The mystery of the Guantanamo hookers

Did American guards really hire prostitutes to menstruate on detainees' faces?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Of all the news headlines that have attacked President George W Bush, this is surely the most shocking: ‘Bush uses menstruating prostitutes to torture innocents.’

It appeared on a political website on 26 January 2005, following an Australian lawyer’s claims that one of his clients, a man from Sydney named Mamdouh Habib, was sexually humiliated at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Lawyer Stephen Hopper said ‘the Americans used prostitutes as tools in their interrogations’; apparently one such prostitute stripped naked and stood over Habib, who was strapped to the floor, and ‘menstruated on him’ (1).

Egyptian-born Habib has been an Australian citizen since 1980; he was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001 and held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly three years. He was released at the start of this year and returned to Sydney on 28 January. Claims that he was menstruated on by hookers have outraged Australians; the Sydney Morning Herald reported the view that Habib was the ‘victim of atrocities fit for a concentration camp’. His shocking story speedily made its way around the world – veteran anti-war writer John Pilger repeated it in the British New Statesman, and it was reported by BBC News (2).

This isn’t the first time that a former Guantanamo detainee has made allegations of humiliation involving menstruating prostitutes. Jamal al-Harith, a father-of-three from Manchester, England, has twice spoken of such humiliation since he was released from Guantanamo last year. In his first big interview, with the UK Mirror on 12 March 2004, he said some prisoners were ‘forced to watch as hookers touched their own naked bodies’, and one of these women ‘smeared menstrual blood across [a prisoner’s] face in an act of humiliation’ (3). His claims led one web publication to declare, under the headline ‘Menstrual blood as a weapon in war on terrorism’, that, ‘this, right here, is reason enough to be against Gitmo’ (4). Al-Harith repeated his claims in an interview for Jon Ronson’s book on strange practices within the US military, The Men Who Stare at Goats, saying prostitutes were ‘flown in from the States’, perhaps to ‘service the soldiers’ as well as ‘smear their menstrual blood on the faces of the more devout detainees’ (5).

Since Habib’s story was revealed last month, an American lawyer has come forward to say that a Yemeni client of his, also imprisoned at Guantanamo, mentioned an ‘incident involving menstrual blood’ during an interview last year. The lawyer initially dismissed it: ‘It seemed crazy, like something out of a horror movie or a John Waters film. Now it doesn’t seem ludicrous at all.’ (6) Some have speculated that the aim of this alleged humiliation was to break down devout Muslim prisoners in particular: strict male observers of Islam are forbidden from having contact with a woman while she is menstruating.

Guantanamo Bay is without doubt a deeply unpleasant place. It is a disgrace that 600 men have been held in legal limbo, and that, to date, no charges have been brought and many have not even been told the evidence against them. But prostitutes flown in to menstruate on detainees’ faces? The American lawyer is right: these sound like scenes from a horror film. What is the evidence to support this story? Looking into the mystery of the hookers raises as many questions as answers; there does seem to have been some form of sexual humiliation at Guantanamo, but there is little evidence that it involved menstruating prostitutes.

Emma Tom, a columnist for The Australian, was sceptical about the Habib story. ‘Any woman who’s ever had a period knew something wasn’t quite right when the “Hooker used in torture of Habib” headlines hit the papers’, she wrote. ‘The average amount of blood we lose during menstruation is about 25ml to 35ml – the equivalent of a short black coffee. Add to this equation the six-day length of the average period and the gluggy consistency of its by-product, and the chance of a threatening geyser is really quite thin.’ She also questioned the practicalities of getting a woman to bleed on cue: they would have to ‘hover for days to produce anything approaching a result’ (7).

So how exactly did Habib describe what had taken place? He didn’t. His lawyer, Stephen Hopper in Sydney, tells me that the claim that Habib was bled on by a naked prostitute is a ‘second-hand story’, relayed to him before Habib’s release, not by Habib himself but by other ‘freed detainees from Guantanamo’. ‘It was described by two British guys, Tarek Dergoul and Jamal al-Harith’, he says. Dergoul and al-Harith were released from Guantanamo, along with three British Asians (the Tipton Three), in March 2004. Al-Harith’s cell was reportedly close to Habib’s and they sometimes shouted to one other.

