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Torture’s Terrible Toll

A large banner in front of the White House that says “Shut Down Guantanamo”
Protesters hold banners in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 11, 2016. © Erkan Avci/Anadolu/Getty

Nineteen years ago, the United States began shipping Muslim men and boys to hastily constructed wire cages at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Roughly 780 people were eventually taken captive there, most turned over by Afghan militias or Pakistani forces that seized them after the United States invaded Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, attacks. 

In its early days, some Bush administration officials referred to Guantanamo as the “legal equivalent of outer space.” Others called it “America’s Battle Lab.” The former proved less accurate than was hoped: lawyers managed to access Guantanamo and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees had a constitutional right to challenge the legality of their detention. The latter term, however, was prescient.

Guantanamo’s Joint Task Force-170 was given responsibility “for the worldwide management of interrogation of suspected terrorists detained in support of [U.S.] military operations.” The Task Force discharged that responsibility by developing strategies to “break” detainees. The resulting torture was very much the equivalent of what was done at secret CIA prisons and spread quickly to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, culminating in the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

Nine men have died at Guantanamo, six by suspected suicide. Forty still languish there at a cost of $540 million per year. Of the dozen men actually charged with a crime—including the handful accused of planning 9/11, who haven’t yet gone to trial and won’t this year—their cases have exposed Guantanamo’s novel military court system for the catastrophe that it is.

For many years Guantanamo was an issue of public significance and regular—if sporadic—debate. It is now largely forgotten, but not by everyone. What follows is a look at Guantanamo through the eyes of five people whose lives the prison still impacts dramatically.

Sharqawi Al-Hajj was captured in February 2002 and rendered by the CIA to Jordan, where he was held in secret and tortured for nearly two years. “They beat me in a way that does not know any limits,” he wrote in a note smuggled out of his Jordanian prison. “[They said] we’ll make you see death. . . . They threatened to rape me.”

He was then rendered to a CIA black site in Afghanistan and “kept in complete darkness and subjected to continuous loud music” until his 2004 transfer to Guantanamo.

Two decades of cruel captivity have damaged Al-Hajj, physically and psychologically. He suffers from profound weakness and fatigue; recurrent jaundice; severe abdominal pain; and difficult, painful urination. In 2017, after a several week-long hunger strike due to increasing despair over his poor health and indefinite detention, he fell unconscious and required emergency hospitalization. He has been repeatedly hospitalized for hunger strikes since.

In 2019, Al-Hajj threatened suicide. “Maybe I’m going to cut my nerves to make myself bleed. Maybe that’s what I need to do,” he told his lawyer. “I have to do something, try to kill myself. For how long can I be patient? I’m human.”

He cut his wrists with a piece of broken glass during a phone call several weeks later. He said that he was bleeding “but [his] body doesn’t have any liquid left,” and that he was “sorry for doing this but they treat [detainees] like animals.”

In a letter earlier this year, Al-Hajj wrote, “I feel desperate because I don’t see how anyone will be able to put an end to this injustice.”

Colleen Kelly is the co-founder of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization born out of a small group of family members of those killed during the attacks who united to turn their grief into action for peace. Kelly visits and reflects on Guantanamo often, but especially on this anniversary day each year.

“My brother Bill Kelly was murdered on 9/11 in what was likely the most public event in history. While people around the globe watched two towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania burn, I watched Bill being murdered, one agonizing moment after another.

“I expected accountability for Bill’s murder to be just as public so that everyone, family members included, could see the United States respond with fair and impartial justice. Instead, America chose two wars and a secret torture program. It opened Guantanamo and reinvented military commissions.”

Kelly insists that she didn’t want any of this and is increasingly frustrated that, after almost 20 years, there’s no resolution.

