Mukul Sharma

Guantanamo Bay is a symbol of U.S. abuse and injustice. None of the Guantanamo detainees has been granted prisoner of war status or brought before a competent tribunal to determine his status, as required by international law.

For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

ON JANUARY 11, 2007, the detention centre at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which unlawfully holds what the U.S. terms enemy combatants will be five years old. Hundreds of people of around 35 different nationalities are in what is, in effect, a legal black hole; many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits. Many of them allege they have been subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Three detainees have reportedly committed suicide. Others have gone on prolonged hunger strikes, being kept alive only through painful force-feeding measures. Guantanamo Bay is a symbol of U.S. abuse and injustice. Outraged by this, human rights activists worldwide joined together on International Actions Day, December 16, 2006, in solidarity with the detainees and their families, to demand once more that the U.S. government close down Guantanamo. This date also marked the start of one month of activism against the detention centre that will culminate on January 17.

In January 2002, the U.S. authorities transferred the first `war on terror' detainees hooded and shackled to Guantanamo Bay. Many of them were captured during the international conflict in Afghanistan. Others were picked up outside zones of armed conflict in countries as diverse as Gambia, Bosnia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Thailand. They were the first of more than 750 detainees of some 45 nationalities. They have included children as young as 13, as well as the elderly.

They have included people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have included scores of individuals handed over to the U.S. by Pakistani or Afghan agents in return for bounties of thousands of dollars. In his recent memoirs, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf wrote that the CIA had paid millions of dollars in "bounties" and "prize money" for 369 suspects handed over by Pakistan. In early September 2006, U.S. authorities transferred to Guantanamo 14 men who had been held in secret CIA custody. President George W. Bush finally admitted that, in the `war on terror', the U.S. had been resorting to secret detentions and enforced disappearance, which is a crime under international law.

Released detainees and others still in the camp have alleged that they have been subjected to torture and other degrading treatment while detained by U.S. authorities at Guantanamo or elsewhere. Some of the detainees are still held in maximum security blocks, sometimes for up to 24 hours a day and with very little out-of-cell exercise time. The detainees have also been subjected to repeated interrogations sometimes for hours at a time and without the presence of a lawyer, raising fears that statements may have been extracted under coercion. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is still the only non-governmental organisation allowed access to the detainees.

With the prospect of indefinite detention without a fair trial in such conditions, the potential psychological impact upon those held and their loved ones is a major concern. The camp is condemning thousands of people across the world to a life of suffering, torment, and stigmatisation. None of the Guantanamo detainees has been convicted of any criminal charge. Hundreds of them have been released from the base without charge or any form of compensation for the many years they were illegally detained at Guantanamo. Yet the U.S. authorities still label those held as "enemy combatants," "terrorists," or "the worst of the worst," flouting their right to be presumed innocent and illegally justifying the denial of many of their most basic human rights.

None of the Guantanamo detainees has been granted prisoner of war status or brought before a competent tribunal to determine his status, as required by international law. The U.S. government refuses to clarify their legal status. In November 2001, President Bush signed a Military Order establishing trials by military commissions, which had the power to hand down death sentences and against whose decision there was no right of appeal to any court. On June 29, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Bush had overstepped his authority in ordering military commissions trials. It said the proposed commissions violated U.S. law and the Geneva conventions. The decision was based on the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a 36-year-old Yemeni national who has spent four years in the U.S. detention centre.

The ruling was a victory for the rule of law and human rights. Human rights organisations called on the Bush administration to use it as a springboard for bringing all its `war on terror' detention policies into full compliance with U.S. and international law. Instead, on September 29, 2006, the U.S. Congress gave its stamp of approval to human rights violations committed by the U.S. by passing the Military Commissions Act, a new legislation to try foreign nationals held in Guantanamo. President Bush signed the Act on October 17, 2006.

The Military Commissions Act leaves the U.S. squarely on the wrong side of international law. The Act is discriminatory because it provides for trials of the `enemy' in front of military commissions using lower standards of evidence than apply to U.S. personnel. It also grants the U.S. President the power to hand down death sentences. Whether charged for trial or not, those detained by the U.S. as `enemy combatants' will not be able to challenge the lawfulness or conditions of their detention in habeas corpus appeals.

Human rights are under threat. The ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment the most universally accepted of human rights is being undermined. In the `war on terror,' governments are not only using torture and ill-treatment, they are making the case that this is justifiable and necessary. Those who claim to set their human rights standards high are at the forefront of this assault. The Bush administration is one such government. Its conduct influences governments everywhere, giving comfort to those who commit torture routinely and undermining the very values the `war on terror' is supposed to defend. Several reports suggest that the U.S. during the `war on terror' used all the torture methods abduction, blindfolding, burking, chemical spray, electric shocks, claustrophobia-including techniques, forcible injections, physical assault, sexual assault, threat of rape, secret detention, etc.

They speak of `coercive interrogation' but when the door to torture is opened, the pressure is always upward. If one slap doesn't work, then a beating will follow. If a beating doesn't work, what comes next? See the photographs or hear the testimonies available. It is cruel, inhuman; it degrades us all.

Moazzam Begg was unlawfully detained in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay for three years, and eventually released without charge. He said in September 2006: "The biggest suffering everybody has in Guantanamo Bay, I think at this point, is the sheer lack of any ability to prove your innocence because you remain in legal limbo, and have no communication at all, no meaningful communication with your family." From being in isolation and practically being stripped naked apart from a pair of shorts [...] in isolation the air-conditioning was left on so it was particularly cold at night. I wasn't able to sleep and had to do exercises throughout the night periodically, I kept waking up because of the cold." Abdel-Jabbar Al-Azzawi was detained and tortured by U.S. forces and civilian interrogators hired by the U.S. government in Iraq. He has since been cleared of charges. He said, "They made me lie on a wooden board. Then they tied each of my hands to a winch. Then they placed me like this. They started taking photos of me. With every question they asked they would tighten the winch until I was stretched flat. They threatened to bring my wife and my eldest son and rape them in front of me."

The continuing pursuit of unchecked executive power is unparallel. The assaults on rights, freedom, laws are unimaginable. The laws, justice systems, institutional arrangements, power have been stretched to give cover for abhorrent policies. In this so-called "nation of laws," this is not the rule of law. As John Locke said four centuries ago, this is the first step towards tyranny.

(The writer is Director, Amnesty International-India, and is closely associated with the World Social Forum and the World Dignity Forum.)