4,000 Days in Limbo at Guantanamo

Obaidullah, from Afghanistan, has been in U.S. military custody since July 2002 (Photo Credit: Amnesty International).

Obaidullah, from Afghanistan, has been in U.S. military custody since July 2002 (Photo Credit: Private).

By Rob Freer, Amnesty International Researcher on the USA

Imagine this.

You are 19-years-old, asleep in your family home in a remote rural village. In the middle of the night, foreign soldiers burst in.

They put a hood over your head and force you to sit against a wall. You are terrified.

After a few hours, bound hand and foot and still hooded, you are taken to a military base.

There you are physically assaulted, interrogated, threatened with a knife and deprived of sleep and food. You fear you will be killed.

After what you think is about 48 hours – your disorientation makes it difficult to know for sure – you are bundled, still hooded and shackled, into a helicopter and flown to another, larger military facility. There the interrogations and abuse continue.

Three months later, you are taken from your cell, your head is shaved, you are put into shackles and blacked-out goggles, and you and some others are thrown into a transport plane and tied down like cargo.

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President Obama: Put Words Into Action

On May 23rd, 2013, President Obama made his first major speech on national security since 2009 (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

On May 23rd, 2013, President Obama made his first major speech on national security since 2009 (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

As I watched President Obama’s speech yesterday on national security, I thought of all the people who have been detained, tortured or illegally killed by the US government since 9/11 and about all of the individuals and communities that have been discriminated against based on their race, religion or identity.

I thought about how these terrible human rights violations were committed in the name of keeping me safe. It made me angry and ashamed. With that perspective, I was also angry that President Obama has said too little, too late. Did he even mention human rights in the speech?

But at another level, I was glad to see that there has been enough pressure on the President, from the hunger strikers, to impacted communities to the public, such that he felt he had to address these issues.

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Nothing Justifies This

June 26th is the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture and Amnesty International has launched a powerful new online video – “Hooded” – to mark the occasion.

Hooding is a practice that gets to the heart of the relationship between the torturer and his – or her – victim. The hooded victim is dehumanized – hooding deprives the victim of a face, of an identity – and dehumanization is almost always a precursor of abuse.

The anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson famously labeled dehumanization “the fifth horseman of the apocalypse”, an essential precursor to war, rape, pillage and genocide.

Hooding is disorientating. It is designed to restrict the victim’s ability to defend himself – or herself – from harm. It is also calculated to instill fear, a dread of the unknown, of the dark.

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One of Guantanamo's Forgotten Prisoners

Shaker Aamer protest in London

Shaker Aamer was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007. (Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Shaker Aamer, a former UK resident of Saudi descent, has been held without charge at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for nearly 10 years. He was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007 but is still inexplicably incarcerated more than four years later.

Shaker was detained by irregular Afghan forces in Jalalabad in December 2001, shortly after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom. By his own account he had been in Afghanistan working for a Saudi charity and no compelling evidence refuting this contention has been presented.

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Close Gitmo and Help Solve the Debt Crisis

(JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

It is not news to any taxpayer in the country that the United States is facing a debt crisis and that public spending is under scrutiny like never before, yet one decade-long drain on the public exchequer has so far escaped the financial meltdown completely unscathed: The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

The main detention facility at Gitmo cost about $220 million to build and, according to the White House, estimated annual operating expenses come in at around $150 million.

To give you an idea of the kind of value for money this investment represents, the Bureau of Prisons noted last year that it cost $27,251 to incarcerate someone in the federal prison system for a year, as compared to an estimated cost of $650,000 per inmate at Guantanamo.

In additional to the hundreds of millions of dollars lavished on the detention facilities, still more money has been poured into the development of courtrooms for the Military Commissions which, since their establishment in 2006, have only heard six cases.

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Accountability for Torture After 'Mohamed v Jeppesen' Setback

When one door shuts, we have to look for other openings.  That’s what activists are doing in the aftermath of the Sept. 8 federal court decision blocking a lawsuit from people who suffered torture through U.S. extraordinary renditions from proceeding.

Egyptian-born Binyam Mohamed spent just under seven years in custody, four of which at Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed has always insisted that the evidence against him was obtained through torture. The US dropped all charges against him in 2008. SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

The lawsuit was the last hope among three cases aiming to force the U.S. government to be held accountable for its acts in rendering people to black site prisons or third-party countries where the prisoners were tortured.  This last lawsuit was filed by Binyam Mohamed, Egyptian Ahmed Agiza and three other men who claim they were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of US personnel and agents of other countries.

But, even as this last case disappears without a hearing, there is hope.

