Thought Experiments About Prisoners Being Held In Wire Cages On Guantánamo

Revolutionary Worker #1137, February 3, 2002, posted at

At Camp XRay, the sun beats down on the tin roofs of open air 8'x8' wire cages where 158 men--alleged to be Taliban and al Qaida fighters--are being held prisoner by the U.S. military at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. More cages are being built to hold 300 more prisoners and a permanent prison structure is planned to hold at least 1,000.

"The cramped metal cages baking in tropical heat in the U.S. base in Guantánamo Bay seemed to belong to another more brutal era," one British journalist wrote--"This is a sort of Caribbean gulag, and without doubt the scene before us would raise concern if it was being run by any other country."

Snatched from Afghanistan--where U.S. bombs are still falling--the men are taken off the plane, wearing orange jumpsuits, feet shackled, hands bound, their eyes covered with black-out goggles, their mouths covered with masks. Although the U.S. government has not disclosed the nationalities of these men, they are known to be citizens of several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Britain, Australia, and Sweden.

The men are all Muslims. Their beards have been forcibly shaved off, violating their religious practices. A green and white sign at the camp points in the direction of Mecca, and the International Red Cross has recommended that one of the improvements their captors should make is to paint a green line on the concrete floor of their cages pointing to Mecca so they can pray. Among the items in the so-called Islamic diet provided by their captors are bagels, cream cheese, and fruit loops.

The men do not know where they are. They are being interrogated by a variety of U.S. military and intelligence agencies. And as of Jan 25, they had not been charged with any crime.

The U.S. government claims that because these prisoners were accused of fighting with Taliban or al Qaida forces in Afghanistan and some of them may have had something to do with the events of September 11, the U.S. military can just snatch them up, take them to an offshore U.S. base, lock them in cages, interrogate them, and send them to military tribunals.

Faced with an international outcry against the treatment of these prisoners and the blatant denial of any legal rights, the U.S. government has responded in the "you're either with us or against us" mode that has characterized their actions in the unjust and open-ended war they launched after the attacks of September 11.

"The president is satisfied that they are being treated as Americans would want people to be treated," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

But what kind of justice is being carried out on Guantánamo in the name of the people in the U.S.?

Consider this: No charges have been filed against these prisoners. They were captured as the U.S. waged war in Afghanistan, but the U.S. has refused to call them prisoners of war--referring to them instead as "unlawful combatants." Thus, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Geneva Accords governing prisoners of war do not apply.

But even the United Nations human rights chief and the director of security of the European Union have said that these men should be considered prisoners of war. "The situation is complex (but)...the overwhelming view of legal opinion is that they were combatants in an international armed conflict," Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters. "Their status is defined and protected by the Geneva Conventions of 1949--they are prisoners of war," she said.

Under the Geneva Conventions, one category of prisoners of war are members of the armed forces of one of the parties to a conflict. Another category of prisoners of war covers members of regular militias. And, in any case, the International Herald Tribune wrote that, "The United States appears to have violated at least some provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, particularly the requirements that in the event of doubt, prisoner of war status must be determined by a 'competent tribunal' and not by military authorities." According to the Geneva Conventions, "competent tribunal" is one that is free of the chain of command of those holding them.

Under the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war do not have to submit to interrogation.

But these prisoners are being interrogated. And this interrogation is considered part of the U.S. military mission--as one U.S. Congressman stated to "help us prosecute the war against terrorism."

Not only are the prisoners denied whatever rights might be given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, but they are also denied any legal rights or legal representation whatsoever. According to Brigadier General Michael Lehnert, since the interrogations are aimed at uncovering information on the whereabouts of al Qaida and Taliban leaders, not at producing evidence for a trial--lawyers were "not appropriate at this time."

Not prisoners of war, not charged with a crime...these men are completely at the mercy of whatever the U.S. government and military decides.

Among the prisoners are six Algerians who were arrested in Bosnia three months ago after U.S. intelligence informed the local police they were planning to attack Western facilities in Bosnia. The Supreme Court of Bosnia ordered their release for lack of evidence, but Bosnian authorities handed them over to U.S. officials anyway, and they were shipped off to Guantánamo.

Dangerous precedents are being set on Guantánamo.

Who does it serve if the U.S. government can get away with making war on any country under the banner of a "war on terrorism"; declaring anyone who resists a U.S. invasion a terrorist; defining who is or is not considered to be a prisoner of war; and then kidnapping prisoners at will, holding them and interrogating them without charges?

Consider this: Even the voices of the most loyal U.S. allies have been raised in protest. In the British parliament, which has backed the U.S. war on terrorism, Prime Minister Tony Blair was met with an outcry against the imprisonment at Guantánamo. Ministers and senior officials of the British government are reported to be outraged by the Bush administration's handling of the matter.

In Britain, the mainstream press has reacted in stark contrast to the U.S. press. The Daily Mirror wrote that President Bush "is close to achieving the impossible--losing the sympathy of the civilized world." In its early edition, the Mirror ran a front page editorial calling the prison camp "Barbarism that is backed by our government." A day earlier, The Mail ran a cover photo under the headline "Tortured."

The U.S. may be "making up the rules as it goes along," one West European ambassador fretted. "This is international law á la carte, like multilateralism á la carte... It puts at stake the moral credibility of the war against terrorism."

One British legal expert said the treatment of the suspects was "so far removed from human rights norms that it [was] difficult to comprehend." And British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has asked that British prisoners be returned to Britain.

The Bishop of Birmingham said the British/American alliance was risking "moral credibility in the eyes of the world: It is not edifying that the strongest country, America, has set itself up as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner of its case. The argument that the Taliban is appalling, therefore it doesn't matter how we treat them, is degrading to our own claim to be upholding the standards of civilization."

Since September 11, many people in the U.S. have asked, "Why do people around the world hate us?"

What does the treatment of the Guantánamo prisoners say about the nature of this "civilization" that is being defended in the so-called "war on terrorism"?

If the scenes in Guantánamo have so disturbed some of the very forces who have been allies in the U.S. war, what will be the justified reaction of the masses of Arab and Muslim people around the world?

Consider this: The language of U.S. government spokespeople and the language of the U.S. media reeks of an empire that is hellbent on imposing its will by force on friend and foe alike.

In response to criticism, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said: "I do not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else." And international outcry over the Guantánamo prison camp was greeted in the press with statements like "more flak from abroad," and "allies gripe."

"The detainees have a lifestyle now that is probably much better than the one in which they were found," said Jim Wilkinson, director of the so-called Coalition Information Center at the White House.

Found? Lifestyle? Here is the new language of the U.S. "war on terrorism." After all, the U.S. "found" these men after relentlessly pounding Afghanistan with bombs, killing hundreds of prisoners, and installing the murderous forces of the Northern Alliance who carried out a policy of suffocating prisoners to death in box cars. And now these conditions are to become the standard by which the prison camp at Guantánamo is compared.

Life in a prison camp according to U.S. warspeak is now a "lifestyle"!

"But let's not forget that they may have been involved in one of the worst crimes against humanity," continues spokesman Wilkinson.

May have been involved! This is given to justify a brutal and inhumane policy applied to a large group of prisoners and openly ignoring the Geneva Conventions. And all of this is justified because of September 11.

"Our grief is not a cry for war." Nor for concentration camps and torture of prisoners.

May have been involved! And this is the country whose claim to be the "greatest country on earth" rests on such myths as "innocent until proven guilty" and "the rule of laws, not the rule of men." All it takes is for the men in charge of the U.S. government to say that someone may have been guilty to justify the treatment at Guantánamo. And anyone who thinks that this logic will only be applied to "illegal combatants" should think again.

Isn't it the duty of every person of conscience to stand against the crimes being committed on Guantánamo?

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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