My trip to Guantanamo Bay
A few nights ago, I had a dream where I had ended up in Guantanamo Bay again to cover a military commission hearing sans any luggage. It may sound like the stuff nightmares are made of, but in reality, going to Guantanamo Bay to cover military commission hearings of detainees has been a fascinating, if not surreal experience.
From the moment the airhostess on the chartered flight announces, “Welcome to Guantanamo Bay”, to the realisation that you are on a tiny strip of land that has borne witness to some of the worst human rights abuses to have occurred on US soil, one is constantly taken aback at the contradictions that make up this place.
Covering Guantanamo Bay is also a frustrating experience. One is given a tour of the camps, but since it is organised by the authorities, one is only allowed a strictly monitored and brief visit.
Under their rules, one cannot have any interaction with the prisoners, and as of late, the media is only allowed to see them under the rules that the detainees inside the camps cannot see the media personnel, or know that they are being photographed or filmed.
On the other hand, the US Department of Defense, which organises these trips and facilitates media outlets to cover the hearings are often forthcoming with information, some on background and some on the record. One is instantly able to know how many detainees are on hunger strike at the moment, yet you can't find out the reasons for them refusing to eat food.
There is a constant flood of information on the tour. The seasoned reporters, who have been visiting and reporting from the detention facility for years, tell us how riots broke out in one camp years ago and guards had to use tear gas to quell the protests. In another prison block, one reporter looked up at the ceiling to see if there were fresh signs of faeces splattered on the wall as had been witnessed last November – some detainees, as a mark of protest, splash faeces and urine on guards.
Speaking to the commanders of the guards, I got to hear insights from what detainees have requested in the past. All female images, including those of Hollywood actress Meg Ryan, are blacked out from newspapers and books – a request, reportedly, from detainees. In another request, some asked for black tea instead of the green tea that had been previously served. On Fridays, detainees in Camp VI get ice-cream and candy bars, and you can watch al Jazeera among other Arabic channels in the camps.
In February, the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo Bay officers took the media to see the new soccer field that they were building for detainees. At a whopping $744,000, the amount shocked many, but the JTF-GTMO officials cited the costs as part of the cost of operating in Guantanamo Bay, where materials and manpower had to be brought to the island. Channels such as Fox News immediately leapt on the story, and later in the week, reporters in the media room saw right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity and his guests express outrage at the development.
While one wonders if plans of a new soccer field signal that detainees are to remain in the detention facility that President Obama had promised to close within a year of taking office, plea-bargain deals like the one Pakistani citizen Majid Khan cut with the authorities might pave the way for more detainees to cut similar deals – cooperation in exchange for a reduced sentence.
However, for detainees like Majid Khan, who spent years in a CIA secret prison, were subjected to torture, and tried to attempt suicide, a plea-bargain deal is a bittersweet one. Under Khan’s agreement, he is not allowed to sue the US government or agencies for his detention, or what happened during his imprisonment. He will serve a sentence, but he may never receive any retribution for what happened during his confinement.
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