Guantánamo Files: stories from America’s illegal prison

9:00 am - November 26th 2007

by Andy Worthington    

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(Book launch info at the end)
We are just seven weeks away from a particularly disturbing anniversary. On January 11, 2008, the Bush administration’s notorious “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for six years. For all this time, the prisoners – or “detainees,” as the government insists on describing them – have been held without charge or trial, and with no sign of when, if ever, they will be released from what Lord Steyn, the British law lord, memorably described as a “legal black hole.”

Although 464 of these men have now been released – or, in rather fewer cases, transferred to the custody of their home governments – their stories remain largely unknown, as do those of the majority of the 310 detainees still held at Guantánamo.

In February 2006, when I first began researching the detainees’ stories, it was this combination of factors – the exceptional flight from domestic and international law on the part of US administration, and the fact that almost nothing was known about the men imprisoned in Guantánamo – that first prompted me to action.

In the first weeks of my research I was restricted, like everyone else who had attempted to answer the question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” to news reports and interviews with released detainees, and trawls for information that were often based on little more than gossip and rumour.

Those who had been before me, attempting to extract information from the prison’s fortress-like seclusion, were, primarily, teams at Alasra, a Saudi-based Arabic language website, the Washington Post and the British human rights group Cageprisoners.

All this changed in a two-month period, from March to May, when the Associated Press, which had requested documents relating to the detainees under Freedom of Information legislation, but had been turned down by the Pentagon, took the government to court and won. The released documents contained, for the first time, the names and nationalities of all the detainees, and their ISNs – the Internment Serial Numbers by which they were all identified, having been shorn of their identities as part of the dehumanizing process of detention and interrogation.

Also released were 8,000 pages of transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which had been convened to assess whether, on capture, the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” and the annual Administrative Review Boards, convened to assess whether the detainees were still a threat to the United States and/or still had ongoing “intelligence value.”

The tribunals were instigated in the wake of a momentous Supreme Court decision, in June 2004, that Guantánamo – leased from Cuba since 1903, and chosen as a prison location because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts – was in fact US sovereign territory, and that the detainees had the right to challenge the basis of their detention. These tribunals were, of course, both a lamentable and an illegal response to the Supreme Court ruling.

Although the justices’ decision allowed the detainees, for the first time, to seek legal representation, they were not allowed lawyers in their tribunals, which were also criticized for relying on classified evidence that could have been – and in some cases clearly was – obtained through torture, coercion and bribery, either of other detainees in Guantánamo or of various “high-value” suspects held in a shadowy network of secret prisons run by the CIA.

These transcripts, and those of the subsequent review boards, were, however, the only means whereby the detainees were allowed to tell their own stories, and it was through a detailed analysis of these documents – transcribed and cross-referenced with the names, nationalities and ISNs of the detainees – that I was able to put together, for the first time, a chronology of the circumstances of each detainee’s capture, whether in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, crossing the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, or in 17 other countries where they were seized and subjected to “extraordinary rendition.”

As I gave voices to the previously mute detainees, I also came to understand how it was that so many of the men appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda and 9/11. Although many were Taliban foot soldiers, they were largely recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war with the Northern Alliance, which began long before 9/11, and there were, moreover, many hundreds of completely innocent men – humanitarian aid workers, missionaries, religious students, entrepreneurs, economic migrants and drifters – who were sold to the Americans for bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, or by unscrupulous citizens and villagers.

In the cases of the Afghans, who comprised over a quarter of the prison’s population, Taliban conscripts, forced to join the Taliban on pain of death, jostled with farmers, taxi drivers and pro-American, pro-Karzai soldiers and political leaders. Taking advantage of the gullibility of the US military and its Special Forces, whose intelligence gathering capabilities, in this as in so much of the “War on Terror,” were sorely lacking, most of these men were betrayed by rivals or swept up during raids based on untrustworthy tip-offs.

This is not to say that there were no dangerous prisoners amongst those who ended up in American custody. Several dozen of the detainees, at least, were members of, or actively affiliated with al-Qaeda, and it’s probable that, amongst those claiming to be nothing more than Taliban foot soldiers, there were some who were committed to Osama bin Laden’s global, anti-American jihad.

However, the correct venue for these allegations to be tested was – and still is – in a court of law, not in a dangerously novel prison environment where, in the name of extracting information from uncooperative detainees (with no consideration of whether they were not forthcoming because they had no information to give), torture became a substitute for the skilled gathering of intelligence, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution were shredded with impunity, and the rigged tribunals – the basis of my research – were instigated, based largely on “confessions” by other detainees, in an attempt to disguise the manifest failures of the whole malign experiment.

This is a guest post.
Andy’s book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is published by Pluto Press.
The official launch takes place on Wednesday November 28 at Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. All are welcome and admission is free, but please call Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 to reserve a place.

Andy will be joined for the launch by released British detainee Moazzam Begg and Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel for Reprieve, the London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees. As well as discussing the book, they will be talking about the plight of the six British residents still held in Guantánamo, conditions in the prison today, and attempts by the US and UK governments to bypass international safeguards preventing the return of men to regimes where they face the risk of torture.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. Blogging at
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Story Filed Under: Civil liberties ,Foreign affairs ,United States

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