This means that on the two occasions that the alleged use of menstruating hookers has become a big international story – first in March 2004 when the Mirror reported it, and second when Hopper described in January 2005 what had allegedly happened to Habib – the source was former British detainee Jamal al-Harith. Yet al-Harith says he never witnessed such events, but heard about them from other detainees. He said the men who were menstruated on ‘would refuse to speak about what had happened…it would take perhaps four weeks for them to tell a friend’. He also says that such methods were not used against him or other British detainees; he told Jon Ronson that ‘one or two of the British guys said to the guards: “Can we have the women?” But the guards said: “No, no, no. The prostitutes are for the detainees who don’t actually want them.”’ (7)

What of the Yemeni prisoner who, according to the San Francisco Chronicle on 10 February, told his American lawyer of an ‘incident involving menstrual blood’? (8) This, too, appears to be a second-hand story. The Yemeni’s lawyer, Marc Falkoff in New York, tells me that the incident ‘did not happen directly to my client’. His client spoke about ‘instances of abuse that he had heard about. One story was that another detainee who refused to cooperate during an interview had menstrual blood smeared on his chest by a female interrogator’. To date, none of the stories involving prostitutes menstruating on prisoners has come directly from the victims of such acts or the victims’ lawyers, but from prisoners who heard about these alleged practices from others.

So since Habib returned home to Sydney on 28 January, has he corroborated the claims that he was bled on by a prostitute? Not quite. As Stephen Hopper says, ‘Habib’s story is…different’. In the original version, revealed by Hopper at an Australia Day forum in Sydney on 26 January and later reported around the world, it was said that ‘one of the prostitutes stood over [Habib] naked while he was strapped to the floor and menstruated on him’ (9). Now Hopper says: ‘It was not a prostitute, it was an interrogator. She was not naked, she was wearing a skirt and a top. She didn’t bleed on to him; she touched him with something that we believe was menstrual blood.’ You believe it was menstrual blood? ‘Yes, she said it was menstrual blood, and we believe it was.’

This is a very different version of events to that first told three weeks ago. Hopper says: ‘There must have been a bit of movement in the story as detainees told it to each other.’ He also say that Habib’s ‘English is not as good as yours and mine’. It seems there was rather a lot of ‘movement’ in the story; somewhere along the line it went from something that sounds like a mind game played on Habib by a Guantanamo interrogator to the tale of a hooker flown from America to Cuba to strip in front of a manacled prisoner and menstruate on him. Hopper says he is not especially worried that his initial allegations appear to have been inaccurate, as ‘whether it was a prostitute or an interrogator, these were cruel tactics’.

As it happens, Habib’s milder telling of what was done to him by a female interrogator corresponds with revelations made by someone who worked as a translator at Guantanamo. Erik Saar, a 29-year-old former US army sergeant, was an Arabic translator at the camp from December 2002 to June 2003. In a book due to be published by Penguin, a section of which has been leaked to Associated Press, Saar says he witnessed some of the sexual mind games played by interrogators on devout detainees (10).

In one instance, Saar says a female interrogator asked a Muslim translator how she might best ‘break’ a devout prisoner; the translator apparently advised her to tell the prisoner she was menstruating and then touch him. Saar says the interrogator used a red marker to colour the tips of her fingers and then touched the detainee’s face, telling him it was menstrual blood. But reportedly such tactics were frowned upon by some at Guantanamo: in November 2004, the US military acknowledged that in 2003 two female interrogators had been reprimanded for ‘improper behaviour’ – one for sitting in a detainee’s lap, and the other for ‘wiping dye from [a] red magic marker on detainee’s shirt after detainee [spat] on her’ (11). The Washington Post says it is ‘unclear whether military personnel, employees of other agencies or private contractors were involved’ (12).

Some of the attempts to break prisoners sound surreal, described by one newspaper report as being like something ‘from a rock music video’ (13). US Colonel David McWilliams, who helps oversee operations at Guantanamo, says the military would not condone ‘sexual activity’, but ‘using things that are culturally repulsive is okay, as long as it doesn’t extend to something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions’ (14).

None of us knows for certain what goes on inside Guantanamo. Could it be that mind games played by certain interrogators, involving red magic markers and talk of menstrual blood, became exaggerated in the retelling? Somewhere along the line did flirtatious interrogators become ‘prostitutes’ and their red-ink tricks, which one woman at least was reportedly reprimanded for, stories about prisoners being ‘menstruated on’ by naked women? And does it matter whether these incidents involved only red markers rather than bleeding prostitutes? Marc Falkoff, the New York lawyer, thinks the distinction is semantics. ‘Either way, it is a revolting tactic that demeans the detainees, demeans the soldiers and their agents, and demeans the United States government’, he says.

