London Asharq Al-Awsat- As part of its war on terror, the United States currently detains some 500 “enemy combatants” at Camp Delta, in Guantanamo Bay, without charge or trial amid accusations widespread torture and ill-treatment.
Asharq al Awsat visited Clive Stafford Smith, the British born lawyer representing more than 40 detainees at his office in Central London to discuss the state of prisoners in the camp, some of whom have been held for over three years, and whether their release was likely in the near future.
So far, nine of his clients have been charged with war crimes and will be tried in a US military tribunal. One of them, Omar Khodr, a Canadian national of Egyptian origin, was caught in Afghanistan aged 15. Now 18, he has lost his sight and suffered injury to his chest during his detention. He is accused of hurling a hand grenade at an American solider in the military corps after the house in which he lived in Khost, a town on the border with Pakistan, was bombed in July 2002.
Stafford Smith indicated terrible human rights abuses were taking place in Camp Delta and accused the current US administration of keeping the detention facility open to trick public opinion into believing it was on the right track to win the so-called war on terror.
Guantanamo Bay is one of the most isolated and secretive places on earth. Only a handful of lawyers and journalists have been allowed to visit and expose the abuse of prisoners from eighteen different nationalities, mostly Arabs caught in Afghanistan, some even sold for a mere $5000 dollars.
On Friday, the United Nations rejected a US invitation to visit the prison camp, blaming restrictions imposed by Washington, which would not allow UN human rights experts to speak to detainees in private.
In his eight visits to Guantanamo Bay, Stafford Smith said he met with his clients in private for 3 hours a day, including Sami Muhieddin al Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman working for Al Jazeera in Afghanistan during the US invasion. He also met the Saudi Shakir Abdul Rahim, married to a British national, the Palestinian Jamil al Banna, the Iraqi Bisher al Rawi, the Libyan, Omar al Deghayes and others from Mauritania, China, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait and Sudan. However, he admitted that the US prison authorities were probably spying on his sessions with his clients.
The British-born lawyer revealed the presence of a secret detention facility to punish troublesome prisoners unknown to the media, which has mentioned Camp 4, a medium security facility and Camp 5, known for its harsh security procedures and solitary confinement.
Asked by Asharq al Awsat to describe the prison, Stafford Smith said, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
International law was no longer sufficient to put an end to the tragedy, he added, which was why he was counting on the media to enforce pressure on the US administration to close the detention facility.
“We live in a new world where we lack a sense of history. When the United States caught the spies of the Cold War at the height of the conflict between the Eastern camp and the Western camp, it did not incarcerate them in Guantanamo but detained them in normal jails,” he said.
Accusing the current administration of violating human rights agreements, he expressed his apologies on behalf of the people of the US for their government’s practices.
While US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had designated the prisoners as enemy combatants caught in battle, Stafford Smith said two of his clients were arrested while on a business trip to the Gambia in 2002 to establish a factory to produce Soya oil.
Jamil al Banna and the Iraqi Bisher al Rawi were detained at Banjul airport, because of their links to Abu Qatada, or Omar Mahmoud Othman, the extremist Palestinian figure currently in jail for endangering national security as the alleged spiritual leader of al Qaeda in Europe.
The British Foreign Office declined to represent al Rawi because he not a British national, despite having lived in the country for many years. His family fear for their son who sought asylum in Britain in 1985 and who might be forced to return to Iraq when freed.
Other British residents are currently held in Camp Delta. They include Bisher al Rawi, the Ugandan Jamal Abdullah, who came to the United Kingdom with his mother, the Saudi Shakir Abdul Rahim, who arrived in 1996 and married a British woman with whom he has 4 kids.
Confirming reports published by the Washington Post on secret US detention facilities in Eastern Europe where al Qaeda members are jailed, Stafford- Smith indicated that he believed one such center exists in Poland. He suspected al Qaeda officials, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Abu Zubaidah, Abu Faraj al Libbi and Ramzi ibn al Shibah, were held there.
Refusing to be pessimistic, Stafford- Smith promised all his clients would be released if the necessary pressure were exerted. He recalled how one British prisoner in Guantanamo Bay was freed after political and media pressure, pointing out that all twenty European prisoners have been freed.
Shakir Abdul Rahim, a Saudi prisoner represented by Stafford- Smith, had lost half his weight and is now a mere 130 pounds, because of his ongoing hunger strike in protest against ill-treatment by prison guards in Camp Delta. His stance had earned him the nickname “leader of the strikers,” the lawyer indicated.
The British-born lawyer frowned when the discussion turned to the alleged human rights abuses against his clients, such as the Libyan Omar al Degahyes, who has lost sight in his right eye and was visited by officers from the Libyan intelligence services on 8th September 2004 who threatened he would be flown back to Libya.
According to Stafford Smith, al Deghayes fears the Libyan authorities more than the US prison guards as he had sought asylum in Britain with his family in 1986 after the Gaddafi regime murdered his father.
Refusing to refer to any of his clients as terrorists, Stafford Smith said, “If these are terrorists then my grandmother is a terrorist too!”
“I spent twenty years defending inmates on death row in the United States and I can assure you that the ill-treatment I saw in Guantanamo is much worse,” he added.
Disputing Rumsfeld’s remarks that Camp Delta was established to stop terrorism, the British-born lawyer pointed out, “The danger today on the United States and Europe is greater than before. The depth of hatred because of Guantanamo is bigger and more dangerous. We claim to fight terrorism worldwide to establish peace but the first thing we do is detain people and bring them to Guantanamo and take away their freedom.”
Commenting on the treatment he has received at the hands of US prison guards at Camp Delta, the lawyer said, “These soldiers have been brainwashed which is why they consider me an enemy. I thank the US authorities for allowing me to meet the prisoners on eight separate visits.”
His Ethiopian client, 28-year old Binyam Mohammad was transferred to Morocco for 28 months where he was severely tortured and forced to confess to having dinner, on 3 April 2002, with Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, Al Qaeda”s number three and Ramzi ibn al Shaibah, thought to be behind the September 11 attacks.
The same story of abuse and mistreatment is repeated with Sami Muhyi al Din al Hajj, a Sudanese national who was arrested in 2001 while working for Al Jazeera in Afghanistan and detained in Guantanamo. According to Stafford Smith, his client has yet to be charged by the US authorities. “He has been tortured so much that I would describe his treatment as sadism.”
Al Hajj had first alerted the British born lawyer to instances where the Quran had been desecrated by prison guards. He testified to Stafford Smith, “I was a witness when they threw the holy Quran. Hamza from Tunisia was also present.”
“In protest against this sullying, Sami went on hunger strike. A soldier dragged him shaved his hair off and then threw him to the floor. He was hurt in his right cheek,” Stafford Smith recounted.
“As punishment for his refusal to cooperate with the American guards, he was moved to the maximum security Camp 5 where he was held in solitary confinement for eight months,” he added. Al Hajj continues to be regarded as a Category A prisoner.