Visit to a lawless prison
By Yolanda Monge
(Taken from El País)
IN Guantánamo, iguanas have more rights than the detainees in the gulag of our time. Being the protected species that they are, you have to drive at less than 40 kilometers per hour along the roads of the U.S. base in Cuba to avoid running over them. When haste, forgetfulness or the cruelty of certain soldiers fails to respect this speed limit and one of those saurians are crushed, the offender has to pay a $10,000 fine. A detention center that has sequestrated from the world the existence of some 800 people in something over four years has been raised on the shores of the idyllic Caribbean. “Around 430 of that figure are currently here, the rest have been released,” enigmatically concedes General Edward Leacock, second in the chain of command of the nightmare scenario that is Guantánamo.
No photos. No tape recorders. None of the names of those present can be used. You are only allowed into the room with paper and ballpoints. Credentials have to be left outside so that the detainees cannot identify you. The parody of justice that the military represents in Guantánamo is at the point of beginning. The entry door to the room advises and announces: “Trial in Progress.” Within, everything is ready. The judge’s chair, the table for the defense, the table for the prosecution. The area for the press. Additional chairs for the witnesses. The walls are white, there is no ventilation; outside it could be day or night. Outside it is daytime and it is hot; that’s Cuba. Inside, it is cold. The air conditioning makes your teeth chatter and folios fly. The furniture is crude. In each corner a camera records the trial, whose footage is seen by other soldiers or intelligence agents in the adjoining room. Everything is presided over by the flag of the United States.
“All rise!” exclaims a Marines lieutenant in a martial tone. The prisoner rises, corpulent (the daily diet in GITMO, the abbreviation of the long and complicated pronunciation of Guantánamo for Americans, consists of 4,200 calories which, with minimal physical exercise leads to fatness), heavily bearded, an Afghan aged 27 and over whose name the soldiers insist on total discretion and oblige you to sign a document agreeing not to reveal it; the interpreter rises; the U.S. soldier who represents the detainee rises; the only two journalists to have been conceded the pleasure of attending the circus rise. “This court is now in session,” solemnly intones a Marines captain who has just entered and whose function is to act as judge. Apart from the prisoner, journalists and the interpreter, the rest of the actors occupying the room are soldiers playing roles.
Moments before, two very young soldiers – a woman and a man – in army uniform with their hands covered in aseptic green plastic gloves left the room. They had just handed over the prisoner and, before leaving, left him tied to the floor with chains encircling their ankles. Everything is designed down to the minutest detail: the detainee sits in a vulgar white plastic chair – “which does not involve any danger for him or anyone else,” Captain Waddingham says of the chair when instructing the two reporters on what they are about to see – and there is a ring set in the floor to which he is chained so that his movement is zero. His manacled hands are clamped behind his back. His uniform is white, which means that that his degree of misdoing is the lowest within the range bequeathed by the U.S. soldiers in Guantánamo. If a detainee is considered of average danger, his dress is cream colored. Orange covers the bodies of those who, even after years of incarceration, have not lost their will. Good conduct prisoners have a toothbrush, a roll of toilet tissue, soap, shampoo, sheets and underwear. The rebels clean their teeth with their fingers; they are given one sheet of paper to clean themselves and sleep on a hard bed. Those who have tried to take their own lives¼ are forced into a kind of dark-green straitjacket over their naked bodies. But one detail: all the cells, punishment or not, are stamped with a crucifix pointing toward Mecca.
Her hair combed back into a bun stretching the skin of her face, an impeccably pressed uniform, huge glasses that cover nearly half of her face. It is the Marines captain who was given the judge’s notebook. Within a white plastic file she has in writing each and every one of the words that she will pronounce from that moment. As the detainee’s interpreter has them written down in Pashtun. For the actors-soldiers nothing is spontaneous. For the prisoner everything is so nightmarish that it could well appear unreal to him as well.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” the captain asks the detainee. The interpreter, an Afghan with a U.S. passport designated him by the U.S. government for his work, immediately asks the same thing in Pashtun language. Very softly, the accused patiently responds: “I have sworn that twice, and I swear it again.” Twice. Since he was captured by the U.S. Army in its battle against terrorism in mid-2002 in Afghanistan, the man with a name that cannot be revealed has been seated twice before those who decide his imprisonment or his release. On the previous occasions his jailors must have believed that he had not redeemed himself, because here he is still, here he is again, seated before the farce of a court that is judging him.
