The Military Commission Act of 2006, passed by the then Republican-controlled Congress — and eagerly signed into law by the president as a way to avoid further Supreme Court rebukes of his treatment of detainees — prohibits Guantanamo Bay prisoners from suing in our federal courts on their conditions of confinement. With most of the inmates having been there for some five years without any meaningful chance to rebut the charges against them, many have gone on hunger strikes to awaken the world to their desperation — or to just escape by dying.
Their captors at Guantanamo, who keep shaming the United States in front of our allies, are once again trying to break a long-term hunger strike by force-feeding. While President Bush still claims the detainees are being treated "humanely," an April 9 New York Times report describes how the force-feeding is actually done by "strapping prisoners into restraining chairs while they are fed by plastic tubes inserted through their nostrils."
It is a measure of the holdouts' desperation that they embark on hunger strikes knowing how brutally their cries for attention will end this way. A 129-page report in April by Amnesty International — the details of which I have correlated with investigations by other human-rights sources — illuminates "the cruel conditions of isolation" under which so many of these prisoners, including those who are being force fed, are being held.
Conditions at Guantanamo keep getting worse. For one example, more of the inmates are being put in extreme crackdown isolation, a punishment less and less connected to their behavior than to "harsher camp operating procedures."
Moreover, Jumana Musa of Amnesty International reports that "most detainees have suffered harsh treatment (not only now but) throughout their detention." Tom Wilner, a Washington-based attorney, whom I have found persistently reliable on conditions at Guantanamo, says that all his clients have been tortured. However, that term is defined, they show, he notes, the physical and emotional effects of these quote "coercive interrogations."
Many prisoners our now being transferred to Camp 6, an especially punitive section. The compound "is surrounded by high concrete walls. Inside, detainees are confined for a minimum of 22 hours a day in individual steel cells with no windows to the outside."
While locked in for 22 hours a day, the prisoners are completely cut off from human contact. And, "contrary to international standards, the cells have no access to natural light or air, and are lit by fluorescent lighting which is on 24 hours a day." Purportedly, the lights are dimmed at night, but not enough to make sleep easier.
The prisoners are sealed away from any contact with the outside world — no radio, television or newspapers. In Guantanamo as a whole, "detainees are denied family visits and mail from relatives is often delayed and heavily censored." The father of David Hicks — recently released in a political arrangement with the government of his native Australia — has said that "even words of affection were blacked out and removed in letters to and from his son" — a further indication of the "humane treatment" that around the world has so marred what this country says it stands for.
Not that the Guantanamo jailers are entirely cruel to these prisoners, most of whom are now known to have had only the most marginal connections to alleged terrorism, if any at all. The Amnesty International report — "USA Cruel and Inhuman — Conditions of isolation for detainees in Guantanamo Bay" — does cite a momentary act of decency:
Although "detainees are not generally allowed any phone calls, in March 2007, Omar Khadr, only 16 when first brought to Guantanamo after his capture in Afghanistan in July 2002, was allowed to speak to his mother on the telephone for the first time" in five years. (He is now being charged with a murder he allegedly committed when he was younger than age 16. At Guantanamo, he will not be allowed to see the key evidence against him.)
Meanwhile, however, the Justice Department has gone to court to make even clearer the contempt at Guantanamo for the rule of law by this, the so-called greatest democracy on the planet. An April 26 front-page New York Times story reports that access to the prisoners by their lawyers must now be drastically limited to three visits to prevent the world's media knowing how they are being treated.
Also, although the lawyers have security clearance, their access to evidence in their clients' cases will also be severely curtailed. And the lawyers' legal mail to their clients will first be read (and censored?) by military intelligence officers.
In papers filed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals (habitually deferential to the president) the Justice Department assures that with these new rules, the Guantanamo detainees will have enough access to lawyers so that "the court's review will be assisted by having informed counsel."
I kid you not. This is America?
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of many books, including "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance" (Seven Stories Press, 2004).
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