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Everything but the truth: allegations of abuse and torture at Guantanamo Bay.

ON MAY 25, 2005, Amnesty International published its annual report on the state of human rights in 149 countries. The United States received a scathing criticism regarding prisoners being held without trial at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Al Secretary General Irene Khan, commenting on the results of the report, called Gitmo the "gulag of our times." As a result, a national debate on what really occurs at that prison and who's to blame for any abuse there continues to rage between the administration of George W. Bush and an American public demanding to know the truth.

According to the report, at least five hundred detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison are being held without trial for suspected terrorist links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Several of the prisoners held there have been in U.S. custody for over three years without due process. And reports from recently released detainees of the prison tell of the desecration of the Quran, incidences of having naked women sit on their chests during interrogation, and attacks by dogs to intimidate or injure prisoners. The Pentagon has dismissed these reports, claiming that al-Qaeda manuals have trained the detainees to create false stories.

After the release of the AI report, Bush and several members of his administration immediately took umbrage at the claims. On June 14, despite a vague statement from Bush that indicated the administration was exploring options just a few days earlier, Vice President Richard Cheney said there were no plans for the United States to shut down the Guantanamo prison, citing the need to maintain a special area to house alleged terrorists from various parts of the world.

A week later Cheney resurfaced in the news to describe the humane treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, stating that they are well fed and well treated. Also, two Democrats and two Republicans from Congress made a weekend visit to Guantanamo Bay to view the detention center for themselves. All reported feeling "very good" about the treatment of the detainees, including seeing air-conditioning and semiprivate showers for some of the prisoners. Amnesty International was quick to dismiss the reports, citing that the visit was an "inadequate investigation" of the entire prison, and one lawyer representing several of the detainees called it a "public relations stunt."

But what about the various tales of abuse at Guantanamo Bay that have surfaced over the past few years? The Humanist published an article ("Strange Fruit in Abu Ghraib: the Privatization of Torture," July/August 2004) by Michael I. Niman on the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. And various alternative media outlets publicized reports as early as 2002 of torture at U.S. prisons located in Cuba yet failed to reach a mainstream audience.

Also, the details in the AI report aren't based merely on interviews with former prisoners but are extracted primarily from the Pentagon's Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations and court-martial testimony. The AI report further argues that, in addition to testimony from previously released prisoners of Guantanamo, FBI agents and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) affirm the claim that detainees were abused. One FBI agent stated in a July 29, 2004, report that some detainees were found "chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for eighteen [to] twenty-four hours or more." And according to the Los Angeles Times, previous investigations by the FBI in 2004 show that military officials at the prison chained detainees to the ground in the fetal position and placed lighted cigarettes in prisoners' ears.

Reports also found that interrogators who exploited the fears of detainees in order to get information may have violated ethical standards. In an article published by the New England Journal of Medicine, military doctors illegally provided privileged information about each detainee's mental health status to interrogators, who then used the information to force cooperation. Pentagon officials deny that ethical rules were broken but would not allow New York Times reporters to interview current medical staff members at the prison. However, Navy Commander Gary Ostergaard, head of the prison hospital at Guantanamo, vehemently denies such claims.

Why has it taken years for the American public to become aware of the situation at Guantanamo? The main reason is the secrecy that enshrouds it. The public historically has been kept in the dark about most aspects of this U.S. military base. As Bush's war on terror was waged, the public was apprised that suspected terrorists were being "detained" at Gitmo but little else--particularly the conditions of the camp and the interrogation tactics used.

On June 21 the White House rejected a bipartisan proposal to create an independent commission to investigate the alleged abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other locations. According to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, the Pentagon has already conducted ten investigations of abuse cases, outside investigators have been hired by the Pentagon to assist, and any new cases of abuse will continue to be examined by the Defense Department. And on September 9, 2005, a U.S. appeals court ruled that Bush has the authority to hold U.S. prisoners with links to al-Qaeda "indefinitely."

Meanwhile, experts at the United Nations have recently uncovered evidence regarding torture methods used at Gitmo and requested that the United States allow UN human rights investigators full access to the prison--a request that repeatedly has been made and rebuffed since 2002. The Bush administration also refuses to allow UN investigators to hold private interviews with any of the prisoners. Reportedly administration officials are currently reviewing the UN report.

Surprisingly, the Pentagon investigations, without independent help, admit to finding cases of abuse but deny claims of torture. According to the Los Angeles Times, military investigators have called for a reprimand to be given to former Guantanamo Bay prison commander Army Major General Geoffrey Miller, who apparently supervised interrogation tactics used against Mohammed Al-Qahtani, the alleged "twentieth hijacker" of the 9/11 attacks--tactics that were "degrading and abusive" but "did not rise to the level of inhumane treatment." Such tactics included using duct tape to bind prisoners' heads and mouths, depriving heat and sleep to "break down prisoners' will" and denying detainees food and water. And the investigations confirmed an incident that has been highly publicized in recent news where female interrogators smeared prisoners with fake menstrual blood.

If the Bush administration thought they could sweep these claims under the rug, they were wrong. In the months following the various reports emerging from the Department of Defense on the treatment of detainees, a flurry of activity has waged itself in a battle--with surprising opponents.

Challenging the September court ruling, the Senate voted 90-9 to support an amendment introduced by former prisoner of war Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), preventing "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment" against prisoners held by the United States. Cheney and CIA director Porter J. Goss reportedly requested that the CIA be exempt from the ban, citing Bush's need for "maximum flexibility" in handling the war on terror. McCain reportedly rejected the exemption. However, senators were willing to compromise with the White House rather than risk a veto showdown. In mid November language was introduced in the military bill to allow detainees to appeal a military tribunal verdict, all the way to the Supreme Court if needed, but they are limited to one appeal. The overall military spending bill was introduced the next day with a Senate vote of 98-0. Reports claim that Bush will veto it.

Problems for the administration have not ended there. The possible existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia prompted Bush to publicly deny any torture claims against the United States. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether Bush stepped over his boundaries regarding a military trial for a former driver of Osama bin Laden, who has been held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for four years. And on October 25, 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union, with information obtained from the Department of Defense, reported that at least twenty-one detainees were killed during or after interrogations in U.S. based prisons overseas.

With the support of the American public behind the Senate's terms on torture, this is one battle Bush is sure to lose. The U.S. prison conditions must be humane and the guards must abide by the standards set by the Geneva Conventions (which clearly forbid "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment") and the UN Convention Against Torture in harboring prisoners of war. In addition, the detainees' right to a fair and speedy trial must be observed.

The battle over the fate of the detainees, and the prison itself, at Guantanamo Bay remains unsolved. Whether or not the AI and other reports are entirely accurate, such allegations must be investigated, and the Bush administration needs to take the lead in closely examining every claim of human rights violations. Both government and the American people must be concerned over our fellow nations' perception of the United States. If it truly is the champion of freedom across the world, then it needs to practice it at home. Only through courage and accountability can the United States regain its position as a world leader in human rights.

Maggie Ardiente graduated in 2005 with a degree in sociology from James Madison University and is the executive assistant for the American Humanist Association.
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Author:Ardiente, Maggie
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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