“Yes or no?” another high-ranking officer, this time from the army, inquires impatiently. With a nervous laugh, the interpreter repeats the question, embellished with amiabilities or recommendations that he should say yes and get it all over with, given the length, which did not correspond to a short yes or no. Finally came the “Yes.” He swears “by Allah.” Question: “Did you belong to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group of Osama Bin Laden?” Answer: “When the Taliban arrived, we fled to Pakistan¼” “Yes or no?” once again the officer of affirmations or negatives. The interpreter again, uneasy, almost scared, with his race reddening, trying to advise his “client.” The response to his mediation is given: “No.” Question: “Why do you consider that you are not a danger to the United States?” Reply: “I repeat for the third time that I have never said a single word against America, I am a friend of America and the Americans,” he states mechanically.
For half a minute, the accused, who doesn’t know what he is being accused of, because legal charges against him have never been brought before a judge – only 10 detainees in Guantánamo have had an open trial – because he has never had a lawyer to represent him, looks straight at me. The detainee knows that if he does not convince today, he will have to wait for another year until his case is reviewed again. He looks from side to side and knows that he is alone. Nothing or nobody is on his side. Apart from the reporters and the interpreter, he is the only civilian in the room. Facing seven soldiers, one of whom is making a tremendous effort not to fall asleep in the soporific Cuban afternoon. There are no witnesses. There are no lawyers. His look says that he is aware that he could be caught in the black hole that is Guantánamo for life or until the new order installed by George W. Bush collapses. “I am innocent,” he ventures to say. “I am innocent.” And once again assumes that silent plea to tell of his tragedy outside of these four walls.
The captain with the tight bun contemplates him. And states: “This court will decide that. The court is adjourned.” She leaves with a martial step. What court, if there is no trial? What court, if there are no judges? What sentence, if there are no charges? “Nobody believed him,” comments to the sergeant the soldier with the green gloves who releases the prisoner from the floor and takes him back to his cell slowly, or as quickly as the short chains that bind his ankles allow. What nobody would believe if they could contemplate it is what happened on Thursday, October 18 from 13:00 to 14:27 in a white room on the naval base of Guantánamo, Cuba, and which should have a sign at the entrance reading: “Farce of a trial in progress.”
General Leacock says: “I am going to give you today’s headline: There is no more transparent detention camp in the world than Guantánamo.” That transparency is what the Tajikstani Zen Ulabedin Merozhev shares with his interpreter who has spent five years without seeing his face. Imagine that for a second: five years without seeing yourself in a mirror. Five years abducted in a detention camp thousands of kilometers away from his home. Five years without any rights.
It should be recalled that more than 800 people, including minors, have passed through the Guantánamo cells since their creation as a weapon in the war on terrorism in 2002. That a number approximating 430 are still incarcerated there. That only 10 have been formally charged. That the exposés of physical and psychological torture have been constant. That the Geneva Convention has been violated and perverted, because the soldiers use it as an excuse to ban photos. It should be recalled, because if it isn’t, after the tour of the base offered by the U.S. Army, with dental clinic and Harry Potter books in Arabic for the prisoners, you would think that you were in a recreation camp on the shore of the Caribbean.
“They are lying,” shouts a detainee.
Camp V. The latest prison camp set up by the U.S. military. Cold as steel, aseptic as a morgue, impenetrable as a fortress. The Marine recites its facilities. “Capacity for 100 prisoners. Cutting-edge technology. Cameras in every cell. Constructed along the lines of the Indiana maximum-security prison.” He couldn’t be more accurate. As soon as the automatic gate that separates the street from the prison closes, you are buried alive and want to flee. And that’s after five minutes. The ghosts surviving in 4x3-meter cells have been there for four years.
“Lady, you can’t stand behind me,” the soldier warns. “You can’t take photos of my soldiers or the control center of my prison.” The use of the possessive makes me shudder. “You can photograph the chair for those being interrogated, as comfortable as any at home,” he says while ushering the press into the room. At the feet of a velvet chair there are some rings born from the floor, in order to chain up a prospective prisoner. It is the first room in the passage. After it come the cells. When the door of the cell is closed the cage is sealed. That avoids the inconvenient “cocktails” that detainees prepare for the guards. In Camp Delta, where only wire separates them from their jailers, the prisoners launch “body fluids” – urine and excrement. But they still haven’t constructed the wall around Guantánamo to contain the cries of desperation. It is Ramadan. It is the prayer hour. Among the prayers in Arabic, one detainee manages to shout out in precarious English on noticing my presence: “They are lying to you!”
(Translated by Granma International)