By Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s Founder
I had visited several times and there was something nagging at me. I could not work out what left me uniquely unsettled about the place. It was not the depressing environment; few prisons are inspirational. It was not the occasional intimidation. Eventually it came to me: I could not remember being lied to so often and so consistently. In Guantanamo, lying was a disease that had reached pandemic proportions.
The dissembling disease got worse as time passed. First there was the effort to suppress the truth, with censorship or silence rather than any overt falsehood. Then there was the lie by semantics, where the US military redefined the language to provide plausible deniability. Finally, there was the bare-faced lie.
Next there was the senseless secrecy. Every word that my Guantanamo clients said to me was deemed classified and I had to get permission from censors to reveal it. To violate them would be a criminal offence and I could end up in jail. Whenever I met with a client I would take notes, but I could not take them with me when I left. I was obliged to put them into an envelope, seal them with SECRET stickers and give them to the military escort to mail to Washington. The notes went by normal mail, which seemed far from secure. Indeed, the first time I visited the military lost my notes for weeks.
This procedure prevented the lawyers from revealing the truth about Guantanamo for a long time after any visit. Even today I cannot repeat some of what my clients told me, but nothing I learned in Guantanamo would be classified in a sane world. I never saw anything that was relevant to US national security, unless it would make the US less secure to admit the truth about torture committed by American personnel.
In November 2004, I met Moazzam Begg in Camp Echo. Moazzam was from Birmingham, United Kingdom and we talked for hours and he poured out his desperate experiences. When my notes got back to Washington, in January 2005, I wrote a 40-page memo about how Moazzam had been abused by the US military in Afghanistan. Every word was censored. The way the military had pretended to torture his wife in the next room, even information about American soldiers murdering two detainees in front of Moazzam, was considered a “method of interrogation” that could not be revealed.
I was not allowed to reveal how my clients’ mental health was crumbling either. Moazzam had been tortured, then held in solitary confinement for 18 months; he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; he had nightmares, flashbacks, all the symptoms. But this, the military said, was a privacy issue.
The effort to suppress this backfired. Had they come out immediately, the facts of Moazzam’s abuse would have soon have slipped into obscurity. The cover-up ran and ran. I wrote one letter to Tony Blair which began with a title, Re: Torture and Abuse of British Citizens in Guantanamo Bay. The next two pages were the highlights of the torture committed against Moazzam and other British citizens.
I put in a paragraph saying, “Anything that has been censored or blacked out in this letter, your close allies in the United States don’t think you should be allowed to hear.” I then attached the 40-page memo detailing Moazzam’s abuse. What I got back from the censor was extraordinary. Every word about torture was declared to be classified, except the title, but the last sentence made it past the hovering black marker.
By now there were perhaps a dozen on our team of volunteer lawyers and each one was running into similar problems with the censorship regulations. We tried to press the issues systematically, and eventually the government was persuaded to relax the rules. At last we could get information out to prove how the clients had been mistreated, and the memos about Moazzam’s mistreatment were cleared. Indeed, with the threat of this evidence of torture making it into the public eye, the pressure on the Bush administration increased, and at the end of January, Moazzam and the three British detainees who remained in the prison (Feroz Abbasi, Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga) were set free.
Moazzam and Feroz had been among the six detainees originally charged in the military commissions, supposedly the very worst terrorists on the base. Their release, and the fact that the British government found no charges to bring against them, illustrated the extent of the US military’s delusion.
Adapted from Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons