by Shelby Sullivan-Bennis
“First, they make you lie down on your tummy…”
This was the start of a recent conversation with my seventy-year-old client, Saifullah, after I asked him to describe one of the punishments now being handed down regularly at Guantánamo Bay.
Saifullah—the oldest man held in “Gitmo”—was telling me how he’d become the latest victim of a new crackdown at the prison. Several prisoners are currently on hunger strike, in peaceful protest at their unjust detention. The Trump administration is determined to break the strike by finding ways to punish them en masse.
While this chaos unfolds, things are unraveling elsewhere at the prison. The military commissions—already a bad joke—recently descended into farce. A brigadier general, who is chief defense counsel for one of the prisoners and Chief Defense Counsel for the Military Commissions Defense Organization, was taken into custody: the first new detainee under Trump.
The basic unsustainability of Guantánamo is starting to show.
Saifullah is a case in point. A kind, grandfatherly former businessman from Pakistan, Saifullah has been held without charge or trial for thirteen years. His fellow prisoners call him “Shasha”—Urdu for uncle. He is 70, and has survived three heart attacks.
On our last call, Saifullah told me how recently, for the first time in thirteen years, the guards at Gitmo had subjected him to a so-called “forced cell extraction,” or “FCE.”
What is an “FCE”? It is when a team of riot-gear-clad guards rush into a detainee’s cell, forcefully bind him to a stretcher, and haul him from point A to point B.
The walls of the prison at Guantánamo are built with these clunky euphemisms and acronyms: Torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or “EIT”; suicide is “asymmetric warfare”; and what is a hunger strike, to you and me, becomes a “long-term non-religious fast.”
This whitewashed vocabulary obscures the truth about what happens in this closed prison. George Orwell himself would be impressed.
In the early days of the prison, a Guantánamo guard was left with brain damage after he was FCE’d during a training. His fellow guards weren’t told that he was a soldier. This is the treatment that was meted out to Saifullah.
A squad—composed of anywhere between 20 and 25 battle-ready guards—stormed his cell, forced him to the ground, wrapped a series of heavy chains through his legs and arms, and hoisted him up and away. He was placed in solitary confinement for several days.
You won’t hear this kind of detail if you ask the U.S. government. Instead, you might be handed the Gitmo guide to FCEing, a piece published earlier this year in the prison’s official monthly magazine. Complete with color photos of an FCE training, it reads like something out of 1984’s Ministry of Truth. FCEing, a commander blithely explains, is all about providing “an immediate response force for unruly detainees.”
Despite his detention without trial for thirteen years, Saifullah is anything but “unruly”—whatever that means. His behavioral record is entirely without blemish.
When he was FCE’d, “everybody was protesting and objecting,” Saifullah told me, speaking about his fellow detainees. “They said ‘What are you doing? He has never insulted any guard, he is very polite, he is over 70 years old.’”
As his lawyer at Reprieve, I ask the same question. Like the vast majority of Guantánamo prisoners, Saifullah has never been charged with a crime nor had the opportunity to defend himself at trial. Saifullah is not on hunger strike; he has never been.
Because of his age and poor health, he told me, “my fellow detainees won’t let me.” But he supports the peaceful protest undertaken by several other men who are bereft of any other way to call attention to the injustice of their detention.
Instead of listening to these men, the authorities are trying to break them using brutal tactics.
“It felt like when we were brought in to Guantánamo,” Saifullah told me. “Not since the beginning days of Guantánamo has it been like this.”
Saifullah’s ordeal—like the fiasco of the military commissions—shows to any casual observer that Guantánamo’s continued existence beyond 2017 is untenable. More than ever, this offshore prison is a repudiation of basic American values, like due process and the right to a speedy and public trial. The Trump administration’s attempts to break up a peaceful protest at the prison is as futile as it is cruel.
The U.S. has no justification for holding men like Saifullah, much less assaulting them and throwing them into solitary confinement. They should be charged, or released, and the prison closed for good.