Clive Stafford Smith -
Monday 21st November 2005
Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith regularly visits clients in the prison camp he
calls America's "law-free zone". This is his chilling report on life behind
The 12-seater Air Sunshine plane sets down at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base
just as the sun descends behind the hangar. I am met by a military escort.
We josh about the threat that the legal profession poses to national
security: lawyers are required to stay the night on the leeward side, safe
across the bay from the main base and the prison. He drops me off at the
motel, the Combined Bachelors' Quarters or CBQ, where a sign boasts that it
is "the pearl of the Antilles".
Here, for $12 a night, a bachelor can share a room with three other soldiers
Even in this age when "Don't ask, don't tell" is the official line on
homosexuality in the US forces, the notion of combined bachelors strikes me
as incongruous. They give me a room with four beds to myself. After eight
visits I am an old hand here and I have my favourite room with a view of the
The motel sign also trumpets the base's motto, "Honour Bound to Defend
Freedom", but freedom is a relative term here. Iguanas are free enough, and
if my escort accidentally runs one over it's a $10,000 fine, as US
environmental laws apply in Guantanamo. On the other hand, if you feel the
need to hit one of the 500 prisoners who are now four years into their
captivity it is called "mild non-injurious contact" and there are no
consequences. Two years ago in the Supreme Court, we argued that it would be
a huge step for mankind if the judges gave our clients the same rights as
At the motel, television is the only diversion. I am unsure whether the CIA
organised this to spook me, but on each of my recent visits to the base I
have had the option of watching Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray waking up
over and over again to the same morning. As his clock radio clicks over to
6am, Sonny and Cher are inevitably moaning, "I got you, babe."
Guantanamo Bay is Groundhog Day. It's reveille at 5.30am for breakfast. The
cook nonchalantly crushes a scorpion that has wandered into the chow hall
and greets me with the same cheese omelette as yesterday. I am pinioned to
my table by television monitors shouting the American Forces channel at me.
I walk a mile down the road to meet the 7am ferry. A bus always passes me at
the same place and, as usual, I wave to the driver. The tarmac steams as the
sun rises over the Cuban hills, stillness and beauty clashing with the
rusted barbed wire. I wonder whether the ten-foot snake that was outside my
motel door this morning lives in one of the wooden Second World War bunkers
that adjoin the road.
Cresting the hill, I see the ferry coming across the bay. As it approaches
the landing, tinny music can be heard above the drone of the engine. Each
morning for a week it has been Jimmy Buffett belting out "Margaritaville". I
have a fantasy that one day we will progress a track or two on that Buffett
album to a song called "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)". But it never
Most of the lawyers complain about staying on the leeward side, but I enjoy
the morning cruise. High in the hills, as the pilot steers us in to the
windward dock, four wind turbines slowly rotate. They are majestic, an
unlikely sign of environmental sensitivity in such an otherwise harsh world.
The escort meets us at the dock and calls his code in to our un-seen monitor
We stop off at Starbucks and then drive down to McDonald's. A soldier
smartly salutes his superior, "Honour Bound, sir!" The officer salutes his
reply, "To Defend Freedom, soldier!" The first time I saw this I chuckled,
thinking they were joking. It's mandatory. It's the motto.
"Recreation Road" runs alongside Guantanamo Golf Course, grass sparse,
leading to the prison camp. I cannot write about the layout of the camp,
because that would violate the security rules.
The various camps have been given names steeped in irony. "Papa" is where
the prisoners on hunger strike are force-fed. "Romeo" is where the military
sexually humiliated prisoners by forcing them to wear only shorts. Forty
Muslim men, forsworn from alcohol, live in "Whiskey". I can't decide whether
the irony is inadvertent, as is generally the case with irony on this side
of the Atlantic, or deliberate and cruel.
Meetings between client and lawyer are held in Camp Echo. Before June 2004,
when the Supreme Court ordered that the prisoners be allowed lawyers, this
used to be the harshest camp, where prisoners were held in total isolation.
