January 16, 2007

Five Years, Lost in Hell

The prison at Guantanamo has represented an unspeakable abomination since the first moment the noxious idea was considered. This essay from May 2005 explains some of the major reasons for my statement: "Understanding the Significance of Guantanamo: The Symbol of Omnipotent Power."

As you read the following, think about what you may have done during a five-year period in your own life. Think about the work you did, or the school(s) you may have attended, the friends you spent time with, the person you may have fallen in love with and married. Think about all that.

And then consider this:
Shackled at the wrists and blinded by special goggles, the first captives from the U.S. war in Afghanistan were ushered to makeshift prison cells thousands of miles from the battle, at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five years ago last week.

Gholam Ruhani was among them, the prison's third official inmate, flown in by cargo plane with the first group of 20 men. The 23-year-old Afghan shopkeeper, who spoke a little English, was seized near his hometown of Ghazni when he agreed to translate for a Taliban government official seeking a meeting with a U.S. soldier.

Ruhani is still at Guantanamo, marking the fifth anniversary of the prison and his own captivity. He remains as stunned about his fate, according to transcripts of his conversations with military officers, as he was when U.S. military police led him inside the razor wire on Jan. 11, 2002, and accused him of being America's enemy.

"I never had a war against the United States, and I am surprised I'm here," Ruhani told his captors during his first chance to hear the military's reasons for holding him, three years after he arrived at Guantanamo. "I tried to cooperate with Americans. I am no enemy of yours."


Guantanamo, which is struggling to rid itself of roughly 200 of its 393 remaining detainees, served its original purpose of taking dozens of terrorism suspects and enemy fighters from the chaotic Afghan battlefield and elsewhere, administration officials and the prison's supporters say.

But after five years and more than $600 million, it has failed to quickly and fairly handle the cases of hundreds of people such as Ruhani, against whom the government has no clear evidence of a role in attacks against the United States, according to current and former government officials and attorneys for detainees.

In the administration's effort to obtain raw intelligence, officials said, it was easier to ship hundreds of men with unclear allegiances to a naval base in Cuba in early 2002 and ask the hard questions later. But with a government focused on interrogations, a bureaucracy lacking tolerance for risk and a detention policy under legal attack, the United States has found it difficult to free many of the detainees, regardless of the information it has on the threat they pose.


[O]f the 773 detainees who have spent time in Guantanamo, the government has released roughly half, most because they had no information and no role in any fighting. The majority were sent home after the evidence against each was formally reviewed at military hearings required in 2004 by the Supreme Court, which rejected the Bush administration's claim that it could detain foreign nationals indefinitely without such sessions.

Of the 393 prisoners who remain today, the military has determined that 85 pose so little threat, they should be transferred to their home countries. Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because some evidence about the prisoners is classified, estimate that about 200 pose a danger to Americans.

It is unknown what classified evidence exists to hold Ruhani, who said he was newly married and trying to help his elderly father run an electrical supply store when he was arrested on Dec. 9, 2001. The military tribunal that reviewed his case in 2004 publicly concluded that he was a danger because he was captured with a senior Taliban intelligence officer, was carrying rounds for his pistol and had worked as a part-time aide in a Taliban security office.

Ruhani told the three-officer tribunal that he had been waiting for three years to set the record straight, transcripts show. He contended that the Taliban required all young men to fight in its army but said he was able to avoid going to the front lines by agreeing to do menial cleaning and clerical jobs at a nearby police office.

"I was afraid I would be killed," he told them.

He had learned a little English to make some sense of the electronics manuals in his family's shop. And, he said, he was happy to help translate when asked by a fellow villager -- Abdul Haq Wasiq, a Taliban official who later became a prisoner with him at Guantanamo -- because he considered the Americans friendly. He said almost everyone in Afghanistan carries a weapon for protection but he handed his over to the Americans as he entered the meeting.

"I believed I was on the Americans' side. I expected to leave that meeting and return to my life, my shop and my family. Instead, I was arrested," he said, adding: "All I want to say is that I am not guilty. I am asking for your help."

The military decided to continue holding Ruhani. At a review hearing the next year, he seemed bewildered that the Americans had not yet determined that his detention was a mistake.

"If there is a misunderstanding, please don't hold that against me," Ruhani said. "When will they let me know that I'll be released?"
If all that isn't awful enough, read this single paragraph about another of the very first Guantanamo prisoners:
One is Shakhrukh Hamiduva, an 18-year-old Uzbek refugee who fled his country after the government there killed one of his uncles and jailed other relatives. He tried to cross the border from Afghanistan when U.S. bombs started falling but was captured by a tribal leader and sold to U.S. forces for a bounty. He said soldiers told him he would be released, but instead he ended up in Cuba.
The story refers to people like Shakhrukh Hamiduva as "unlikely enemies of the United States." It would appear that such individuals were never enemies at all. Of course, if such prisoners were provided with the legal protections that the government seeks to obliterate, such matters could have been determined long ago.

And such people may not ever have been enemies of this country -- but after the United States has stolen five years of their lives and will probably steal still more, and after their lives have been irreparably damaged, what are the chances they will be enemies if they are ever released? And who could legitimately blame them if they were?

There can never be forgiveness for such acts by our government. At every turn, this administration has increased the threats to our country instead of lessening them, and has made us less safe than we were before. The most dedicated of enemies could not have damaged us more effectively.

Five years. It's a very long time.