Leading article: A travesty of everything a democracy should be


The Independent

Published: 13 June 2006

Sooner or later there were bound to be deaths at Guantanamo. The uncertainty, the isolation, the black despair that pervade this benighted prison camp on the tip of Cuba had already precipitated more than 40 suicide attempts. This weekend, three prisoners - two Saudis and a Yemeni - succeeded in putting an end to their torment. One of them, the US disclosed yesterday in a sad footnote to the clinically impersonal report, was about to be released. Apparently, he had not been told.

How these three men managed to evade the elaborate precautions the US authorities had put in place to prevent the making of martyrs at Guantanamo will doubtless be the subject of official inquiries. Continuous surveillance, force-feeding, and sheer brute force were all applied to keep the prisoners at this "state of the art" detention camp alive. Alive, but not subject to any recognisable judicial process. Alive, but without any timescale or realistic hope for release. This is the perverted logic of Guantanamo.

It is a logic whose dehumanising force was on full display in the immediate response of US officials to the deaths. Not since the stultifyingly cynical definition of 11 September 2001 as "a good day to bury bad news" have we heard the like. The camp commander, Rear-Admiral Harry Harris, described the suicides as "an act of asymmetric warfare against us". Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant secretary of state, dismissed them as "a good PR move" - by the prisoners. Ms Graffy, it is worth noting, is a political appointee in a diplomatic post specifically created to help improve the battered US image abroad.

It comes to something when President Bush (he of the gun-slinging challenge to Iraq's insurgents - "Bring it on") - comes across as the most culturally-sophisticated and politically-attuned member of the administration. His first response, as relayed by his new spokesman, was to speak of his concern and to call for the prisoners' bodies to be treated humanely and with "cultural sensitivity". Ms Graffy's opposite number at the Pentagon responded 24 hours later in a similar vein. "As Americans," he said, "we value life, even the lives of violent terrorists who are captured waging war against our country." Now that is more like it.

Refining the media message is one thing, however; ending the real iniquity of Guantanamo is quite another. And there is nothing in any US statement so far that suggests such a prospect is imminent or even seen as desirable. Mr Bush, to be sure, has said that he would like to empty Guantanamo, but he has done nothing to make this happen. His Attorney General may recently have called for its closure, but our own Prime Minister can find nothing more condemnatory to say about it than to describe it as "an anomaly".

Yet here is a prison camp replete with contradiction and cruelty. It was deliberately set up outside US jurisdiction and populated with suspects transported from the other side of the world. It exists - or did until the Supreme Court ruled otherwise - in a judicial no man's land that left prisoners entirely without rights. They are regarded neither as prisoners-of-war, protected by the Geneva conventions, nor yet as criminal suspects, protected by US federal laws. Long periods of solitary confinement verge on mental torture.

In its four years of existence, Guantanamo has come to represent all that is unacceptable in the US "war on terror". Such a camp has no place in any democratic country that claims to be governed by law, still less in a land that has taken upon itself a mission to spread democracy across the world. It must be closed, before any more of its prisoners are driven to suicide.