Guantanamo Bay - jumpsuits and torture

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This month marks a particularly grim anniversary - the reviled prison at Guantanamo Bay has been open for six years.

Although over 60 percent of the nearly 800 detainees have now been released, the predicament facing the remaining 290 is as bleak as ever.

Held without charge, without trial and without any way of knowing when, if ever, they will be released, the detainees are cut off from their families. They are mostly held for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, and are not even granted the meagre pleasures enjoyed by the most hardened convicted criminals on the US mainland. Although the torture prevalent in 2003 and 2004 appears to have subsided, it remains clear that indefinite detention in deliberately isolated circumstances can itself constitute torture.

It is also known that some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for several years, and that dozens of long term hunger strikers continue to be force-fed twice daily in a brutal manner. Held in restraint chairs, using 18 separate straps, they are fed through a thick tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, which is removed after each feeding in a deliberate attempt to "break" their will.

Shockingly, after six years of legal wrangling, the detainees still have no effective means to challenge the basis of their detention. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that Guantanamo - specifically chosen because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts - was "in every practical respect a United States territory", and that the detainees therefore had habeas corpus rights. However, the other two branches of the government - the executive and Congress - have twice conspired to remove these rights, and the results of a third challenge mounted in December will not be apparent until this spring.

In the meantime, what hopes there are for the dismantling of Guantanamo rest on the perceived status of the remaining detainees. The administration has at last conceded that it only intends to pursue war crimes trials against approximately 80 of the detainees, although these figures are not necessarily plausible, as some senior officials have estimated that the truly dangerous detainees number only three dozen at most. There is also no guarantee that the trials will proceed smoothly.

Dreamt up by vice-president Dick Cheney and his advisers in November 2001, the Military Commissions have been condemned for relying on secret evidence and seeking to conceal all mention of torture on the part of US forces, and have yet to produce a single significant result. Riven by internal disputes, and currently focused on two contentious cases - that of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was just 15 years old when captured in Afghanistan, and Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama Bin Laden - their only success has been in the case of the Australian David Hicks, who accepted a plea bargain. After dropping claims that he was tortured by US forces, Hicks returned home in May to serve a nine-month sentence for providing "material support for terrorism".

It's possible that another 140 or so detainees will be released this year, although at present the administration maintains that it can hold these men indefinitely. With a typical disregard for the law, senior officials have suggested that they can do so because the men are too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged.

Closing Guantanamo is also complicated by the fact that 70 men, cleared for release through military reviews, cannot be returned to their home countries - including China and various North African regimes - because of fears that they will be tortured. In an attempt to overcome international safeguards preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, the US government has been busy signing "memoranda of understanding" with some of these regimes. In this they have colluded with the British government, which is seeking to repatriate alleged terror suspects, held without charge or trial under control orders that amount to virtual house arrest.

Rightly regarded as worthless by human right activists, these agreements, which purport to guarantee humane treatment, have been betrayed by the Tunisian government in the cases of two returned detainees, and appeals courts in the US and Britain have recently delivered rulings aimed at overturning these dubious policies.

Six years after it opened, Guantanamo remains as monstrously lawless as ever, and even as it empties it becomes more apparent that behind it - in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in other secret locations - lurks an even larger system of indefinite detention that is even less accountable than this darkly iconic symbol of US hubris.


Andy is the author of The Guantanamo Files published by Pluto Press.
www.andyworthington.co.uk