The day before the ruling was issued, I and a group of individuals looking to pry open the secrecy covering American renditions, met with U.S. Rep. David Price, an Amnesty member with a powerful seat on the House Appropriations Committee.  Price noted that despite our concerns that the Obama Administration hasn’t gone far enough to address human rights concerns in the U.S. war on terror, that opponents have thwarted even the mildest efforts in that vein. “They think they have a political winner,” Rep. Price said. “And I fear I think they are right.”

So what to do when the judges point to Congress and Congress point toward each other to act on something that both acknowledge is a problem but neither will take responsibility for? Amnesty’s statement on the ruling suggests one course of action. Our emphasis is to focus on the justices’ call for non-judicial relief.

In short, it means it is up to us to change the political culture.  I am comfortable with the justice’s efforts to ask the public to take the lead on this.  We shouldn’t rely on the courts to provoke public discussion and acknowledgment of the acts that have been done in our names.

But Rep. Price is also right.  Currently, opposing the closing of black prison sites, opposing closing Guantánamo and opposing any platform for the victims of extraordinary rendition is a political winner.  It’s up to us to change that.  It’s not enough for us to remain quiet.  We have to lead, to talk with our neighbors and in our local communities.

The plane that flew Ahmad Agiza from Sweden to Egypt where he was tortured took off from an airport not 30 miles from my house in North Carolina. The  plane that flew Binyam Mohamed to be tortured came from the same airstrip. We have documented that.  The pilots who flew the plane that carried two men, blindfolded, cuffed and beaten across Europe to Egypt live near me.  The responsibility for the torture that the justices refused to hear truly belongs on all of us. It will stop when we are willing to stand up to make it stop.

Omar Khadr trial: 90 seconds to rule that prosecution can use allegedly coerced statements

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commission trial against detainee Omar Khadr. This is the second post in his series from the field.

Omar Khadr was taken into US custody when he was 15 years old.

Once again, proceedings are underway in the case of United States vs Khadr at Guantánamo Bay. And the first question on the minds of many was answered quickly this morning.  Omar Khadr was indeed present in court as this latest phase of his military commission hearing opened.  He remained throughout the entire day.  He was present but he left his legal representation in the hands of his appointed military defence lawyer.

Before the trial itself begins (which is expected on Wednesday after the commission panel of US military officers, akin to a jury, is chosen and sworn in tomorrow), there were a number of motions filed previously by both the defence lawyers and by government prosecutors that had to be dealt with today.  They involve such matters as questions of evidence, expert witnesses, legal definitions, and courtroom security procedures. Most have been outstanding for many months and have already been the subject of written briefs or days of witness testimony and oral arguments.  Some touch on key human rights concerns that go to the heart of the fairness of this process.

Lawyers took several hours today to make their final submissions on these legal issues.  And then in a remarkably terse series of decisions that took no more than 10 minutes, the military judge, Army Colonel Patrick Parrish, ruled against Omar Khadr on almost every point.

Alex Neve stands in front of the building housing the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Most anticipated was the military judge’s decision as to whether statements made by Omar Khadr during interrogation sessions he underwent at both the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay can be admitted as evidence at the trial.  Prosecutors clearly want them in.  The defence had argued that they should be excluded as they bear the taint of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Omar Khadr has detailed a range of torture and other ill-treatment he says he was subjected to at that time, including painful physical stress positions, threats of rape, sleep deprivation, use of barking dogs, hooding, shining bright lights into his injured eyes, being used as a human mop to clean up his own urine, and more.

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Observing the Trial of Omar Khadr

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.  Neve is currently at Guantánamo to observe the military commissions proceedings against detainee Omar Khadr.  This is his second in a series of posts from the field.

Photo: Alex Neve at Guantánamo Bay

Photo: Alex Neve at Guantánamo Bay

Omar Khadr’s case has been in the military commission pipeline for several years – he was first charged in November 2005 under the system thrown out the following year by the US Supreme Court.  His case has had various false starts under a variety of different versions of the military commission process.

His case has been slated to come up before the latest version of military commissions for months.  Lawyers, journalists, observers, government and military officials have arrived – anticipating that key legal issues were finally going to get an airing.  All this lead time; all this preparation – you would at least expect everything to be in place.

But there is no confidence at all that things are going to get off to a smooth start.  One key piece of the equation that is missing is the set of rules to govern the military commission process under legislation passed in late 2009.  Under the revised Military Commissions Act (MCA), signed by President Obama last October, the Secretary of Defense was supposed to submit to Congress within 90 days the rules for military commissions – that is, the Manual for Military Commissions.  At the moment, the only manual that has been available is a 2007 version under the 2006 MCA.

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