Guantanamo: an email

Dear all,

Last night’s Panorama programme on BBC1 television was about conditions at Guantanamo and also at the American holding centre (prison) in Pakistan at Bagram Airbase 27 miles north of Kabul where the US army keeps “detainees” (people whom they have arrested and are holding on suspicion of possible terrorist links, and from which most of the prisoners are later sent on to Guantanamo).  The  BBC team had been allowed to visit Guantanamo and to film interviews  with the US commandant and some of the US staff, but not of course to talk to any of the prisoners – when one of them called out to them from  his cage in English and begged them to talk to him, they were hustled out and not allowed to do any more filming.  They weren’t allowed into Bagram at all.  In the interviews with Guantanamo US  army staff, their minder persistently intervened to prevent them getting answers on the grounds that they were raising issues which could not be discussed.

However they were able to track down some people in Pakistan and  Afghanistan who had been kept prisoner for many months in Guantanamo or for several weeks at Bagram in Pakistan, and later released, and  they also filmed interviews with parents of some of those still  imprisoned at Guantanamo.  In addition there were interviews with  Senator John Cornyn (Rep., formerly Texan Attorney-General and before that a Texas judge, close ally of Bush) and with Justice Goldstone (member of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and former Chief Prosecutor for the International Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia).

The programme was one of the more depressingly savage indictments of  justice systematically denied that I can remember, at any rate in relation to a civilised democracy – especially one whose constitution  and Bill of Rights have always been such beacons to liberal-minded people everywhere.  This isn’t the place to describe the practices and  interrogation techniques convincingly documented by the programme (some  of which were admitted by one of the US officials interviewed):  most of it we already knew anyway from earlier piecemeal reports and allegations.  We knew that most of those incarcerated in Guantanamo have been there for well over a year, interrogated daily, kept in small cages (enclosed in recent months), unable to see a lawyer or relatives, not charged with (still less convicted of) any offence, often hooded and shackled, frogmarched around the camp in humiliating orange jumpsuits,  their letters home (via the Red Cross) censored, given no information about how long they are going to continue to be subjected to this treatment or whether they are ever going to be charged and tried — or if  so, when, or what penalties might be inflicted on them.  We knew that  three of them are children, one aged just 13.  We knew that the US  courts had ruled that persons on Guantanamo, totally American-controlled  and governed, were not entitled to any of the protections of the US  constitution or of American law, because  the area is held under  indefinite lease from Cuba.  We knew that the official US line (parroted by at least one of the US officials interviewed), according to which these men were captured in battle against the United States and therefore properly  categorised as enemy combatants, is a lie (several of them have been  kidnapped in non-military circumstances in Pakistan, Afghanistan, even the Gambia).  We knew that kidnapping them in third countries and  transporting them without any judicial process to Guantanamo was contrary to both international law and the laws of the countries in  which they were abducted.  We knew that belated “trials” are at last  planned for a few of the prisoners, including two of the Britons, but that the prosecutors and defence lawyers will probably be serving officers of the US army owing obedience to their Commander-in-Chief who has already said  publicly that “these are bad men”.  But all these horrors were given added impact by being assembled together, with first-hand evidence galore, in a single programme.

Perhaps one of the most chilling things about it was the blank, often robot-like refusal of any of the US officers or officials interviewed (and of Senator Cornyn) to admit that there was anything wrong, still less illegal, about any of these Kafkaesque nightmares.  The “detainees”  were not prisoners, their treatment was not inhumane, keeping men  kneeling on the ground with their arms above their heads for hours at a  time was not torture, the question of due process didn’t arise.  The trials by the proposed Military Commission would be fair and impartial.  The Guantanamo staff all expressed patriotic pride in their work because they knew they were saving millions of Americans from terrorist attack by keeping these terrorists in their Guantanamo cages.  Only the Protestant padre of the camp hinted at private unease over what was  going on, but he excused himself from voicing it because he had to remain focused on his job of ministering to the spiritual needs of the camp staff.