Each cell is hermetically sealed from the others and divided down the middle
- the prisoner lives on one side and is brought into the other half only for
interrogation sessions or, lately, lawyer visits. I am going to stay there
all day, until 5pm. I am glad that we arrived in plenty of time. At 8am the
warning siren will sound on the Tannoy, followed by the national anthem.
Everything will come to a stop and the soldiers stand rigid, saluting the
nearest flag until it is over.
I go into the camp and must wait for the clients to be prepared. We sit at
the "picnic table" by the cells. The guards live a monotonous life and most
are friendly. One tells me he saw me recently on CNN, where I said that most
of the military were decent people consigned to a terrible task. He smiles
as he asks whether he is one of the decent folk or one of the bastards.
Another confides in me that he has been told to keep his distance from the
lawyers. I am curious about the minefield that apparently still separates
the naval base from the perfidious Cuban communists. "Every now and then you
hear an explosion at night," says the soldier. "Those are Cubans trying to
escape to freedom." I laugh because I assume he is kidding me, but he is
serious. I suggest that any mine that goes off is probably taking out an
errant iguana. He is clearly unhappy. I am a cynic, and he does not talk to
me again for several days.
A guard takes his hat off and puts it on the table. To remind him of his
mission, he has writ- ten inside the rim: "Al-Qaeda are pussies."
Many of the guards are from quiet American backwaters and Guantanamo
represents their first foray abroad. They have been subjected to the most
extraordinary propaganda. One of my clients is only a little over five feet
tall, very mild-mannered and cultured. Some months ago he told me about the
times before the cameras were installed, when a soldier sat outside his Camp
Echo cell 24 hours a day, watching him. He noticed a female guard shaking on
her chair and asked her what the matter was. Eventually she asked him
whether he truly was a serial assassin - she had been told that he was
another Hannibal Lecter and might bite her through the bars. When he
finished laughing he devoted many therapeutic hours to calming her down. The
US military got its intelligence thoroughly wrong on him, and his guards
grew to disbelieve the stories. A number gave him their e-mail addresses for
when he got out.
Finally, the time comes to see my first client. There is a cooler full of
Freedom Springs" water bottles, the name printed over an American flag. One
soldier suggests that I strip the flag off before passing a bottle to the
prisoners, because they might desecrate Old Glory. I recall how surprised
some Americans were at the Muslim outrage when Newsweek reported how the
Koran had been thrown into the toilet. The parallels seem obvious: insults
to their flag reduce many Americans to apoplexy.
Talking to my clients is draining. Even gaining their trust is not easy.
After the right to counsel was won, the military tried to outflank us by
sending interrogators in pretending to be lawyers. Given that all the real
lawyers have to be American citizens, what is to distinguish us in the eyes
of our clients from the deception that went before?
We talk about torture. I now have a checklist of the abuses used by the US
military and those who do their dirtier work for them. Every now and then I
get a flash of perspective: when I went to law school in 1984, did I ever
think such a checklist would be necessary? Did I believe that an American
tribunal would admit a confession exacted at the point of a razor blade? The
soldiers seem to accept the Guanta-namo reality without blinking. A minority
of the government prosecutors are horrified; the majority go with the flow.
In addition to being devoid of law, Guantanamo sometimes seems like a
truth-free zone. I am scheduled to see my client Mohammed el-Gharani. The
military says he is 26 and denies that there are any juveniles on the base.
Let us assume the camp authorities really believe this: what does it say
about the quality of Guantanamo intelligence if they cannot even work out
his age after four years of interrogation? Mohammed was not quite 15 when he
was seized, and is still a teenager. I got the birth certificate from Saudi
Arabia to prove it, but they still won't believe me. "He sure does look
young," says one of the guards.
The prisoners are depressed. There were 32 suicide attempts in the first six
months. This was bad PR for the military; something had to be done. Six
months later we were told that suicide attempts had zeroed out. Was this
true? No. Attempting suicide had merely been renamed "self-injurious
behaviour" and another 42 prisoners had become SIBs.
In similar semantic vein one soldier says that he cannot say the word
prisoner", as he has been ordered to refer to my clients as detainees. It is
deemed defensible to "detain" a person, where "imprisoning" him without
trial is not.
