10 January 2005
It is now three years since the US government first began flying suspected terrorist fighters from Afghanistan to its military base in Cuba. But justice is still as distant for the inmates of Guantanamo Bay as it was in January 2002. Every day that these men have been held without charge has been a fresh stain on America's history.
After three years, we still know astonishingly little about the day-to-day functioning of Guantanamo. The US military only allows journalists limited access to the base. But the information that has reached the outside world has been shocking. The US military has admitted to 10 substantiated instances of abuse or mistreatment of prisoners. Thirty-four inmates have attempted to commit suicide. Leaked documents also allege that one prisoner was shackled and left to lie in his own faeces. This supports allegations of torture from four British inmates who were released. All of this suggests that the abuses being perpetrated at Guantanamo Bay are similar in nature to those committed at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
There is also reason to believe that the US military has turned a blind eye to abuse. It has come to light that FBI agents warned the US government about such incidents two years ago and that the Pentagon did nothing. Although an investigation has - finally - been established, the military has its defence prepared already. It argues that many of the cases are old and involve interrogation techniques that have been phased out. This is about as credible as the argument that the torture at Abu Ghraib was the work of "a few bad apples", rather than a calculated programme to degrade prisoners.
Three years on and even the practical purpose of Guantanamo must now be questioned. Out of more than 600 original prisoners, a grand total of four have been charged. This does not suggest that the US military has collected a mass of damning evidence. Otherwise, it would surely have secured a host of convictions. And Steve Rodriguez, the civilian in charge of interrogations at Guantanamo, has admitted that "the majority of individuals that are here today ... are not of intelligence value".
Yet the real outrage at Guantanamo is not that it has been a less than effective tool in defeating global terrorism. The greatest disgrace is that it has become, in the words of Amnesty International, an "icon of lawlessness". To the Pentagon, the inmates of Guantanamo are not "prisoners of war", protected by the Geneva Conventions, but "non-enemy combatants". They have only the legal protections that the US government wishes to grant them. This means they have no right to know the evidence against them and no right to consult a lawyer. They have been cast into a terrifying legal black hole.
The fact that the US Supreme Court ruled in June that the prisoners can challenge their imprisonment in federal courts provides a glimmer of hope. Almost 70 detainees have filed cases in the US District Court challenging the legality of their detention. It is to be hoped that the American judiciary will be as categorical as our own law lords have been in condemning the shameful reintroduction of internment without trial. A US district judge has already ruled that inmates cannot be tried before a military tribunal, unless the procedures conform to standard US military codes.
There have been some modifications to the infrastructure of Guantanamo Bay over the years. The open-air cells have given way to prefabricated structures, which afford the 550 inmates more protection from the elements. There is even talk of setting up a psychiatric wing for distressed inmates. But the US government has given few indications that the days of Guantanamo are numbered. A $4m security fence is being erected to reduce the need for infantry troops to be stationed there. It is becoming a worryingly permanent feature. But if the US is at all concerned with recovering its reputation as a respecter of human rights, it will begin making plans to tear this symbol of injustice down. Three years is more than enough.