The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison
by Andy Worthington
Reviewed by Mike Phipps
[orignally from Labour Briefing]
Who are Guantánamo’s detainees? They are generally not al-Qaeda members or other terrorists but aid workers, economic migrants or politically naïve Taliban foot soldiers –- mostly sold to the US by their allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some were known to be innocent of any involvement with the Taliban or al-Qaeda but were probably arrested to persuade them to turn informer.
The stories of some of those captured in Afghanistan are harrowing –- people buried alive or suffocated by the score in giant metal containers, or barricaded in buildings and set on fire. Those detained in that country faced horrific brutality from their captors –- including US soldiers. One [Northern] Alliance general said he saw US soldiers stabbing prisoners in the legs and cutting their tongues. Many were beaten to death, sometimes just for pleasure.
In Pakistan too, detainees complained of “beatings and harsh torture” in the presence of US military personnel. When transporting prisoners, US soldiers blindfolded them and bound them hand and foot, regularly throwing them from the planes on arrival: many were badly hurt. In detention, sleep deprivation was commonplace and whole groups of prisoners were collectively punished for any individual non-compliance. Detainees report routine humiliation, including being urinated on: and that the Red Cross did nothing. Some were blinded with glass or made to walk barefoot on barbed wire.
The US Administration had decided the Geneva Convention did not apply to detainees in its “war on terror”. Its interrogations were accompanied by violent beatings and death threats. CIA operatives allegedly stubbed cigarettes out on prisoners’ bodies, administered electric shocks to the genitals and carried out mock executions. At Bagram, detainees were suspended by their wrists for days on end, subjected to forced nudity, had petrol injected in their anuses and were threatened with rape by dogs. Two men were killed there, beaten to death.
When Guantánamo opened, prisoners were dragged in on their knees, wearing orange jumpsuits, blacked out goggles, surgical masks and headphones. They were housed in two metre square, floodlit cages, open to the elements, branded by the Administration as “among the best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth”. They were asked the same questions repeatedly, told they would never see their families again and subject to vicious beatings –- for praying, for shouting, for anything. One man had his leg broken in interrogation, another his back –- he is now using a wheelchair. Another was permanently blinded in one eye. Many have kidney problems, due to being forced to lie without blankets in freezing cold air conditioning. Men were denied toilet facilities, forced to soil themselves, then used as human mops to clean up cells and left in the same clothes for days. One man suffered a stroke after a soldier jumped on his head –- he received no medical attention for ten days.
Sexual humiliation was used on the most religious detainees. Some were wrapped in the Israeli flag, others were given a “mock baptism”. Some were medicated against their will, causing bodily collapse and mental distress. Others were denied vital medication by their interrogators. These abuses all met with warm approval from the Pentagon.
Worse was reserved for those rendered by the US to third countries, where they were brutally tortured by local interrogators and the CIA. Mutilation, electric shocks and permanent sleep deprivation were routine. Some prisoners went insane; others died.
Alongside the brutality there is the US ineptitude. Afghan men were detained for wearing olive green jackets, supposedly the Taliban uniform, but in fact widely on sale in the shops. Others were arrested for firing warning shots in the night at what they thought were burglars, who turned out to be US raiding parties. Such “aggression” was dealt with extremely harshly –- not even juveniles escaped the cruelty.
Legal challenges to the detentions in Guantánamo led to a gradual release of some prisoners, not because they were obviously innocent, but as a result of deals with their home countries. Conversely, British residents who lack UK citizenship continue to languish there because the Foreign Office has only just raised their cases with the US, after years of washing their hands of them.
Three detainees have been driven to suicide, described by the US Administration as “a good PR move”. One was just 17 at the time of his capture. There have been many more attempted suicides and hunger strikes. The 2005 hunger strike was dealt with extremely viciously: feeding tubes the thickness of a finger were shoved up detainees’ noses without anaesthetic, resulting in prisoners “vomiting up substantial amounts of blood”, according to declassified documents. As doctors watched, soldiers used the same bloody tubes, uncleaned, on different prisoners, who remained heavily shackled throughout the ordeal.
This book is one of the grimmest I have ever read. Its subtitle, The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, underlines just what a thorough job Andy Worthington has done in piecing together this shocking tale of depravity.