Sami al-Laithi knows all about this. An Egyptian, he was minding his own
business in Pakistan when the Americans seized him, and he was then badly
abused in Guantanamo. He'll certainly never play football again, as he is
confined to a wheelchair with two fractured vertebrae after being ERF'd
(that's a recent addition to the Guantanamo lexicon, describing the habits
of the Emergency Reaction Force guards, who dress up in Darth Vader outfits
and rough up recalcitrant prisoners).
Because Sami complained repeatedly they held him in solitary confinement at
Camp V. Three years into this ordeal, Sami's tribunal found him "innocent" -
as he had said all along, he never was an enemy combatant. So what did he
get for it? The guards came into his cell and offered him a white uniform
instead of an orange one. Sami got angry. It took them another five months
to set him free.
It is a long day. I have to speak my questionable French to some prisoners,
my even more dubious Italian to others. We laugh a good deal, but goodness
only knows what they understand of their rights. At 5pm I have to leave.
En route back to the ferry landing we stop at the NEX, the Navy Exchange.
Posters advertise an impending visit by Miss Teen USA, a reminder that the
overwhelming majority of the 9,000 soldiers are male. I am surprised that
the US military does not treat them better. They cannot bring their families
to the base, and are often cut off from their children for six months at a
Outside the NEX, stalls sell Guantanamo Golf Course T-shirts, and others
that say "Behaviour Modification Instructor". I cannot resist a Lilliputian
version for my seven-year-old nephew that says "Future Behaviour
Modification Instructor". Will I be liable if he beats my brother up?
The ferry has stopped for the day, so in the evening I take a faster boat
back across the bay. Waiting for it to leave, I check out the plaque 50
yards away. This is where Christopher Columbus beached on his second trip,
on 30 April 1494. He found nothing of interest in Guantanamo and left the
The trip across the bay takes no more than ten minutes. As I walk back up
the hill to the CBQ, the sun is setting and the Tannoy crackles to life
again. It's time for the bugle to blare retreat, the rather defeatist end to
every military day.
I stop at the Clipper Club, perhaps the most boring bar in the Caribbean.
The management's "standards of appearance" sign prohibits "clothing with
bizarre, drug-promoting, obscene and offensive insignia". Patrons are warned
that "shirts must cover excessive body hair on the chest, abdomen, and under
arms". I pass the test and it's good to have a drink.
"Al-qaeda" supposedly means "the base" in Arabic. Guantanamo means "the
naval base" here, and one of the military defence lawyers has developed his
own response when any soldier confronts him with, "Honour Bound, sir!" He
returns the salute sardonically, "To defend the US constitution!" Guantanamo
should consider a change of motto.
The books they ban
It is said that when Jeremy Paxman was told that the British prisoner
Moazzam Begg's bookshelf contained only two books - the Koran and Paxman's
own The English - a Newsnight colleague remarked: "So it's true they torture
people in Guantanamo." Begg's problem with reading material, of course, was
censorship, which is as sweeping as it is perverse.
Banned magazines have included National Geographic, Scientific American and
Runner's World. John Pilger's Hidden Agendas was returned, stamped "Denied".
An anthology of First World War poetry was also excluded, as was Robert
Hughes's history of Australian colonisation, The Fatal Shore, and, even more
curiously, The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary.
In the case of Scott Turow's legal thriller Presumed Innocent the title
alone may have been the problem, but perhaps the strangest cases were the
four books returned with the note: "These Items were not Cleared for
Delivery to the Detainee(s)." They were Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Jack and
the Beanstalk and Beauty and the Beast.
The torture trail
Binyam Mohammed, originally from Ethiopia, lived in north Kensington, London
for several years, seeking asylum, and in 2001 went to Afghanistan. After
the invasion he fled to Pakistan, where he was seized for using a passport
that was not his own and turned over to the US. He surfaced late last year
What happened in the intervening three years? Binyam describes how, in
Pakistan, an FBI agent said, "If you don't talk to me, you're going to
Jordan. We can't do what we want here; the Pakistanis can't do exactly what
we want them to. The Arabs will deal with you." When he asked for a lawyer,
the FBI told him he did not have the right to one.
