The royal palm fronds, slowly swayed by the northeastern trade winds against the cloudless blue sky, seem to be untiringly dancing to the vibrant rhythms of the syncopated beat of the rumba. The vast turquoise sea, like a mulata drunk on life, is inviting. The sloshing of the waves as they crawl onto the white sandy beach is rather soothing. As you are facing the bay, the Cuzco Hills, timeless rolling beauties, stand guard behind you, protecting you from a recalcitrant Norther. On John Paul Jones hill, you can’t help but notice the four white wind turbines dominating the landscape.
But you are not lounging under the speckled shade of a palm tree sipping on a Mojito; you are not in Veradero, or Cayo Coco. The beach does not swell with locals and tourists seeking the refreshing embrace of its crystal water. There is a lingering uneasiness here. The air is saturated with desperation and beset by injustice. The culture is callous to Islam and Arabs.
Welcome to Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of innocent men, guarded by obdurate and irascible soldiers, lead a precarious existence.
The U.S. government only pays $4,085 to lease this 45 square miles of paradise converted to middle age era style dungeons. The Castro regime has tried unsuccessfully to break the lease since it took power in 1959 and has refused to cash any of the checks.
MEET THE TERRORISTS
It is here where Haji Nasrat Khan, who at 79 is the oldest prisoner at Guantanamo, was brought to die. You could see him hobbling with his walker from the detention wing to the interrogation booth sometimes. He can not hear or see very well. The cool breeze as it sifts through his flowing white beard summons a smile on his furrowed face. Khan became the oldest detainee after the release of a 90 years old Afghani man military guards endearingly called “al-Qaeda Claus.”
Former Guantanamo commander Gen. Jay Hood, as well as other officers and interrogators who were stationed at the naval base, attested that many of the detainees in Guantanamo have no link to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. They were sold to the U.S. forces for a bounty by Pakistani police and security services and Afghani warlords that allied themselves with the U.S. when it attacked Afghanistan in 2001. One such warlord is Rashid Dostum.
DOSTUM’S TRAVEL PACKAGE
Dostum put thousands of heavily armed afghan fighters under his command at the disposal of the U.S. As a warlord, his power is grounded in fear and sheer brutality against his opponents. Being a U.S. ally gave Dotsum added authority in Afghanistan; authority that he promptly abused. During Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), he is believed to have committed war crimes against not just Taliban fighters and their families and villages, but against other Afghanis whose lands and houses he misappropriated. There are accounts of his “soldiers” locking thousands of Afghanis they made prisoners in freight containers and leaving them to die of asphyxiation and dehydration; when some of the detainees, in the troughs of death, cried out for help, Dotsum’s men haphazardly fired their weapons into the containers killing many of them. Later their bodies were ditched into mass graves like unwanted trash.
Some of the Guantanamo detainees were in those containers.
The Bush administration feels no compunction at sidestepping the Geneva Convention, justifying detaining these men on the basis they did not obey the rules of war; they did not wear a uniform; they did not sport an insignia, they did not belong to a regular army; they are terrorists. It is the adherence to the rules of war that discerns the U.S. and it allies from the terrorists. Ironically, all of Dotsum’s “soldiers” did not wear a uniform or insignia. Several U.S. units also operated, and still do, in Afghanistan carrying concealed weapons and wearing civilian clothing that bore no unit patches or rank insignia. When Dotsum arbitrarily executed prisoners and sacked Kabul, the U.S. averted its gaze. The Bush administration’s position is, needless to say, riddled by hypocrisy.
THE UNDUE PROCESS
I am fully aware that some of the Guantanamo detainees are committed terrorists who reveled in the bloodshed and spread it with rapturous fury. But I have always deprecated the fact that innocent people in Guantanamo are detained for reasons other than judicial. The Guantanamo Bay naval base will go down in history as the symbol that obliterated the U.S. claim to uphold the rule of law. The U.S. government did not extend a modicum of due process to the detainees. In the early stages of the detention, the Pentagon directed the Judge Advocate General (JAG) to appoint military lawyers not to defend the detainees, but to obtain confessions from them. This presumption of guilt is an affront to the U.S constitution and international law.
The military commissions established to try the detainees denied them the basic right to adequately defend their cases. When the Department of Defense reluctantly authorized civilian lawyers to represent detainees, it erected onerous regulations for their work so much so that they are unable to provide a fair and sustainable defense of their clients. They are barred from private meetings with their clients; they are required to turn in to the military all their notes and mail; their clients are not allowed to review classified evidence against them – all evidence is classified; the government as represented by military prosecutors, citing national security concerns, reserves the right to withhold information on the detainee – no disclosure; correspondence between lawyers and their clients are screened by a Defense Department Privilege Team, whose mission is to confiscate what is deemed not to be “legal mail.”
When a detainee named Salim Ahmed Hamdan challenged his captivity and petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was designed to thwart arbitrary executive detentions, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Judges ruled in his favor. The Bush administration counteracted by convincing Congress, which was then dominated by the Republicans, to pass the Military Commission Act (MCA.) MCA effectively rescinded the federal ruling and denied the alleged illegal combatants the Great Writ. Congress also passed the Detainee Treatment Act which stripped federal courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions of Guantanamo detainees. This reprehensible collusion of the U.S. Congress to assist the administration in restoring the military tribunals after the Supreme Court revoked them as being unconstitutional is proof that the government’s case against the majority of Guantanamo detainees is baseless. Indeed, against the majority of those it ostentatiously designated illegal enemy combatants and terrorists, the Bush administration did not adduce an iota of evidence. It stripped them of their rights, holds them indefinitely, but fails to bring charges against them. None could be brought against most of them. Even the label of “illegal enemy combatant” was challenged as erroneous by internal reviews. The military tribunal system the U.S. government proposes is so utterly dysfunctional that the American Bar Association refused to participate.
To shed a positive light on the military tribunals, the administration emphasized that evidence obtained through torture will not be authorized, but evidence gleaned through treatment considered “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” will be allowed. It is quite a feat of semantic folderol. For added clarity, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartman, the military commissions’ legal advisor, explained that he will not rule out the use of evidence obtained through waterboarding. Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes, infamously known for having been instrumental in the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay prison and authorizing what are euphemistically called “coercive interrogation techniques” on terrorism suspects, best describes the U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Gitmo detainees. When Mr. Haynes was told by Col. Morris D. Davis, then the chief military prosecutor in Guantanamo, that there might be some acquittals during the trials, his response was: “Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. If we’ve been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We’ve got to have convictions.”
Such is the Bush administration’s judicial and political logic in combating terrorism. Mr. Haynes response provides a glimpse of what I fear will be the future for the Gitmo detainees. Saddam Hussein couldn’t have justified his absolutist vision better.
Ahmed T. B. Copyright © 2008