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February 25, 2009

Gitmo Report Contradicts Govt. Claims of 'Humane' Detention


by William Fisher

A leading human rights organization charges that, contrary to recent U.S. government reports that found prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being treated humanely, they are in fact "deteriorating at a rapid rate" due to "harsh conditions that continue to this day, despite a few cosmetic changes to their routines."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a report [.pdf] on the current conditions in Camps 5, 6, and Echo following a press conference convened late last week by Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations. In his own report on conditions at Guantanamo, delivered to the White House, Walsh determined that conditions at the base meet the standards of the Geneva Conventions.

CCR's report, "Conditions of Confinement at Guantanamo: Still in Violation of the Law," disputes that conclusion. It covers conditions at Guantánamo in January and February 2009 and includes new eyewitness accounts from attorneys and detainees.

The authors address what they call the continuing abusive conditions at the prison camp, including conditions of confinement that they say violate U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. Constitution, and international human rights law.

CCR Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei said the Gitmo detainees "are caught in a vicious cycle where their isolation causes psychological damage, which causes them to act out, which brings more abuse and keeps them in isolation. If they are going to be there another year, or even another day, this has to end."

"Detainees at Guantanamo have continued to suffer from solitary confinement, psychological abuse, abusive force-feeding of hunger strikers, religious abuse, and physical abuse and threats of violence from guards and Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) teams," the report charged.

It claimed the majority of the men being detained "are in isolation. They go weeks without seeing the sun. Fluorescent lights, however, remain on 24 hours a day in Camp 5." According to the report, "improvements" cited by the military are, by and large, public relations activities rather than meaningful improvements in detainees' conditions.

The CCR report takes issue with two recent U.S. government pronouncements. On Feb. 13, Colonel Bruce Vargo, commander of the Joint Detention Group at Guantánamo, stated that "There are no solitary confinement detention areas" at Gitmo, and "Detainees typically are able to communicate with other detainees either face-to-face or by spoken word from their cells throughout the day."

CCR attorneys say this means that the men can yell through the metal food slot in the solid steel doors of their cells when it is left open and through the crack between the door and the floor.

The organization also challenged Walsh's conclusion that "all detainees are well protected from violence." Walsh said guards or others who engaged in abuse were reprimanded or immediately relieved of their jobs, depending on the nature of the offense.

But Walsh's report acknowledged that the continued detention of prisoners who have been approved for release has spawned widespread frustration and anxiety, which has led to protests and friction with guards. Fifty-nine detainees have already been cleared for release but remain at the prison because the U.S. says it cannot find countries to accept them.

"We conclude that certainty regarding the detainees' future has a direct correlation to detainee behavior and, therefore, conditions inside the camp population."

Walsh led a 13-day investigation at the military prison, interviewing staff and detainees and conducting announced and unannounced inspections round the clock.

He said he substantiated allegations of abuse that included insults and the preemptive use of pepper spray. Walsh's report focused on current conditions at Guantanamo and was not an attempt to review its seven-year history.

But CCR and other human rights and civil liberties groups said that solitary confinement has led to the deterioration of the physical and psychological health of detainees, some of whom are force-fed because they are on hunger strikes.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only organization with unfettered access to the prisoners, said the group supports the recommendations for increased socialization for all detainees but disagreed with Walsh's conclusion that force-feeding is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

"For ICRC it is an issue of human dignity," said Bernard Barrett, a spokesman for the agency. "Freely made choices and the preservation of human dignity are critical."

Their report details multiple cases of abuse occurring in the last month and a half. One detainee in Camp 6 wrote to his attorney in January 2009, "As I told you, we are in very bad condition, suffering from aggression, beating and IRF teams, as well as the inability to sleep except for a few hours. Soldiers here are on a high alert state and if one of us dares to leave his cell and comes back without any harm, he is considered as a man who survived an inevitable danger."

The CCR report said hunger strikes continue among a large number of men at Guantanamo. "Hunger strikers are brutally force-fed using a restraint chair and often unsanitary feeding tubes, and are beaten for refusing food, a practice that continued within the last month and a half." Force-feeding hunger strikers is considered by the World Medical Association to be a violation of medical ethics and has continued unabated since President Barack Obama's executive order to close the prison.

"Detainees are still denied access to communal prayer," the CCR report said. "Military officials continue to classify hearing a call to prayer through a food slot as communal prayer, which does not comport with the requirements of Islam." It adds, "There has been no Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo since 2003, despite repeated requests."

The report also charged that detainees are "subject to body search procedures that require the men to subject themselves to a scanner that visually strips the men naked each time they leave their cells for attorney meetings or recreation. This humiliating and degrading experience, particularly given the men's strong religious background, has led them to stay in their cells all day, refusing attorney meetings and recreation entirely."

The CCR report recommends closing Camps 5, 6, and Echo immediately, ending solitary confinement and the religious abuse of detainees, stopping the use of IRF teams and all other physical abuse of detainees, ending the feeding of individuals against their will or under coercive circumstances, allowing detainees immediate access to independent medical and psychological professionals, and ceasing the practice of forcible medication.

CCR Executive Director Vincent Warren called on President Obama to "quickly remedy and end the Guantánamo created by his predecessor [former President George W. Bush], not embrace a whitewash of it."

During his first week in office, President Obama ordered the Guantanamo prison camp to be closed within a year and named Attorney General Eric Holder to head a task force to review the case file of each of the 245 detainees to determine what to do with them. About 20 prisoners were scheduled to face trials by military commission, but Obama suspended these proceedings while his administration reviews its judicial options.

CCR has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 lawyers across the country in order to represent the men at Guantanamo.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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