Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gulag Gitmo

Guantanamo Bay nestles gracefully on the sun-kissed Caribbean South East coast of Cuba. It is America’s oldest overseas Naval Base and the only one in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations. Since 2002, it is also the home of the most notorious detention centre in the world.

The Guantanamo Bay detainment camp also known as Camp X-Ray and as Gitmo has been the home to over 600 suspected terrorists, the majority of whom were captured in the Afghanistan invasion post 9/11. As the camp is outside US jurisdiction, the inmates have languished here without trial and without POW status. The US government is now coming under increasing pressure to shut down the secretive camps. The EU has stated this week that “holding suspected terrorists without trial there is a human rights violation”.

The bay has played a prominent role in Cuban history. The land adjacent to both sides of the southern end of Guantanamo Bay was leased indefinitely to the US in 1898. But the Americans were not the first foreign power to land there. Britain and Spain had long contested control of the Caribbean. In 1729 they signed the Treaty of Seville which gave the Spanish the right to search British ships. The treaty gave rise to the delightfully named “War of Jenkins' Ear". When the Spanish searched a Captain Jenkins’ ship, he claimed the Spanish had cut off his ear. He exhibited the severed organ to the House of Commons and the British declared war on Spain. The British invaded Spanish controlled Cuba and landed at a bay that the local Taino Indians called “Guantánamo”. They briefly renamed it Cumberland. But they left a year later and the war ended in the same unsatisfactory state as the ear that gave it its name. Spain continued to rule Cuba until the end of the 19th century. When a US battleship was blown up in Havana harbour in 1898, the US invaded the country and placed Cuba under a 20 year trusteeship. During that war the U.S. fleet needed shelter from the summer hurricane season and Guantanamo Bay was chosen for its excellent harbour.

In 1903 they established a perpetual lease for the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (shortened as Gitmo). A 1934 treaty reaffirmed the lease and granted Cuba free access through the bay. It also made the lease permanent unless both governments agreed to break it or the U.S. abandoned the base property. Until the Castro revolution, many Cubans worked on the base. The revolution took over five years to oust the Fulgencio Batista regime and it wasn’t until 1958 that tide turned in Castro's favour. That year traffic was halted to the base. The new rulers continued to allow Cubans to work there and cross by bus or on foot. However, they also forbade new recruitment. As of 2006 only two elderly Cubans now make the daily trek. Castro planted a 13 km “cactus curtain” around the base to prevent Cubans seeking refuge on the base. US troops also planted 75,000 landmines in the area, the second largest landmine zone in the world after the Korea border.

The base was used to house Haitian refugees in the 1990s that fled their country after President Aristide was overthrown by the military. They were removed in 1993 after a US court found the camp unconstitutional. The camp was opened again in 2002 after the Afghanistan invasion. A report for Seton Hall Law School based on Defence Department data showed that 86% of the prisoners were handed over by bounty-hunters rather than as the result of any American investigation or intelligence action. The report alleged that because the bounty-hunters were compensated per head, they detained innocent civilians in order to make more money.

There were four camps, Delta, Echo, Iguana and X-Ray. X-Ray was a temporary facility now closed but the name Camp X-Ray still remains as a synonym for the whole facility. Over 600 people have been held there from 35 different countries. One of the inmates is Australian David Hicks. Australia has made no effort to seek his release. In July 2003, Hicks was one of six detainees first determined by President George W. Bush to be eligible for trial by a military court. As of three years later, no trial has commenced. Frustrated by lack of Australian support, Hicks has sought British citizenship through his English mother. Britain has already won the release of all of its citizens and Hicks is hoping for the same outcome. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer believes that Hicks 'would be dodging justice’ if he succeeds.

Rights are granted to POWs under the Geneva Conventions. These conventions date back to 1859 after Swiss businessman Henri Dunant witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century at Solferino in Italy. In 1862 his book "Un Souvenir de Solferino" proposed a plan to care for wartime wounded. His proposal was taken up by the Société genevoise d'utilité publique (Geneva Society for Public Welfare) and the first of the Geneva Conventions was born. Dunant went on to found the International Red Cross. The US has ratified all four Geneva conventions however they got round this for Gitmo by classified the detainees as “illegal combatants.”

It means prisoners are held in a legal black hole, most without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits. Many detainees allege they have been subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This treatment include sleep deprivation, the use of so-called truth drugs, beatings, locking in confined and cold cells, and being forced to maintain uncomfortable postures. In 2005, Amnesty international called the facility “the Gulag of our times.”

Matters came to a head this week when three detainees committed suicide. The camp commander described the suicides as “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us". He was echoed by the US deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy Colleen Graffy who said the suicides were “a good PR move.” Lawyers said the men who hanged themselves had been driven by despair. William Goodman from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said they were "heroes for those of us who believe in basic American values of justice, fairness and democracy". The suicides have further heightened the calls to close the facility.

President Bush says he would like to close the camps but was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on how suspects held there might be tried. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on whether military tribunals of foreign terrorist suspects can proceed. Meanwhile the pain continues. What British judge Lord Steyn said as early as 2003 hold true just as much today, “As a lawyer brought up to admire the ideals of American democracy and justice, I would have to say that I regard this a monstrous failure of justice.”

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