Guantánamo and the acronyms of despair

By Don Woolford

Guantánamo Bay, where the US military is holding suspected terrorists like Australian David Hicks, is coming increasingly under the spotlight, especially from Americans themselves. As some of the secrecy surrounding the US Cuban base is lifted, more and more questions are being raised - questions of legal process, effectiveness and common humanity. Even racism.

A picture of despair, privation and dubious interrogation methods is emerging.

Michael Mori's attack this week on the legal processes was particularly important because it was the first public criticism from within the military establishment.

The US Major assigned to defend Hicks said the military commissions that will hear as yet unspecified charges against the Australian and some other Guantánamo prisoners would not provide full and fair trials because they were created by people with a vested interest in convictions.

That didn't worry the Australian government, which agreed to the commissions last year after gaining a few concessions.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock suggested the Major was grandstanding, as lawyers tend to do. He maintained the trials will be fair and that America and Australia have used commissions in the past.

Not so, according to the Australian War Memorial.

A spokesman said researchers had established that the Australian military had never used anything called a commission.

The Japanese prosecutions after World War II, which Mr Ruddock was believed to be thinking of, were war crimes tribunals held under international law.

The question of fairness, and whether the executive and military can run judicial processes completely outside the scrutiny of the judiciary, will go to the US Supreme Court. It will be months before that's decided.

In the meantime, about 600 prisoners from many countries rot on Guantánamo, an artificial and constricted world of slightly sinister acronyms.

Guantánamo, or Gitmo to the 2,500 Americans there, has become shorthand throughout the world for American arrogance and unilateralism, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen said this week.

One of the most detailed pictures of life on the base was in this month's magazine Vanity Fair, with reporter David Rose suggesting it may be a graver threat to what America stands for than the terror it's meant to contain.

Rose said the camp has a spotless, airconditioned hospital. Most patients suffer depression, brought on by arduous, indefinite imprisonment.

Until September last year, there had been 32 suicide attempts, he said.

The rate has since declined because Gitmo has reclassified most attempted suicides as manipulative self-injurious behaviour (SIB). There'd been 40 SIBs in the last six months.

Rose quoted a Red Cross spokesman as saying there'd been a worrying deterioration in many internees' psychological health. More than a fifth were on anti-depressants.

Mori said Hicks was physically as fair as could be expected, but mentally he's degenerated to the point where his main concerns are basic human instincts.

Most of the prisoners are held in Camp Delta, which Rose described as a dusty sprawl of cell blocks and interrogation trailers, pockmarked by guard towers, girdled by rings of razor wire.

He said Kellogg, Brown & Root, the construction arm of Vice-President Dick Cheney's old company Halliburton, was to build more this year - bringing its income from Gitmo to $US135 million ($A175.07 million).

The standard cell was 54 square feet, little bigger than a king-size mattress. Next to the wall-mounted bed was a hole-in-floor toilet, tap and small sink.

There is no air-conditioning, though when the temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius guards may switch on ceiling fans in the hall. The lights stay on all night.

Tarpaulins rob prisoners of the small solace of a view of the sea, even during their short, shackled exercise periods.

Each cell has an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca and there was a Muslim chaplain, until he was charged with mishandling classified material. Spiritual needs are now in the hands of a Southern Baptist.

Gitmo is supposed to contribute to GWOT (global war on terror), partly by providing intelligence.

But Rose says intelligence officials doubt the information is high value or reliable, partly because the interrogation system is based on bribes and punishments.

Colonel Jerry Cannon, the officer in charge of detentions, told him: "The deal is: be a good detainee, obey the rules, cooperate with your interrogators... Just having a bottle of water, so you don't have to ask for a cup to fill with warm tap water, that's a big deal, that's a comfort item."

There are 29 such items, including a hamburger from the base McDonald's.

The biggest prize is a transfer to Camp Four, where prisoners sleep in dormitories, play sport and wash when they wish.

But what then is the value of what they tell their interrogators? And will, come the trials, such confessions be admitted as evidence? No normal court would entertain them for a moment. Justice is also supposed to be colour blind.

University of Pittsburgh law professor Darryll Jones has his doubts, partly because of the different treatment received by Hicks and the other Australian prisoner, Mamdouh Habib.

Jones, writing in Jurist, said Hicks had at least been listed for trial, given a military lawyer, allowed to talk to his Australian lawyer and promised contact with his family. But nothing for Habib.

Yet they were distinguishable by only one obvious fact - Hicks was a young caucasian Australian; Habib an older, brown-skinned Australian of Middle Eastern descent.

Jones said there was a similar American example.

John Walker Lindh, who'd been described as a "smooth-cheeked American teenager", was dealt with quickly and favourably by the American courts.

But another American captured in Afghanistan, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was sent to Gitmo until his citizenship was established and then locked in a navy brig, denied access to a lawyer or the same swift and merciful resolution enjoyed by his white compatriot.

[Source: The Age, Melbourne, Aus, 23Jan04]

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