Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Asharq Al-Awsat – In Guantanamo, the only freedom the prisoners enjoy is a few meters walk in a prison situated in an area under US control estimated at 117 square kilometers. Behind these prison bars there are roughly 450 Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. The oldest is a 70 year-old Afghan, and the youngest is in his 20’s. Only ten detainees have been officially charged and not one has been tried. Private visits are not allowed. These prisoners are not bound by any laws, and they do not have any judicial guarantees. This is reality here, which most of them face in silence and sometimes in defiance.
After two Saudis and a Yemeni committed suicide in this US prison, the army began an investigation to determine whether they had been assisted and if other suicide attempts were being planned. The incident immediately raised calls for closing the US prison.
Asharq Al Awsat visited Guantanamo for the second time, toured the heavily guarded Camp Delta, and entered the cells of Camp Four and Camp Five. We visited the spotless kitchen and saw how meals were prepared. The newspaper also visited the Legal Revisions Court, which considers the cases of each prisoner separately on an annual basis, given that many detainees might remain in jail in the United States for several years without trial. Asharq Al Awsat was also given a number of various books in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, which the prisoners read during their daily 22-hour confinement.
Asharq Al Awsat visited the camp’s library, which is staffed by officers and soldiers whose task is to deliver or lend books and to search them before putting them back on shelves to avoid secret messages being exchanged by prisoners or written between the lines. Asharq Al Awsat’s camera saw construction workers actively working to build Camp Six, which will accommodate about 200 prisoners and which is more advanced technically for surveillance. It is an air conditioned camp with solitary cells, and facilitates the task of the guards despite speculations that the camp might be closed within a year after the US High Court last month ruled that the military council that was formed to try the Yemeni Salim Ahmad Hamdan, Bin Laden’s chauffeur, contravened the Geneva Conventions and US military laws.
Asharq Al Awsat met with Major General Edward Lee Cook, deputy commander of the US Army’s Joint Task Force at Guantanamo, who defended the detaining of hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Guantanamo without charge or trial. He told Asharq Al Awsat that these detainees deserve to be held here as some were arrested on the battlefield in Afghanistan and others were arrested at the Tora Bora Mountains in east Afghanistan.
General Cook, who was trained in military intelligence, electronic warfare, and staff command, said that his “task was humanitarian because it is related to the preservation of the detainees.” He added, “I am aware that in our society, detaining people without trial is unusual.” However, he noted that the detainees in Guantanamo are not ordinary criminals but are “enemy combatants and terrorists who are detained because they have committed acts of war against our country.”
In response to a question, he says, “We have nothing to hide,” noting that the camp is open to the International Committee of the Red Cross throughout the year. He said that over 1,000 journalists and reporters from all over the world have visited the camp so far, noting that members of the US Congress, US and European politicians, and members of the European Parliament have also visited the prison to learn about the conditions of the prisoners. He said that some politicians described Guantanamo as “a good example of a detention center.” He said, “The prisoners at Guantanamo are treated better than other prisoners in Europe.”
General Cook, who arrived in Guantanamo in late February and who has been awarded a number of medals during his military service, denied that there is any torture of any kind or any violations at Camp Delta. He noted that interrogation of prisoners continues, saying that pieces of information are still being obtained which are used in the war against terror. He said, “We acquired information from prisoners related to recruitment of fundamentalists in terrorist organizations in Europe.” He adds. “We also have acquired information related to the 7 July London bombings as well as information on a terrorist attack that was scheduled to be carried out at the Olympic Games in Turin in Italy last month.
Cook said, “Thanks to this information, we succeeded in foiling terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. He denied that medical means are being used to obtain confessions from the prisoners. He said, “We do not pressure anyone but those who cooperate will enjoy better conditions. He said that those prisoners who cooperate in interrogation rooms are given special meals from newly opened restaurants such as McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken, including hamburgers, chips, ice cream, and cappuccino and espresso coffee from Starbucks.
He said investigations are continuing into the three suicide cases of two Saudis and a Yemeni. He said that coroners were brought in from the United States to carry out tests to determine the cause of death and said that security measures have been reviewed continuously after the suicides.
The guards found the two Saudis and a Yemeni unconscious in their cells at Camp One after hanging themselves using their clothes and bedcovers. He said, “They did not appreciate their lives or the lives of those around them.”
