Guantánamo: 4,000 days in limbo

Imagine this.

You are 19 years old, asleep in your family home in a remote rural village. In the middle of the night, foreign soldiers burst in.

They put a hood over your head and force you to sit against a wall. You are terrified.

After a few hours, bound hand and foot and still hooded, you are taken to a military base.

There you are physically assaulted, interrogated, threatened with a knife, and deprived of sleep and food. You fear you will be killed.

After what you think is about 48 hours – your disorientation makes it difficult to know for sure – you are bundled, still hooded and shackled, into a helicopter and flown to another, larger military facility. There the interrogations and abuse continue.Three months later, you are taken from your cell, your head is shaved, you are put into shackles and blacked-out goggles, and you and some others are thrown into a transport plane and tied down like cargo.

This time, you are flown to a naval base on the other side of the world, specifically chosen by your captors to keep detainees like you out of the reach of courts or lawyers. You are held indefinitely, interrogated, perhaps prosecuted in front of an improvised military tribunal, or just warehoused.

Whatever hope you had of justice dissipates as you are kept year after year after year without ever being brought to trial and without knowing when, if ever, you will be released.

You are still in a cell in that naval base today, more than a decade later.

Obaidullah does not have to imagine this.

This Afghan man has lived it, held in military custody for what will soon be 100,000 hours, more than 4,000 days, 11 years. He is one of the 166 men currently held at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

He is some 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometres) from his home in Afghanistan. His daughter, born two days before he was seized, is now 11, only eight years younger than Obaidullah was when taken from his home.

The USA would surely condemn such treatment as contradicting basic notions of decency and human rights if any other government was responsible.

But the USA has operated Guantánamo as if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had never existed.

Obaidullah’s experience illustrates the human rights violations to which the Guantánamo detainees have been subjected over the years, and the failure of the USA to rectify those wrongs.

Obaidullah, from Afghanistan, has been in US military custody since July 2002 ©Private.
Obaidullah, from Afghanistan, has been in US military custody since July 2002 ©Private.

Between February and July 2013, Obaidullah participated in the hunger strike undertaken by scores of detainees at Guantánamo. He appears to have come off hunger strike recently, after US authorities adopted practices apparently aimed at undermining such protests.

Last month, things got so bad that he refused to meet with his lawyer because he wanted to avoid new body search procedures that he and other detainees viewed as degrading but which they had to endure if they wanted to leave their cell blocks to meet their lawyers, or even to speak to them by telephone.

In a further turn of events, Obaidullah’s habeas lawyers (those who work to ensure governments respect the rights of individuals under arrest to be brought before a judge) were among those who received an email from the Pentagon late last month, announcing that Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings to evaluate whether individual “law of war” detainees could be released or should continue to be held, would soon commence.

In the past few days, the Pentagon has told Obaidullah’s lawyers that he is eligible for PRB review.

For over a decade, Amnesty International has called on the US authorities to end the illegality and injustice of Guantánamo. Perhaps the PRB will lead to some releases – but in the end, this is just another discretionary executive scheme. It can only have a further corrosive effect on the protections provided under the ordinary criminal justice system, in which detainees have the right not to be held indefinitely without charge or fair trial.

President Barack Obama once described the Guantánamo detentions as a “misguided experiment”, set up under “the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law”.

He was right, but as the Guantánamo detentions approach their 12th anniversary this misguided experiment has yet to be ended. It is now more than three and a half years past President Obama’s original deadline for Guantánamo’s closure.

In recent days, the Obama administration has indicated that soon it may begin to transfer a number of detainees out of the base. It has lifted its moratorium on repatriating detainees to Yemen and has appointed an envoy to oversee diplomatic efforts aimed at furthering the President’s recently restated commitment to close the Guantánamo detention facility.

This is to be welcomed. However, Amnesty International reminds the US authorities that no detainee should be returned to face a real risk of human rights violations elsewhere, and the USA must not place any conditions on transfers of detainees that would, if imposed by the receiving government, violate international human rights law.

The USA should rapidly do now what it has failed so far to do – release detainees unless it charges them without further delay for fair trial in ordinary civilian court – and work to repair the damage its conduct has done over the past decade to the lives of detainees and to human rights principles.