“I sat with Rita Lasar, another cofounder of Peaceful Tomorrows, in 2012, and watched the arraignment of the 9/11 accused. Rita is now deceased. I was on the plane to Guantanamo carrying the only 9/11 family member yet to be deposed in the pretrial hearings. Lee Hanson is now deceased. My parents are in their 80s and still don’t have my brother’s remains.”

“This pattern must end. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is fast approaching. 9/11 families, and the world, are watching.”

Sondra Crosby is a medical doctor and professor at Boston University. She has evaluated nearly 1000 torture survivors in her practice, including in the Middle East and Central Asia. She has also spent as much time as any other independent medical expert evaluating Guantanamo detainees and interfacing with Guantanamo’s medical care system.

“For years now,” Crosby explains, “a variety of detainees’ medical needs, which are often linked to their torture and prolonged indefinite detention, have outstripped Guantanamo’s medical care capabilities. The prison’s inability or unwillingness to properly diagnose and treat certain conditions has caused needless suffering and repeatedly violated the government’s duty to provide adequate medical care.”

Guantanamo’s medical care deficiencies result from a number of factors, ranging from a lack of expertise and equipment to military medical providers refusing to ask about or document detainees’ trauma, to detainees distrusting those same providers due to a history of medical complicity in torture.

“The situation is precarious now and it’s going to get worse,” Crosby warns. “As the men age, they will increasingly present with medical needs that Guantanamo simply can’t manage. If the problems aren’t addressed and Guantanamo remains open, I’m very concerned that men will begin to die.”

Eric Kerska is a retired Army colonel whose daughter, Erika, deployed to Guantanamo with a Minnesota National Guard company last summer. This was Sergeant Kerska’s second deployment there and her father was livid at the way she and her fellow troops were treated.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Guantanamo adopted measures to protect against the virus spreading across the base. Those protocols’ adequacy, and their impact on the rights and health of both detainees and military personnel, have raised serious concerns, including among members of Congress.

Upon arriving at Guantanamo, each member of Sergeant Kerska’s unit was effectively isolated for 14 days in nine-foot-by-12-foot “containerized housing.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing in my 37 years being associated with the U.S military,” Colonel Kerska told his local NBC affiliate. “If you look up the definition of solitary confinement; they are essentially in solitary confinement.

“There are states that don’t even do [this] to prisoners,” he continued. “I believe this is wrong, I believe it’s illegal and certainly immoral.”

Alka Pradhan is Human Rights Counsel at the Guantanamo military commissions representing Ammar al Baluchi, one of five men against whom the government is seeking the death penalty for their alleged involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks.

The case has involved more than eight years of pretrial proceedings, seven different judges, and is still mired in litigation over the detainee’s years-long torture before arriving at Guantanamo. Hearings have been suspended since February 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions. A trial appears nowhere in sight. 

“There is no aspect of the 9/11 case that isn’t deeply tragic,” Pradhan says. “The U.S. government chose to torture these men, and damage them permanently. It chose to withhold medical care from them. It chose to prosecute them at Guantanamo using evidence derived from their torture and to argue that U.S. law doesn’t apply in a courtroom flying the U.S. flag. It continues to insist on pervasive secrecy. The end result is that there can never be a fair trial for 9/11.”

Pradhan also warns about the ripple effect on national security of the lack of accountability for U.S. torture: “By failing to hold senior officials responsible for knowingly breaking the law, the U.S. government freed them to spread disinformation about the ‘efficacy’ of torture and Guantanamo. In reality, both were disastrous for intelligence-gathering and security alliances. Nineteen years later, government disinformation has metastasized into every aspect of ‘national security’ in America and is now itself one of our biggest threats.”

President-elect Biden enters office with the United States in crisis on multiple fronts and Guantanamo outside the public eye. Ironically, that might afford him an unusually conducive political environment for closing the prison. My colleagues and I developed a roadmap for his administration to do so swiftly and responsibly. He should seize the opportunity so that everyone Guantanamo continues to impact can at least begin to put this dark chapter behind them.

The Center for Victims of Torture is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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