In July 2002, Binyam was flown by CIA plane from a military airport in
Islamabad to a prison, not in Jordan but in Morocco. There, a guard told
him: "America's really pissed off at what happened, and they've said to the
world: either you're with us or you're against us. We Moroccans say: 'We're
with you.' So we'll do whatever they want."
A man who called himself Marwan served as Binyam's main interrogator. "Give
me the whole story all over again," Marwan would say. Each time, Binyam did
what he could. Marwan would give the order: "Idrabo", which means "beat him"
in Arabic. The guards would say: "There's worse to come"; and Binyam could
hear people screaming across the hall.
Once, Marwan brought in three thugs who cut off his clothes with a scalpel
and then, as Binyam screamed, used the scalpel to make a cut in his chest.
Next, he says, one of the thugs took his penis in his hand and began to make
cuts. The pain was appalling. He says he also suffered torture worse than
this, but cannot bring himself to discuss it.
He was in Morocco for 18 months. He asked a guard: "What's the point of
this? I've got nothing I can say to them." The guard replied: "It's just to
degrade you. So when you leave here, you'll have these scars and you'll
never forget. So you'll always fear doing anything but what the US wants."
In January 2004, Binyam was taken to Kabul, where he endured five more
months of torture, mainly psychological at this point. He says that he
signed whatever statements were put in front of him. He apparently confessed
to dining in April 2002 with five high-ranking Qaeda operatives - a dinner
at which they discussed a plot to plant a radioactive "dirty bomb" in New
York. He denies that this is true.
Binyam is now charged in a military commission where evidence based on
torture is admissible.
The British men still there
Shaker Aamer, 40, is the Saudi father of four British children who live in
Battersea, south London. He was subjected to severe torture at the "Dark
Prison" in Kabul and at Bagram air force base. Since being sent to
Guantanamo, he has been elected to the six-man "prisoners' council" and has
been punished with solitary confinement for co-ordinating a hunger strike.
Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna were both in the Gambia setting up a
peanut oil plant when they were seized, turned over to the United States and
sent to Guantanamo. Britain had recognised Jamil as a refugee from Jordan
four years previously; Bisher and his family had fled Saddam Hussein 20
years earlier. Jamil's wife and five children live in London, not far from
Bisher's mother and sister.
Omar Deghayes is a refugee who escaped from Libya to Britain with his family
as a teenager, after his father was murdered by Colonel Gaddafi. Omar
studied law. He was seized in Pakistan, tortured and sent to Guantanamo. The
main evidence against him is a videotape of a Chechen rebel, brandishing a
Kalashnikov, who is now known to be a man called Abu Walid but was
mistakenly identified by Spanish authorities as Omar. The British government
has suggested that Omar should apply to Libya for "consular assistance" and
he has received visits from Libyan officials who, rather than offering him
help, threatened to kill him should he return to Libya.
Ahmad Errachidi, who worked as a cook in London for almost 18 years, was
arrested in Pakistan by bounty hunters, sold to the US military and
transferred to Bagram, where the sign on the interrogation room door read
Hell" in Arabic. In Guantanamo, he was accused of being an extremist leader
and dubbed "The General". Ahmad has been held in punitive isolation for more
than two years, the longest period served in isolation by any Guantanamo
Jamal Kiyemba, originally from Uganda, lived in Britain from the age of 14.
Ask any MP [military police] personnel in Gitmo [Guantanamo]: where's this
guy from? Answer: they will say Britain! Check my incoming mail and you will
find that it's from Britain. My GP, my local mosque, my teens, my education,
employment, friends, taxes, home and, above all else, my family - it is in
Britain. I may not be British according to some piece of paper, but in
reality I am a Brit and always will be." Because Britain will not have him,
the US recently gave notice that he would be sent to Uganda.
And there may be more: Abdulnour Sameur is an Algerian refugee who lived in south Harrow, London, and Ahmed Ben Bacha is an Algerian who lived in Bournemouth. Neither has yet seen a lawyer and little is known about them.
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