Justice Goldstone was absolutely clear that the treatment of the  prisoners amounted to ‘torture’ in the legal-technical sense as defined by the Torture Convention[1];  that the detention of people in third countries and their transportation to Guantanamo without due process was illegal, as was their indefinite detention without charge or trial;  and that a future US President would be obliged to apologise for the injustices being committed.  Even the spokesman for the International  Red Cross, usually the most cautious of institutions in expressing  critical views about an on-going situation, confirmed that the detentions and conditions of detention were in contravention of international law.

I believe, I hope not deludedly, that British public and parliamentary  opinion would not tolerate these grotesque abuses for a single week if  they were being committed by a British government, and that any British government perpetrating them would be hounded from office in disgrace[2].  I simply don’t understand how it can be that this is not a major political scandal in the American political scene, on a par with the charge that Bush took the country to war on a fraudulent prospectus, and  certainly infinitely more outrageous than the action of a White House staffer in publicly identifying the wife of a diplomat as a member of  the CIA.

And I’m ashamed that by its connivance with Washington in its illegal  invasion and occupation of Iraq, Britain is indirectly complicit in the crime of Guantanamo.

There’s a transcript of the whole Panorama programme at

Sorry to have written in such immoderate terms, but I hope someone can  explain to me why there’s apparently no great concern over all this in the land of the free and the home of the brave, whose superb people held  these truths to be self-evident, that all [sic] men are created equal  and have certain unalienable rights, and that among these are Life,  Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …


1.  Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

2.  Its true that to our lasting shame our own government has declared a wholly fictitious state of emergency in order to be able to suspend the provision of the Human Rights Convention and Act forbidding imprisonment without trial, and has used its tame majority in parliament to give itself power under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 to detain without trial aliens suspected of terrorist connections who cant be deported because either no other country will accept them or else their own native countries would torture and execute them (or both) if they could lay their hands on them.  Sixteen or so aliens are indefinitely detained without charge or trial, some in harsh conditions in a maximum security prison, under this scandalous abrogation of basic judicial principle.  Its inexcusable, but not really comparable with Guantanamo:  the prisoners in Britain have free legal representation and the right of appeal to the courts, if necessary all the way to our highest court, the Law Lords;  they can receive visits;  their cases must be reviewed and their detention orders reviewed (or revoked) at set intervals;  the purpose of their detention is to contain a possible threat to national security, not to interrogate them intensively;  above all, any of them are free to leave the country at any time if they can find another country willing to accept them and to which they would feel safe to go.  The system has prompted many strong protests and serious legal challenges.  It cant be defended or excused.  But


it isnt.

Postscript, December 2003:  The issues arising from Guantanamo have at last begun to prompt more anxious questioning in the US than when my e-mail was written in early October.  The US Supreme Court is to decide, but not until well into 2004, whether the lower US courts have been correct in disavowing any jurisdiction over what goes on at this Pentagon-controlled United States base: hardly the core question, but it’s a start.  Britain’s Attorney-General, described recently in the Guardian by Paul Foot as one of the few lawyers on earth who believes that the attack on Iraq was in accordance with international law, has been commuting across the Atlantic in the attempt to negotiate with the Pentagon’s lawyers some sort of special deal for the British citizens incarcerated at Guantanamo (he has reportedly extracted a promise that the death penalty will not be sought in any of the cases of the Brits who might at some point be put on trial by a special ‘military commission’ to be set up by President Bush).  There has been speculation in the UK press that the President might be persuaded to allow the Guantanamo Britons to be returned to the UK for trial by the British courts, to which several possible objections seem likely to be made:  not least that the Crown Prosecution Service, officially an independent body, is unlikely to agree to a prosecution of these men here in the absence of any sufficiently cogent evidence on which to convict them, plus the alleged objections of our Home Secretary to any agreement that might result in the acquittal of the men in Britain (or a decision not to prosecute them) so that these allegedly dangerous terrorists would end up walking the streets of Britain free to pursue their nefarious schemes. (If true, this must be the first time that a British Home Secretary has objected to the return of British citizens to their own country on the grounds that if tried, they might be acquitted.)  It will be interesting — and more than merely interesting for the men concerned and their families — to see how our political masters contrive to escape from these and other similar dilemmas.

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