells in Camp Delta to the nearby hospital or to the interrogation rooms in an electrical cart, similar to the one sued on golf courses worldwide, their hands and legs tied with iron chains, under surveillance of two guards.
The length of interrogation sessions, according to Oliver, depends on whether inmates cooperated. They might last an hour or continue for several hours. Oliver denied inmates were beaten or tortured to extricate confessions but emphasized that inmates have been a source of valuable and information on the war against terror. Officials, including Major General Edward Lee Cook, deputy leader of the Joint Task Force in Guantanamo Bay, told Asharq al Awsat that information obtained from detainees has contributed to thwarting terrorist attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Italy and helped uncover plans to train extremists in Europe.
According to the Camp authorities, the treatment of inmates represented a difficult challenge, as the latter are not soldiers and are not bound by the rules of war. They do not represent any government or country and al Qaeda is not a signatory to any international convention. Explaining the need for constant security and high security measures, Captain Dan Bayer told Asharq al Awsat, “Mistakes are costly and can mean the difference between life and death”.
Asharq al Awsat saw guards in Camp V , inaugurated in May 2004, wearing protective vests under their military attire, despite the tropical climate and the searing heat, for fear of being stabbed by sharp instruments. One guard revealed that all military personal wore a protective scarf around the necks when before entering cells or when accompanying prisoners to interrogation chambers or to their hearing at the combatant status review tribunal.
“Terrorist trainers, bomb makers, aides, financiers, Osama bin Laden’s personal guards and terrorists ready to carry out suicide missions are detained,” is how commanders described the inmate population of Camp Delta. Inside the interrogation chamber, located to the right of the main ward, with cells on both sides, lie a small freezer containing soft drinks, a toilet, plastic cups and two fridges, one for tea and the other for coffee, four leather chairs, three of them luxurious. The fourth one is where inmates are seated. Underneath it is an iron chain fixed to the ground, with which inmates are shackled. Two surveillance cameras fed live pictures to the control room in Camp V.
Outside the interrogation chamber, guards stood on high alert while others walked along back and forth along the ward, constantly patrolling the cells, locked for 22 hours a day.
According to camp officials, inmates are able to halt their interrogation at any time, in order to pray, eat, or drink. They can even return to their cell if they do not wish to cooperate with the investigators.
The camp’s administration vehemently refused to set up a meeting between Asharq al Awsat and any of the interrogators or translators. A senior official, who requested anonymity, said, “Until now, no media organization has ever met with any of the interrogators or CIA officials, since Guantanamo Bay began receiving al Qaeda prisoners in 2002.”
Asharq al Awsat visited the combatant status review tribunal located inside Camp Delta. Visitors are not allowed to enter unless they have an “area clearance” pass issued by the authorities in Guantanamo Bay and are occupied by a senior officer.
At the gates, every incoming vehicle in thoroughly searched for explosives.
Asharq al Awsat met the Tom Quinn a captain in the US Navy and head of the administrative review board that conducts an annual evaluation of inmates held in Guantanamo Bay and whether they still constitute a threat. Inmates can be held captive without charge and trial.
Amongst 450 detainees currently held in Cuba, ten have been officially charged. They are: Yemeni citizens Ali Hamza, Ahmad al Bahloul, Salim Hmada, bin Laden’s driver, the Australian Taliban supporter David Hicks, Ibrahim al Qawssi from Sudan, the son of the al Qaeda financier, the Canadian Omar Khodr, the Ethiopian Benyamin Mohammed, Sufyan Bahumi, also known as Abu Obeida al Jazairy, an Algeria,Jibran al Qahatani and Abdul Zaher Abdul Bari, a translator for the Taliban who later worked for Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, one of bin Laden’s most prominent field commanders. They are accused of conspiring to commit war crimes and conspiring to attack civilians and commit terrorist acts and other crimes by the US authorities.
According to Captain Tom Quinn, the combatant status review military tribunal examines the case of each inmate and is formed of a three-military officer committee tasked with determining whether an inmate is an “enemy combatants.” Detainees were not permitted to be represented by lawyers and secret evidence can be used against them.
In 2006, the tribunal considered the case of 36 detainees and decided to continue detaining 19 prisoners and send 17 to their countries of origin. According to Captain Tom Quinn, inmates that remain in Guantanamo Bay represent a threat to the United States or are a valuable source of information. The number of detainees refusing t to attend their hearing was increasing, he added, from 52% last year to 85% in 2006.
Inmates who are judged not to constitute a threat, or in cases when there is not enough evidence against them and no new intelligence information can be obtained from them are returned to their countries of origin. Others will be handed over to the authorities, in order to determine whether they will be prosecuted. So far, 140 inmates have left the military base in Cuba.
According to Tom Quinn, during the hearing, inmates sit on a specially made chair of fortified plastic, to ensure they do not use it as a weapon. On the floor, facing the chair are locks used to shackle inmates. So far, 240 inmates have refused to appear in front of the tribunal. One inmate, Quinn added, told the three military judges present was, “Al Qaeda and I are two faces of the same coin… So what are you going to do?”