Trapped in Guantanamo Bay
Why the Cuban camp has become an asset to the anti-war movement.
On 20 January the UK actors and leftist activists Vanessa and Corin Redgrave launched the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission in London. The group, which unites the families and lawyers of European prisoners held in the US military base in Cuba, plans a trip to America to put pressure on the US government (1).
It is obvious why the families of detainees leapt upon the campaign. Their sons have been held for two years without trial in harsh and demoralising conditions. They were picked up during the war in Afghanistan, accused of being hardened al-Qaeda terrorists – yet none of the detainees has yet been told what the evidence is against them. They have been repeatedly interrogated, while festering in what many have described as a ‘legal black hole’.
However, there is a broader furore about Guantanamo, which has very different origins. British MPs and House of Lords peers have filed a brief with the US Supreme Court in support of the detainees – as has a coalition of human rights organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Support has also come from American military lawyers, and US establishment papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its judgement in June 2004. It now looks as if the US government might want to wash its hands of the camp. A number of detainees have been released, and US officials have suggested the conditional return of British detainees.
Why, after two years, is the USA making moves to release some of the men it described as the ‘most dangerous’, ‘worst of the worst’ terrorists? Certainly there has not been an international rise in compassion or concern for civil liberties over this period. Nor has Bush decided that al-Qaeda isn’t such a serious threat after all.
The Guantanamo detainees are now the living symbol of the failures of the first front in what American President George W Bush has called the ‘war on terror’. Most were picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 2001 war against the Taliban. This reprisal for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington was intended to establish the authority of a wounded America – yet problems soon emerged. Osama bin Laden eluded capture and Afghanistan descended into messy turmoil. The Guantanamo detainees were one of the few tangible things that America had to show for the war. This is why they were hyped as the ‘worst of the worst’, and treated as such.
Yet Afghanistan remains a mess – and now Iraq, site of America’s second military foray, is also falling apart. As support for America’s interventions has eroded, so has the justification for Guantanamo. The men washed up in Cuba increasingly look like yet more victims of an illegitimate war. The suspension of legal process is often tolerated in wartime as a necessary means to achieve victory. In the Vietnam War as many as 10,000 prisoners were held in Con Son Island Prison in the South China Sea – and were indefinitely detained until dealt with by military tribunals. During the war in Northern Ireland, the British state refused to recognise IRA prisoners as prisoners as war. It is no surprise that once increasing doubts were cast upon the legitimacy of America’s two most recent wars, their methods also appeared illegitimate.
A trickle of information has revealed the ineptitude of America’s Afghan campaign. It turns out that some of the Guantanamo detainees had little to do with the war. One of those released in 2002 was Mohammed Hagi Fiz, a toothless Afghan man in his seventies; another was an Afghan suffering from schizophrenia, who was sent on his way with a supply of medication (2).
The road by which suspected fighters ended up in Cuba was often strange and arbitrary. Detainees are a rag-bag of individuals, many of whom were handed over to US by Northern Alliance troops or by Pakistani authorities. One Pakistani English teacher, Abdul Rasaq, said that he was picked out by his Northern Alliance captors simply because he spoke English. There is an Australian shark fisherman who fought for a Kashmiri insurgency group, a citizen of the Maldives who was arrested at the home of a Karachi al-Qaeda suspect (3). The detainees are a random cross-section, showing the cluelessness of the 2001 Afghan war.
While Guantanamo had been intended as a symbol of American power, it soon became a thorn in America’s side. Army interrogators reportedly asked the same questions, over and over: ‘Where is Osama? Do you know any of the al-Qaeda leaders? Have you met them?’ (4) The regime at the base began to fall apart from within. One report claimed that interrogation had ‘descended into farce, with inexperienced interrogators routinely outwitted by the detainees’ (5). Army lawyers assigned to defend the inmates in tribunals were sacked, after they objected to the conditions of the trials. A chaplain was arrested for mishandling classified material, and the two companies providing translators for the base reportedly fell out.
The Cuban camp has become a liability for the Americans, so it is hardly surprising that they are now prepared to compromise. One lawyer acting for the British detainees said that ‘[The Americans] are desperate to get rid of these guys’ – and claims that it is actually the British government that is now blocking their return because it doesn’t want the responsibility (6).
Guantanamo has instead become something of an asset for the anti-war movement – a stick with which to beat the USA. However, the campaigners demanding a fair trial for British Guantanamo detainees do not come out well of this affair, either. Opposing the regime at Guantanamo has become an easy way in which people can have a pop at the US government and America’s military interventions – without really challenging either.
The fact that anti-war figures such as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave or former UK foreign secretary Robin Cook are now appealing to the Supreme Court is a sign of the weakness of their campaign. Rather than challenging the war in Afghanistan – or America’s military interventions as a whole – they are merely demanding fair treatment for Guantanamo’s detainees. ‘All we are asking is that the Guantanamo prisoners are given their basic human rights as prisoners of war’, said Corin Redgrave. This narrow, legalistic challenge shows just how low the anti-war movement’s horizons have sunk. It is asking America to give particular detainees a fair trial – not taking up how they ended up in Cuba in the first place.
Other UK Guantanamo campaigners have slightly different motivations. In November 2003, a senior British law lord lashed out at the American regime in Guantanamo, criticising planned military tribunals as a ‘kangaroo court’ and a ‘stain on United States justice’. In a similar boat are many of the MPs and peers who signed the brief to the US Supreme Court. Most of these actually supported the war on Afghanistan back in 2001. For them, criticising Guantanamo is a good opportunity to get on their high horse and lecture the Americans – while having no objections to the military interventions themselves.
The challenge to Guantanamo is good news for all the men who have been denied their liberty for the past two years. What this challenge symbolises, however, is the shortcomings of both the pro- and anti-war camps.
(1) Guantanamo families to take fight to US, Guardian 21 January 2004
(2) People the law forgot (part two), Guardian, 3 December 2003
(3) People the law forgot, Guardian, 3 December 2003
(4) People the law forgot, Guardian, 3 December 2003
(5) Al-Qaida inmates ‘outwitting interrogators’, Guardian, 22 April 2002
(6) Blunkett accused of blocking men’s return, Guardian, 10 January 2004
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