The Common Good
April 2006

A U.S. Gulag

by Rose Marie Berger | April 2006

The Guantanamo prison is beyond the pale.

Fifty-five percent of the prisoners at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay have not committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies, according to a recent analysis of declassified Department of Defense information compiled at Seton Hall University’s law school. In fact, of the 500-plus prisoners at Camp Delta, only 8 percent are characterized by the U.S. government as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining prisoners, 40 percent have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all, and 18 percent have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.

While the U.S. has released or transferred more than 260 detainees, 500 men have been held in terrible conditions by the U.S. military for more than four years.

When U.S. citizens attempted an independent investigation of the camp—in response to President Bush’s invitation that those concerned about conditions at Guantánamo are “welcome to go down yourself...and take a look at the conditions”—they were denied entry. In February, seven of those Americans were served papers by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control threatening them with 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for breaking the sanctions against Cuba.

The United Nations Human Rights Team attempted to investigate the camp, but decided against the trip when the U.S. government said they would not be allowed to interview any prisoners. “Fact-finding on the spot has to include interviews with detainees,” said Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special investigator on torture. “What’s the sense of going to a detention facility and doing fact-finding when you can’t speak to the detainees? It’s just nonsense.”

What’s happening inside the camp? The news is not good. A U.N. human rights analysis, which calls for the closing of the camp, concludes that force-feeding hunger strikers by brutally inserting tubes through their noses, prolonged solitary confinement, excessive exposure to heat, cold, noise, and light (courtesy of psychological ops), the high number of accidents that occur while prisoners are transported, and the cocktail of interrogation techniques—including medical procedures—“must be assessed as amounting to torture.”

In the first few months of the camp, there were 32 suicide attempts, and then “officially” they seemed to stop. In reality, such attempts have been reclassified as “manipulative self-injurious behavior,” and the numbers remain high.

Sami al-Hajj—a Sudanese cameraman who covered the war in Afghanistan for al Jazeera television network, was arrested in Pakistan in December 2001 and transferred to Guantánamo. In a letter to attorney Clive Stafford-Smith, al-Hajj wrote, “you can hear cries of pain and laments coming from the inmates in all the cages of this prison.... The Egyptian Abd al-Aziz was beaten up in his cage by the anti-riot squad and they damaged two vertebrae; now, it is impossible for him to move.”

THE UNITED STATES has gotten into a deep hole with Guantánamo—and when you’re in that deep, the first thing to do is stop digging.

There is an international crime wave going on orchestrated by very violent people. Violent transnational ideologies are fueling vicious acts. But the military isn’t the right body for handling this situation. The Interpol terrorism task force, the United Nations al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring teams, and the International Criminal Court are the right vehicles. Military prison camps that are not accountable to the Geneva Convention or to civilian judicial review are wrong and ultimately inefficient. They hold the wrong people for the wrong reasons and waste time, money, and moral capital doing it. How can we make it right? Close Camp Delta down and bring the prisoners to trial in an internationally agreed-upon court of law.

For Christians, the issue is clear. “Whatever is opposed to life itself,” wrote Pope Paul VI, “...whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment...all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” Every church in America can preach that from the pulpit.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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