The three were confined to solitary cells at Camp One, which is the most heavily guarded section of the prison. The three were found unable to breathe and medical teams tried to resuscitate them but were soon pronounced dead.
There have been dozens of suicide attempts since the prison was established four years ago but only these three have been successful.
General Cook disclosed that approximately twenty prisoners have rejoined terrorist organizations after they were released from Guantanamo. He said, “The US authorities have the right to protect the lives of their citizens at home and abroad.” He said, “We arrested the prisoners on the battlefield and they arrived here classified as terrorists. He said that the last detainee to arrive at Camp Delta was in 2004. He added that the Afghan prisoner Abdullah Mashud joined the Taliban ranks after he was released from Guantanamo. “We later discovered that he was responsible for the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, and other terrorist operations but he was later killed.”
The general said that leading Al Qaeda and Taliban members from 15 countries are detained in the heavily guarded Camp Five. Asked about claims by released Arabs, Afghans, and others that they were exposed to violations and torture during their confinement in Guantanamo, General Cook said, “We have received evidence that the prisoners memorized Chapter 16 of the training manual for Jihad, which was found in Manchester, UK. The manual was found during a raid on the home of a leading fundamentalist, one of the 22 individuals wanted by the United States. He is believed to be Abu Anas al Libbi.”
According to General Cook, the manual has come to be known by interrogators as the “Manchester Documents.” He said that the Manchester Documents permit an Al Qaeda prisoner to lie during interrogations and to assume more than one alias.
The manual is composed of 18 chapters and was found by the British anti-terror squad in a house belonging to a Libyan fundamentalist accused of bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
Abu Anas al Libbi, the fundamentalist political refugee who was residing in Britain, had fled to Afghanistan before his house was raided in Manchester, central England, in 1998. General Cook said that some of the Al Qaeda prisoners are aware of the technical tools of interrogation. Their methods include lying and the insistence on using an alias or an alternative identity instead of their real names. Chapter 17 of the Manchester Documents repeatedly warns the Al Qaeda fighters against divulging valuable information to interrogators.
General Cook spoke of a special committee that reviews the dossiers of the prisoners each year. The committee has offices inside Camp Delta and takes into consideration all available information on the prisoners, including that which is made available by foreign governments. He disclosed that a limited number of telephone calls were made between a number of prisoners and their families abroad but he declined to answer Asharq Al Awsat’s question on the whereabouts of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s third man; Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, the coordinator of the 9/11 attacks; and Abu Faraj al Libbi, Al Qaeda’s director of operations. They were all detained in Pakistan. Cook said that Camp Six is yet to be completed and that it will be heavily guarded and air conditioned, like Camp Five, however, the conditions of confinement will be better for guards and prisoners alike.
The US prison deputy commander said: “We do not want to be prison guards for the world.” He spoke about contacts with certain states to end the suffering of some prisoners by deporting them to their own countries but some of the prisoners refuse to return to their homelands, such as the five Chinese prisoners, “the Uighur prisoners,” who were later deported to Albania. General Cook said that the prisoners threaten the guards on a regular basis at Camp Delta, adding that they would take revenge against them and their families. According to General Cook, they also threaten the guards and the soldiers with revenge against their families if they go to Iraq, claiming that they have influence and contacts in Iraq.
Asharq Al Awsat saw the guards wearing protective vests and belts, and scarves around their necks. General Cook stated that prisoners who threaten the guards are placed in solitary confinement in a special cell for over 30 days.
Many officers and soldiers in the prison refused to be photographed whilst speaking to Asharq Al Awsat. They would only accept to be photographed from behind or from their chests down. Security officials in Guantanamo on a daily basis reviewed the pictures that Asharq Al Awsat had taken to avoid any pitfalls. Captain Dan Bayer, in charge of the visiting press teams, said mistakes are too costly and it is a matter of life and death.
General Cook said that his country is still at war with Taliban and Al Qaeda and added, “Taliban continues to launch its war against a legitimate government in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda continues to launch war against the Americans and all civilized people on a regular basis and this causes concern. Nobody can claim that the struggle is over.”
The United States currently detains over 450 prisoners at the isolated Guantanamo naval base, which does not fall under the authority of US courts.