Be afraid. Be very afraid. Those same men and women who locked up my clients at Guantanamo for ten years without charge or trial are at it again….and this time they have their sights on me and you. I guess it is an appropriate way for Mr. Obama and “our” Congress to celebrate the ten year "anniversary" of the opening of Guantanamo – by codifying indefinite detention and opening it up for U.S. citizens too. So take a look at this law (you might not want to read the whole 900+ pages – you can read a summary of the low lights here) that Obama signed on New Year’s Eve – while you were out partying – and think about what it must be like to be locked up indefinitely without charge or trial. I should mention that Obama (who told us he was a Constitutional Law scholar) promised that he would never use this law to lock up a U.S. citizen…if this makes you feel more comfortable I will just remind you that Obama has broken just about every promise he made in his campaign to get elected “(“I promise to restore our system of justice” “I promise to close Guantanamo” “I promise to fight for the middle class”) ”I promise” …we read his lips and we heard his words, and even if he were to change course and keep this one promise, the law now on the books under Obama's signature will be waiting for future use by President Newt or President Mitt or President Sarah.
So what exactly does indefinite detention look like? Let me describe it from the perspective of my two clients and the years they have spent at Guantanamo... by the way, one of whom is still held there and remain…indefinitely, without charge. Why? In his case, because he was in the same guesthouse in Pakistan where a man was arrested that our Government thought was a “bad guy.” Not only is there not a shred of evidence that my client was involved in any terrorist activity or illegal activities but the government now even acknowledges that the person they thought was a “bad guy” is not quite what they thought he was either. It matters not; the indefinite detention continues... indefinitely.
On January 11, 2002 when the boys and men first began arriving at Guantanamo, no preparations had been made in advance for where they would stay….so they stayed in these cages.
The men were at one with the elements. When it rained, they were rained upon. When the winds blew, they shivered and when the hot Cuban sun beat down – it beat down on them without compunction. Lest you think the ivy shown in the picture provided some privacy and protection from the weather let me remind you that this is a recent photo. No ivy was allowed back when these cages were being used, because the men were not allowed any privacy –they were watched at all times, forced to relieve themselves in buckets and only leaving the cages for interrogations. This went on for months, until permanent facilities were built.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the powers that be will likely be better prepared for you and I. They have now had ten years to prepare and test the conditions. From these cages the men (and boys) were eventually moved into something resembling a prison from the 1950’s. Although there were windows, there was no air circulation and of course there was no air conditioning. Cells lined two walls facing each other and the soldiers paced down the center. Unlike the prisons in the U.S., these men and boys were not allowed to know anything that was going on in the outside world. They were not allowed newspapers or to watch television. As an attorney I was forbidden to mention any world news to my clients unless it was directly related to their personal situation or legal case. Their only visitors were their attorneys and legal translators – once that was allowed (and it was only allowed after the United States Supreme Court upheld a legal right to challenge detentions and a right to counsel) and, of course, their jailers and their interrogators. Once a week someone would walk through the prison with a cart of books and the boys and men were allowed one book per week. Most of the books in the cart were in English although few of the men read or spoke English. The same books were offered week after week, month after month, year after year. There was no recreation time to speak of – the men were allowed outside in a penned in area, a few at a time for short durations. The men were not provided any kind of educational classes and they could not see or talk to their families. Although the men could write letters to their families, pens and paper were only allowed one day a week for a short period of time. If you had been involved in any mishap (like refusing a meal) the “privilege” of writing to your family was revoked. Letters from your family were read by censors and anything that referred to events in the outside world were redacted.
Obviously the powers that be thought that the prison conditions were still too generous for these men and boys who were being held indefinitely without charge. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into subsidiaries of Halliburton to build a supermax complex at the base. The current prisons were opened in 2006 and are commonly known as Camps 5 and 6. When Camp 6 opened in December 2006 men were picked at random to be a part of this new facility. One of those unfortunate men was my client Mr. al-Ghizzawi. Al-Ghizzawi was a quiet and gentle man who was also suffering from numerous health problems. When I complained about the inappropriateness of his placement in the solitary conferment in Camp 6 (I should note that the military’s own review team found him not to be an enemy combatant when they first reviewed the status of the men in the fall of 2004) one of the military lawyers told me to think of him as his having "his own apartment."
Camp 6 is a completely closed metal and plastic structure, very much like a self-storage locker. There is no natural lighting. For twenty-six months the men were kept in solitary cells for at least 22 hours a day. The “apartments” are approximately 8’ x 16’ and are fitted with a plastic bed and a metal sink/toilet combination. A thin mattress was provided and a plastic sheet is the only cover that is provided. The air conditioning was kept running so that the men were constantly freezing. The military guards were not allowed to talk to the men and their food was pushed through a bean hole on the floor. The men were allowed two hours of “recreation” time in a 24 hour period. Recreation time could take place at any time of the day or night – on some nights Mr. al-Ghizzawi was awakened at 2:00am and told he could have his recreation time if he cared to. Recreation time itself was spent alone in an approximately 4x4 cage in the center of the camp 6 compound – surrounded by the tall structure of the compound. Camp 5 is for all intents and purposes identical to Camp 6 and these are the two camps that are used for all of the men now remaining at Guantanamo – except of course for the so-called “high value detainees…” so it is fair to assume that should you or I be sent to Guantanamo or someplace very much like it, this is what our “apartment” will look like.
Although some of the physical confinement conditions in Camp 6 have eased since Obama became president, other conditions are worse (such as the fact that no one at all has been released for over a year now), and 171 men remain indefinitely detained without trial or charge. As the conditions the men are held under are at the whim of our president it is hard to know what our conditions will be like, but it's reasonable to expect 22 hours a day of solitary confinement…..indefinitely, without charge or trial. Although we were all taught in school about something called "the Constitution," our new reality is that there go you and I but for the grace of the gods, or the grace or whim of the man in the White House who thinks he's a god.