USA "I was just a nobody"
Guantanamo, the world's most controversial prison camp and, for many, the epitome of American capriciousness, is about to change. By holding hearings of terror suspects and implementing modernization programs, Washington is trying to at least preserve the appearance of due process.
The man who is pushed into a tiny office on this afternoon has an unruly beard and an unusually friendly smile on his face. A heavy chain is placed across his hips, and he is handcuffed.
Number 78 is nameless, that is, his name is not permitted to be disclosed. The soldiers who bring in the suspect wear blue rubber gloves, as they always do whenever they are likely to come into physical contact with one of the prisoners here in Guantanamo, the American military enclave in Cuba. 78 was supposedly a big number – the Taliban's chief of intelligence in the Afghan provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Now the man squats on a white plastic stool, his leg irons lashed to a ring embedded in the floor. An air force colonel and two observers sit facing the Afghan. Only the hastily assembled pedestal from which the trio gazes down on the prisoner is remotely reminiscent of a courtroom. The issue being discussed is whether it was truly necessary to keep Number 78 locked up for almost three years – in the name of the war on terror – or whether this supposed Taliban leader is innocent after all, as he continually claims.
The interpreter takes his seat, and the recording clerk adjusts the microphones. Ever since the Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the United States, ruled in June that not even the war against terrorism is a "blank check" that releasing the administration from its obligation to conduct fair trials, new rules have come into effect at Guantanamo.
The tribunals decide which of the deported prisoners is to be classified as an "enemy combatant," a fighter for the Afghan Taliban or Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Three of these military trials are held each day, and the objective is to have heard each of the 550 prisoners still being held in Guantanamo by the end of the year. The Pentagon has insisted on at least creating the impression of due process. To date, only a few of the prisoners have been placed on trial for war crimes, a novelty since the end of World War II. It could take some time before the first sentences are passed.
Although the hearings are little more than a tentative first stab at administering justice, they still intimidate some of the prisoners. One man shakes during his hearing. He is convinced that he will be executed. Another offers to remain at the camp voluntarily if only his wife can be permitted to join him. A third prisoner issues an opening statement that quickly makes his an open-and-shut case: "When I get out of here, I will cut the throat of an American."
Number 78 is passive. He wrings his hands. The sandals on his feet, part of each prisoner's standard uniform, scrape across the carpet, and his chains tighten. The colonel reads the rules of procedure. There are no attorneys at this hearing, only an officer who serves as an advisor of sorts. For reasons of national security, portions of the proceedings must be kept classified. The same applies to evidence. "Do you understand this proceeding?", the colonel asks. "No," responds Number 78. "He wants less complicated words to be used," says the interpreter, "because he didn't go to school."
Soldiers of the notorious Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam arrested the man and then turned him over to the Americans. At the time, the United States was paying a lot of money for Taliban fighters and terrorists, and word of the bounties spread quickly in Afghanistan. "You will discover that people were simply sold; it was all about money," the alleged intelligence chief says to the colonel. "I was just a nobody. Ask my neighbor."
He slips his foot out of his sandal and draws an imaginary map on the carpet. He wiggles his big toe at the spot where he claims witnesses who can corroborate his story live. The colonel is at a loss. "Record that in the minutes," he tells the sergeant, who is operating the tape recorder and taking notes.
"But why did the Taliban give you a house and enough money to buy a car, if you were so unimportant?", the navy observer wants to know.
Number 78 also has an answer ready for this question. He says that there was a commander who had his eye on him and had forced him to have sex with him. "In fact, I was their prisoner, nothing else."
Number 78 has the final word. "You are wasting your time with us," he says. "If you have no evidence, why don't you let us go home to our families? It doesn't do you any good to keep us here. It just makes people hate you even more." After an hour and a half, the hearing is over and the recording clerk turns off the tape recorder. "The decision will be made in Washington," says the colonel. The soldiers waiting outside in the hall put on new rubber gloves.
At the "Windjammer Casino," Jamaican beer is only served to those who can prove that they're old enough to drink. Even the general is carded. Martin Lucenti, the son of Sicilian immigrants, talks about the future of the giant military base on the southeastern tip of Cuba. "One year from now, you won't recognize anything in this place," he says. Lucenti is a reservist whom the army took from his desk at General Electric to make him deputy commander at Guantanamo. He is a Vietnam veteran with a degree in international relations. In his civilian life he works in GE's aviation division.
Lucenti has a vision for the world's most controversial prison camp. Guantanamo is slated to undergo a transformation. The plan is to turn it from a prison that the world sees as the epitome of American arrogance and capriciousness into one that is in compliance with the Supreme Court's requirements, but also "delivers information that makes the world a safer place."
The general says that many of the prisoners are being sent home now: "We don't want the little fish." In saying this, he is disavowing his superiors after the fact, most of all Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had consistently claimed that only the "worst of the worst" had ever been deported to the Caribbean island.
Even in the new Guantanamo, anyone who is considered dangerous or who could be withholding important information must remain imprisoned. For how long? "Whenever we were at war in the past, no one was sent home until the war had ended," says Lucenti.
It is difficult to tell how many prisoners are still being held in this Caribbean prison today. Thirty-five Pakistanis were recently flown out. As a farewell, they were permitted to have a party at the camp. The air was filled with the smells of grilled food, and the noise coming from the farewell party could even be heard in the most remote cell blocks. It was precisely the kind of psychological warfare Lucenti likes to see. After all, someone who has hope of going home also has a reason to talk.
The release, the largest to date, had been negotiated with the Pakistani government by the State Department. Similar agreements with Saudi Arabia and Yemen are said to be almost ready to be signed. Lucenti declines to specify the terms of these agreements. The only thing he is willing to say is that "these people will no longer be able to kill my family."
The new Guantanamo also includes ten mysterious prisoners who arrived three weeks ago. Rumors are making the rounds on the base as to who the new prisoners might be: high-ranking Bin Laden associates, perhaps even the planners of September 11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. Lucenti doesn't want to talk about it. But it would make sense, because Guantanamo is also expected to supply, in the future, the strategic intelligence for the fight against terrorism. The prisoners are used as a sort of reference work, as a means of checking new names that come up in the hearings, or as a catalyst toward achieving a better understanding of how fundamentalists think.
The interrogation building at Camp Delta has seven single rooms. The desks look like hospital stretchers, with two buttons built into the wall. One button is for calling the guards, the other for medical personnel. The rickety black folding chair is for the prisoners, but those who cooperate are allowed to move to a more comfortable leather armchair. Two of the interrogators are waiting in room "Gold 15." The officer has an angular face with hard-edged features. Like everyone else in the camp, he has covered his name tag with black tape, for fear of reprisals. The civilian says: "We want the prisoners to see us as human beings, not enemies."
A door opens across the hall from "Gold 15," revealing a dimly lit room filled with tape recorders. So-called interrogation mirrors, transparent like glass on one side, provide a view into the cells to the left and right. An old man sits on the left, his bound hands pressed against his chest. His white clothing identifies him as a cooperative prisoner. He rocks his upper body, his face almost touching his knees. Then he covers his face with his hands.
The prisoner on the right seems tiny. If it weren't for his long beard, he could be mistaken for a child. He wears orange, the color of the stubborn, the dangerous, but he is sitting on one of the leather chairs. Bars of chocolate, an airmail letter and a map of the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan lie on the table. One of the two interrogators points to a location in the mountains.
General Lucenti claims that almost all of them talk. But why do hard-core Islamists, people who have been silent for years, suddenly becoming cooperative? They are people with feelings, say the interrogation experts, as if they found this surprising. And they tell the story of a hard-baked Taliban fighter whose prosthetic leg had always made showering difficult, until a guard gave him a plastic chair one day. "Since then, he hasn't stopped talking," says the military officer.
"Abu Ghraib scared a lot of us here," General Lucenti claims. He is referring to the Baghdad prison that was taken over by US troops, and to the images of torture that have reached the world in the past few months. It will not happen again, says Lucenti, not in Guantanamo.
Jay Hood is Lucenti's boss. It's so cold in his office that condensation trickles down the windows and into the bay. Army General Hood has spent most of his military career serving in Europe, most recently in Kosovo, and before that in Germany and Italy.
Hood took over command of the base from his "friend" Geoffrey Miller in March. General Miller is one of the most controversial military figures in the United States. Fact-finding committees and the US Senate have been looking into his methods. Miller allegedly tried out internationally outlawed interrogation methods at Guantanamo, and later recommended that they be used at Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo was the laboratory, and Abu Ghraib was the first major field test, critics say.
"This is not Abu Ghraib," says Hood. "We use more effective methods."
At the height of the torture affair, the White House, under pressure, released documents from Guantanamo that were previously considered "strictly classified." In October 2002, the military command had pressed for newer, more aggressive interrogation methods, claiming that the prisoners were becoming increasingly successful at resisting conventional questioning.
Some of the proposals that were discussed read like a horror script about the Inquisition. There is mention of "scenarios" intended to make the prisoners believe that they are likely to be killed or tortured. Or of placing a wet cloth over the face, the notorious Chinese water torture. The prisoner is meant to believe that he is about to suffocate. The general dismisses these claims, saying they were nothing more than internal discussions: "That kind of thing never happened here."
Ever since the incidents at Abu Ghraib, the US military officials at the camp have been worried that their base could be closed. They are familiar with the camp's reputation. Half of the prisoners don't belong there, say CIA experts. And of the other half, many simply make up stories to receive better treatment. This is how rumors were born at Guantanamo that Bin Laden's Al Qaeda plans to poison the food supply or recover plutonium from a sunken nuclear submarine. Critics claim that any information the prisoners may have had has long since been squeezed out of them.
"Nonsense," says General Lucenti. He had a maximum security prison located in Indiana rebuilt at Guantanamo. The components were shipped to the base one by one. Unlike the cell blocks, which still seem temporary, this prison is designed so that prisoners can be held indefinitely.
There is room for a hundred prisoners in "Camp 5," and a construction site for "Camp 6" has already been selected. The seats are being replaced at the open-air movie theater in "Camp America," where hundreds of guards, CIA interrogators and interpreters share barracks. The camp library has purchased copies of "Harry Potter" in Urdu and Pashtu.
These days, the prisoners are trying to get their guards to reveal to them who will win the US presidential election on November 2. Apparently, they hope that even the new Guantanamo will no longer have a place in an America led by John Kerry.
For now, the tribunals are moving forward, unaffected by the presidential campaign in the United States. How they reach their decisions is a secret. So far there is only one meager statistic. By last Thursday, 123 prisoners had been heard, and a decision had been reached in 69 cases. 68 are now officially classified as enemy combatants.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan