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II. Guantánamo: America’s “Black Hole”

The secrecy surrounding detention practices at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the U.S. government’s refusal to grant POW status to the Taliban detainees there or to even recognize that al-Qaeda detainees are covered by the Geneva Conventions, the approval of harsh interrogation techniques, and the allegations of abuse by some released detainees combine to raise concerns about mistreatment of detainees at the base. While Human Rights Watch has no information of Abu-Ghraib-level abuses at Guantánamo, there is a lot that remains to be learned.

The United States has carefully controlled information about the detainees at Guantánamo, barring them from most contact with the outside world.28  As a result, little is publicly known about the more than 700 detainees from forty-four countries, including children as young as 13, who have been held at Guantánamo.29 Human Rights Watch, and others, have had access only to detainees released from U.S. custody – and those released thus far are people whom U.S. authorities did not consider to be a security risk or indictable for criminal offenses. That is, none of them are the sort of high value or important detainees who might have been treated more harshly.  What the world has been allowed to see of the Guantánamo detention facility are highly controlled tours for journalists (who have not been able to talk to detainees), and occasional video material released by the U.S. Department of Defense. Guantánamo has been described as a “legal black hole” by Lord Johan Steyn, a judicial member of Britain’s House of Lords.30

Incommunicado detention has been consistently condemned by international human rights bodies as facilitating conditions under which torture and other mistreatment may take place.31

Statements by U.S. officials that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to al-Qaeda detainees -- indeed, the Bush administration’s refusal to acknowledge that any law applies to them -- and that harsher methods of interrogation are therefore permissible, only heighten this concern. In his January 2002 memo to the president, for instance, White House counsel Gonzales endorsed not applying the Conventions to Guantánamo to avoid “Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.”32 

It was the failure to obtain sufficient information using non-coercive methods on Guantánamo detainees which reportedly led to the creation of the working group which informed Secretary Rumsfeld in April 2003 that the president, as commander in chief, could authorize torture notwithstanding domestic and international legal prohibitions.33  According to the Wall Street Journal, a U.S. official who helped prepared the report said “We’d been at this for a year-plus and got nothing out of them [certain Guantánamo detainees] … we need to have a less-cramped view of what torture is and is not.” According to the official, interrogation techniques including drawing on prisoners’ bodies, putting women’s underwear on their heads, and threatening imminent harm to their families had not borne fruit and there was a need to “ratchet up the pressure.”34

The Washington Post reported that in April 2003, officials at the highest levels of the Defense and Justice Departments approved a list of about twenty interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay that permit, among other things, reversing the normal sleep patterns of detainees and exposing them to heat, cold and “sensory assault,” including loud music and bright lights, according to defense officials. The use of the techniques, according to the Post, must be justified as “militarily necessary,” and must be accompanied by “appropriate medical monitoring,” and requires the approval of senior Pentagon officials, and in some cases, of the Defense Secretary.35 CBS News reported that Secretary Rumsfeld had approved such treatment for Mohammed Khatani, who in August 2001 allegedly tried unsuccessfully to enter the United States as part of the 9-11 plot. The treatment included reversing Khatani’s sleep patterns, cutting off his beard, playing loud music and subjecting him to interrogation sessions lasting up to twenty hours. The head of U.S. Southern Command, General James Hill, whose responsibilities include Guantánamo Bay, said in June 2004 that Rumsfeld approved unspecified intensive interrogation techniques on two prisoners at Guantánamo.36 The Wall Street Journal has reported that interrogation methods now used at Guantánamo include “limiting prisoners’ food, denying them clothing, subjecting them to body-cavity searches, depriving them of sleep for as much as ninety-six hours and shackling them in so-called stress positions.”37

Human Rights Watch has examined the accounts of over a dozen people released from Guantánamo concerning their incarceration there. These include nine persons directly interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a sworn statement by a British former detainee provided to Human Rights Watch by his legal representative, and comments to media sources by several others. None of these accounts includes descriptions of the range of coercive interrogation techniques that reportedly had been authorized. As noted above, none of the detainees released to date have included “high value” detainees; most were apparently not even members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Thus, it cannot be determined if the methods used on the interviewees are representative or not of methods used on more important detainees. Nevertheless, some do describe degrading treatment, beatings and some sexual humiliation.

Describing his experience of being chained to the floor for long periods in an interrogation room without actually being interrogated, Briton Tarek Dergoul, who was released in March 2004, stated: “Eventually I’d need to urinate and in the end I would try to tilt my chair and go on the floor. They were watching through a one-way mirror. As soon as I wet myself, a woman MP [military police] would come in yelling, ‘Look what you’ve done!  You’re disgusting.’”38

In a joint statement issued on May 13, 2004, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, who were also released in March 2004 and repatriated to Britain, recounted:  “Shortly before we left, a new practice was started.  People would be taken to what was called the ‘Romeo’ block where they would be stripped completely.  After three days they would be given underwear.  After another three days they would be given a top, and then after another three days given trouser bottoms.  Some people only ever got underwear.  This was said to be for ‘misbehaving.’”39

One detainee, “A.,” in Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch that he was threatened with electric shocks. Human Rights Watch is not aware, however, of any instances in which shocks were actually administered.

A number of those interviewed described physical duress, particularly being subjected to extreme cold in the camp’s isolation wing. Former detainee Shah Mohammed Alikhil told Human Rights Watch: “It had a cold environment and cold weather [air conditioning] was blowing.  Sometimes I was freezing cold, but we were denied blankets except during the night we were given blankets.”40  Mohammad Saghir from Pakistan,41 also complained of the very cold conditions in the punishment cells, where he was twice held, caused by air conditioning.   Former detainee A., from Afghanistan, stated:  “The isolation room was for punishment.  It was a dark room and cold air was blowing.  I had two blankets but still I was feeling cold.  I was there for a month each time.”42  Tarek Dergoul described being chained to a ring in the floor and left alone for up to eight hours each day for a month.  He stated: “The air conditioning would really be blowing – it was freezing, which was incredibly painful on my amputation stumps.” (Dergoul had his left arm amputated above the elbow and a big toe was amputated because of frostbite.)43

Many described being chained or shackled. Dergoul described restraint equipment referred to as the “short shackle” - steel bonds pulled tight to keep the subject bunched up, then chained to the floor:  “After a while, it was agony.”44 Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, British detainees at Guantánamo, described interrogation practices as follows:

“Our interrogations in Guantánamo… were conducted with us chained to the floor for hours on end in circumstances so prolonged that it was practice to have plastic chairs…  that could be easily hosed off because prisoners would be forced to urinate during the course of them and were not allowed to go to the toilet.

“One practice … was ‘short shackling’ where we were forced to squat without a chair with our hands chained between our legs and chained to the floor.  If we fell over, the chains would cut into our hands.  We would be left in this position for hours before an interrogation, during the interrogations (which could last as long as 12 hours), and sometimes for hours while the interrogators left the room.  The air conditioning was turned up so high that within minutes we would be freezing.  There was strobe lighting and loud music played that was itself a form of torture.  Sometimes dogs were brought in to frighten us…  Sometimes detainees would be taken to the interrogation room day after day and kept short-shackled without interrogation ever happening, sometimes for weeks on end.”45

Other detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, however, did not describe any abuse during interrogations.  For example, Abdul Razak told Human Rights Watch that

“In the thirteen months I was in Cuba, I was interrogated 10-12 times. I was interrogated in a separate room and always alone. I would be brought there and my legs would be shackled to a chair. One or two Americans in plain clothes interviewed me.  A typical interrogation consisted of questions about my family, education record, language skills, background…what I intended to do in the future…Purpose of my missionary activity…who funded it…what I was doing in Afghanistan….The sessions lasted between one and two hours each and I was asked questions the whole time.46

Several detainees talked about beatings, although only one had been assaulted himself.. The Afghan former detainee A. told Human Rights Watch: “I saw some other prisoners who were beaten and blood was running from their heads.  Specifically I saw two Arabs who were acting obstinately who were beaten.”47 Mohammad Saghir, from Pakistan, says he witnessed the beating by seven guards of an Arab prisoner for spitting at a guard:  “They all went into the cell and were beating him and kicking him.”48  Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal reported witnessing a number of assaults on prisoners by U.S. personnel, and that soldiers had spoken openly of conducting beatings in cells, boasting “we can do anything we want.”  Abdul Razak stated, “though I was never beaten, I heard from other prisoners that they had been.  And I saw one prisoners with serious head injuries…gashes and congealed blood…who said the guards had done it.”49 Rasul and Iqbal recounted one beating in particular, of Bahraini prisoner Jummah Al-Dousari, who they described as having become “psychiatrically disturbed”: 

“[Jummah Al-Dousari] was lying on the floor of his cage immediately near to us when a group of eight or nine guards known as the ERF team (Extreme Reaction Force) entered his cage…  They stamped on his neck, kicking him in the stomach even though he had metal rods there as a result of an operation, and they picked up his head and smashed his face into the floor.  One female officer was ordered to go into the cell and kick him and beat him which she did, in his stomach.  This is known as “ERFing.”50

Briton Tarek Dergoul alleges that he was himself beaten, and had a chemical spray administered when he refused to comply with cell searches.  He also said the cell searches were sometimes staged when prisoners were praying.  He has stated:

 “If I refused a cell search MPs would call the Extreme Reaction Force who came in riot gear with plastic shields and pepper spray.  The Extreme Reaction Force entered the cell, ran in and pinned me down after spraying me with pepper spray and attacked me.  The pepper spray caused me to vomit on several occasions.  They poked their fingers in my eyes, banged my head on the floor and kicked and punched me and tied me up like a beast.  They often forced my head into the toilet.”51

The detainee accounts of excessive or malicious force centered primarily around the use of these special squads, which according to a Guantánamo spokesman are actually known as the “Initial Response Force.”52 As is common in U.S. prisons, Guantánamo apparently used specially outfitted groups of guards to enter the cells of detainees disobeying orders in order to secure compliance or subdue them as necessary. Standard use of force requirements mandate that no more force should ever be used against prisoners than necessary to achieve legitimate security or safety objectives.53 In U.S. prisons, however, the special teams often use unnecessary or excessive force – using the confrontation with a detainee as an opportunity to “teach him a lesson” or to engage in malicious beatings.  A similar phenomenon may have happened at Guantánamo, despite military insistence that the IRF squads used the minimal force necessary.  Under the rules of the prison, every use of the IRF squad is apparently videotaped.  A review of all those tapes could confirm or disprove detainees’ allegations of beatings by the IRF. Navy Vice Admiral Albert Church apparently reviewed some of the tapes in early May 2004.

The U.S. military has denied any serious abuse at Guantánamo.  Following the release of the photographs showing the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent the Navy’s inspector general, Vice Adm. Albert T. Church, to Guantánamo in early May to undertake a review of possible abuses.  According to Church, he found only eight instances of minor infractions involving contact dating back to 2002. Two guards were demoted in rank and a third was acquitted in a court martial. Church’s findings were based on interviews with interrogators, guards, military civilians, and contractors.  Somewhat surprisingly, he did not interview any detainees.

Following the emergence of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, some former Guantánamo detainees have also insisted that photographs and videotapes of practices inside Guantánamo exist.  Britons Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal stated: “[T]here were and no doubt still are cameras everywhere in the interrogation areas.  We are aware that evidence that could contradict what is being said officially is in existence.  We know that CCTV cameras, videotapes and photographs exist since we were regularly filmed and photographed during interrogations and at other times.”54

[28] Guantánamo detainees are visited by the ICRC, which does not report publicly, and some have been interviewed by representatives of their home governments.

[29] On January 29, 2004, the U.S. released three children believed to be between thirteen and fifteen years of age, but continued to hold an unspecified number of older children. For a more detailed discussion of the special risks to children held at Guantánamo see, Human Rights Watch, “Despite Releases, Children Still Held at Guantánamo,” January 29, 2004,, and Human Rights Watch, “Letter to Secretary Rumsfeld on Child Detainees at Guantanamo,” April 24, 2003,

[30] Johan Steyn, “Guantanamo: A monstrous failure of justice,” International Herald Tribune, November 28, 2003.

[31] The Human Rights Committee, the expert body established to monitor compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its authoritative interpretation of Article 7 prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, has stated:  “To guarantee the effective protection of detained persons, provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognized as places of detention and for their names and places of detention, as well as for the names of persons responsible for their detention, to be kept in registers readily available and accessible to those concerned, including relatives and friends.” General Comment 20, para. 11.

[32] See, e.g., John Yoo, “Terrorists have no Geneva rights,” Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2004. 

[33] Jess Bravin, Pentagon Report Set Framework For Use of Torture, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2004

[34] Ibid.

[35] Dana Priest and Joe Stephens, “Pentagon approved tougher interrogations,” Washington Post, May 9, 2004.

[36] Josh White, “Methods used on 2 at Guantanamo,” Washington Post, June 4, 2004.

[37] Jess Bravin, “Pentagon Report Set Framework For Use of Torture,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2004

[38] David Rose, “They tied me up like a beast and began kicking me,” The Observer, May 16, 2004.

[39] Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, Open letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, May 13, 2004.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with Shah Mohammed Alikhil, January 3, 2004.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad Saghir, January 17, 2004.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with A. [name withheld], February 6, 2004.

[43] David Rose, “They tied me up like a beast and began kicking me,” The Observer, May 16, 2004.

[44] David Rose, “They tied me up like a beast and began kicking me,” The Observer, May 16, 2004.

[45] Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, Open letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, May 13, 2004.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Razak, June 3, 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview with A. [name withheld], February 6,2004.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad Saghir, January 17, 2004.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdul Razak, June 3, 2004.

[50] Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, Open letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, May 13, 2004.

[51] Statement by Tarek Dergoul made available to Human Rights Watch.

[52] “Videos Of Prisoner Treatment At Guantanamo Held By US,” Dow Jones International News, May 21, 2004.

[53] See, e.g., U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955), Art. 54. (1) “Officers of the institutions shall not, in their relations with the prisoners, use force except in self-defence or in cases of attempted escape, or active or passive physical resistance to an order based on law or regulations. Officers who have recourse to force must use no more than is strictly necessary.”

[54] Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, Open letter to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, May 13, 2004.

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