It is understandable that, in the stifling and fearful climate in Guantanamo, there would be ‘movement’ in the telling of stories. But what is more striking is the impact that the menstruating prostitute story has had in the outside world: many around the world seem to have suspended their disbelief (as Hollywood often invites us to do) as the story has been retold by numerous international media outlets – despite the fact that there remains little hard evidence that such a thing occurred. Surely it should matter, in public discussion and in legal processes, whether prostitutes actually bled on to prisoners or interrogators touched them with red dye? Yet still the menstruating hooker story is seen by many as confirmation of ‘great evil’ at Guantanamo, as evidence that we are living through, in Stephen Hopper’s words, ‘the rise of American fascism’, as the only reason one needs to be ‘Against Gitmo’.

This points to a problem with the international debate over Guantanamo. In place of a serious political critique of the camps in Cuba, and more importantly of the war on terror that gave rise to them, Guantanamo has been transformed into a platform for moral posturing. It is an issue on which everyone – from the Mirror, which showed no such anger at the mistreatment of Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland for 20 years, to Max Clifford, the publicity guru not previously known as a man of great principle, who has helped to secure high-level media interviews for one of the freed Britons – can flaunt the emotion that Observer journalist David Rose attributed to the Tipton Three after interviewing them: ‘burning, righteous anger’ against America.

To be righteous is to be ‘virtuous; guiltless; sinless; acting rightly or justly’ – and that just about sums up the motivation behind today’s anti-Guantanamo stance. It is not really a critical, political position at all; it is born of a desire to demonstrate one’s own whiter-than-white credentials by lambasting modern-day America, which reportedly is so disgusting that it even ‘uses menstruating prostitutes to torture innocents’. When being ‘Against Gitmo’ is driven by this kind of cheap moralism rather than a political challenge, then people’s critical faculties tend to get switched off and they rush to believe every horror story that comes out of there, anything that will confirm their own righteousness.

Traditionally, the media has been an important conduit for the black propaganda of the allies against their enemies. From the BBC down, many in the media repeated without question the stories told by various governments to justify military interventions abroad and extreme measures against the enemy. As American Senator Hiram Johnson observed in 1917, ‘the first casualty when war comes is truth’. Yet today, we seem to have the obverse of this: various media outlets now appear to report anything that paints governments, especially the American government, in a bad light, on the apparent assumption that whatever the authorities say must be a lie and any allegation against them must be true. But is this cynical approach any better as journalism than the war reporting of the past?

The anti-Guantanamo lobby no doubt considers itself at the radical cutting edge of critiquing American imperialism. But in transforming Guantanamo into an easy emotional issue, they have done the debate no favours. Instead of a discussion of what lies behind Guantanamo – the peculiar nature of the war that created it, the sense of US paranoia that sustains it, and what the camps have come to symbolise for the US elite – we get unsubstantiated stories about evil Americans and their wicked ways. It remains to be seen what kind of interrogation tactics have been used at Guantanamo, but in the meantime, could we perhaps have a proper debate about the war on terror and its consequences?

(1) Prostitute used in Habib torture: lawyer, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 2005

(2) Australia: the sickening of democracy, John Pilger, New Statesman

(3) My hell in Camp X-Ray, Rosa Prince and Gary Jones, Mirror, 12 March 2004

(4) Menstrual blood as a weapon in war on terrorism, Gutless Pacifist, 16 March 2004

(5) The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson, Picador, 2004

(6) Pentagon inquiry said to confirm detainee’s allegations, Carol Leonnig and Dana Priest, San Francisco Chronicle, 10 February 2005

(7) For crying out loud, let’s get our bleeding priorities right, Emma Tom, Australian, 2 February 2005

(8) Pentagon inquiry said to confirm detainee’s allegations, Carol Leonnig and Dana Priest, San Francisco Chronicle, 10 February 2005

(9) Prostitute used in Habib torture: lawyer, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 2005

(10) Ex-GI writes about use of sex in Guantanamo interrogations, New York Times, 28 January 2005

(11) US details outcome of Guantanamo abuse cases, Washington Post, 5 November 2004

(12) Detainees accuse female interrogators, Carol Leonnig and Dana Priest Washington Post, 10 February 2005

(13) Detainees accuse female interrogators, Carol Leonnig and Dana Priest Washington Post, 10 February 2005

(14) Detainees accuse female interrogators, Carol Leonnig and Dana Priest Washington Post, 10 February 2005

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Topics Politics


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