Guantanamo Bay: 12 Years of Shame

February 13, 2014 in main by Ellen MacAskill

Shaker Aamer is the last UK prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The 14th February marks the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of his ordeal there. His wife and four children await his return. The youngest of his children has never met him. He has been approved for release twice, but US legislation controlling the transfer of Guantanamo detainees has kept him imprisoned without charge. In a statement received by his lawyer, Aamer said:

“At best, we are numbers. I worry that when I come home that my children will call for ‘Daddy’, and I will sit unmoving. I am 239. I even refer to myself as 239 these days. I am not sure when I will ever be anything else. It is much easier to deny human rights to those who are not deemed to be ‘human’.”

The US Detention Camp was established post-9/11 in January 2002, when George Bush declared the “war on terror” and required a place for “highly dangerous” prisoners from Iraq and Afghanistan. The camp’s location renders it effectively exempt from US and international law. The prisoners detained there over the past twelve years have been “suspected” terrorists and Muslim militants, largely innocent civilians with a right to prisoner of war status. The US government has dodged this charge by labelling the prisoners “enemy combatants” so they are outside the rulings of the Geneva Convention. The Convention, created to establish humanitarian treatment in war, outlines the prohibition of:

“Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture”

And “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment”.

Guantanamo has a track record of using torture and degradation as a tool. Practices include water-boarding (pouring water onto a cloth covering the face to simulate suffocation), sleep deprivation, and leaving prisoners hand-cuffed in the scorching sun with their heads covered.

Force-feeding is used as a reaction to inmates’ hunger strikes. It has recently been estimated by lawyers that 34 detainees are currently on hunger strike and 17 are being force-fed. Aamer is one these numbers. The process involves the person being strapped to a chair and having a tube inserted through their nose to pass liquid nutrition to their stomach to keep them alive.

A Washington court ruling this week means that the practice of force-feeding will be allowed to be challenged in federal court by inmates. However the judges declined to put an end to force-feeding immediately.

In 2014, 155 people remain in Guantanamo, 77 of which have been cleared for release.

Research for this post has been depressing. Information and statistics were circulated around 2008, when Barack Obama pledged to make the closing of Guantanamo a priority as soon as he took office. Well into his second term as President, it remains open. The US are struggling to deal with the hangover from their rash, unjust, anti-extremist actions and cannot find safe countries for many detainees to return to. In his State of the Union speech at the end of January, Obama said:

“This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

On Wednesday, a group of us took to campus in orange jumpsuits and signs reading “12 YEARS OF SHAME” and “CLOSE GUANTANAMO”. One of the interesting things about demonstrations is the bemused expressions of passers-by. But the fact that so many are unaware of the symbol and the neglected human rights atrocities of Guantanamo shows that the US are succeeding in sweeping their mistakes under the rug. Real action is long overdue.

Here are some links to more information: