A Prison of Shame, and It’s Ours
My Times colleague Barry Bearak was imprisoned by the brutal regime in Zimbabwe last month. Barry was not beaten, but he was infected with scabies while in a bug-infested jail. He was finally brought before a court after four nights in jail and then released.
Alas, we don’t treat our own inmates in Guantánamo with even that much respect for law. On Thursday, America released Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for Al Jazeera who had been held without charges for more than six years. Mr. Hajj has credibly alleged that he was beaten, and that he was punished for a hunger strike by having feeding tubes forcibly inserted in his nose and throat without lubricant, so as to rub tissue raw.
“Conditions in Guantánamo are very, very bad,” Mr. Hajj said in a televised interview from his hospital bed in Sudan, adding, “In Guantánamo, you have animals that are called iguanas ... that are treated with more humanity.”
Al Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, said by telephone from the hospital that Mr. Hajj was so frail when he arrived that he had to be carried off the plane and into an ambulance. Guantánamo inmates are not allowed to see their families, so that evening Mr. Hajj met his 7-year-old son, whom he had last seen as a baby.
Reliable information is still scarce about Guantánamo, but increasingly we’re gaining glimpses of life there — and they are painful to read.
Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish descent, has just published a memoir of his nearly five years in Guantánamo. He describes prolonged torture that included interruptions by a doctor to ensure that he was well enough for the torture to continue.
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, an American woman of Afghan descent who worked as an interpreter, has written a book to be published next month, “My Guantánamo Diary,” that is wrenching to read. She describes a pediatrician who returned to Afghanistan in 2003 to help rebuild his country — and was then arrested by Americans, beaten, doused with icy water and paraded around naked. Finally, after three years, officials apparently decided he was innocent and sent him home.
A third powerful new book about Guantánamo, by an American lawyer named Steven Wax, is summed up by its title: “Kafka Comes to America.”
The new material suggests two essential truths about Guantánamo:
First, most of the inmates were probably innocent all along, but Pakistanis or Afghans turned them over to America in exchange for large cash rewards. The moment we offered $25,000 rewards for Al Qaeda supporters, any Arab in the region risked being kidnapped and turned over as a terrorism suspect.
Second, torture was routine, especially early on. That’s why more than 100 prisoners have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo.
One of the men still in Guantánamo is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. He is a Libyan who had been running a bakery in Afghanistan with his Afghan wife. Bounty hunters turned him over to the United States as a terrorism suspect, and he has been in custody for more than six years.
Mr. Ghizzawi was taken before a “combatant status review tribunal,” which ruled unanimously in November 2004 that he was not an “enemy combatant.” One member of the tribunal later scoffed that the supposed evidence against him was “garbage.” But a later tribunal reversed the first one’s finding, and Mr. Ghizzawi is being held indefinitely, though he is unlikely to face trial.
Candace Gorman, a lawyer for Mr. Ghizzawi, says that his health has sharply deteriorated since she first saw him. He is in constant pain from severe liver disease resulting from hepatitis B that first manifested itself in Guantánamo, Ms. Gorman said, adding that he also contracted tuberculosis there.
Worse, a doctor at Guantánamo twice told Mr. Ghizzawi in December that he has H.I.V., she said. Ms. Gorman believes that officials were just trying to torment him.
A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, denied that any doctor ever told Mr. Ghizzawi that he had H.I.V., or that Mr. Ghizzawi contracted tuberculosis or first suffered from hepatitis while in Guantánamo.
Granted, it can be hard to figure out what version to believe. When I started writing about Guantánamo several years ago, I thought the inmates might be lying and the Pentagon telling the truth. No doubt some inmates lie, and some surely are terrorists. But over time — and it’s painful to write this — I’ve found the inmates to be more credible than American officials.
Both Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates have pushed to shut down Guantánamo because it undermines America’s standing and influence. They have been overruled by Dick Cheney and other hard-liners. In reality, it would take an exceptional enemy to damage America’s image and interests as much as President Bush and Mr. Cheney already have with Guantánamo.