Donald Rumsfeld said "they're terrorists, trainers, bombmakers,
recruiters, financiers, [Osama's] bodyguards, and would-be suicide
bombers". The Bush Administration calls them the "worst of the
worst". The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard
Myers, said they were so vicious that if given the chance they
would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of the aircraft flying them
to Cuba. The Australian Government, apparently, agrees with these
The references are to US prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There are
more than 400 of them and only 10 have been formally charged with
crimes. Many of the remainder have no idea what they are supposed
to have done.
Amnesty International said that Guantanamo was the "gulag of our
times", the Red Cross said the operations there were "tantamount to
torture", and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights last
week concluded that it was such a shocking place that "the US
Government should close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities
without further delay".
Two fascinating studies into the Guantanamo detainees have
emerged this month in the US. Far from being the worst of the
worst, it seems that most of these people should not be there at
Corine Hegland, in the National Journal, examined the
court documents of 132 prisoners who have filed habeas corpus
petitions in the courts. Also, she has gone through the transcripts
of the hearings of 314 prisoners whose "enemy combatant" status was
reviewed by military bodies called combat status review
Professor Mark Denbeaux, at the Seton Hall University Law School
in New Jersey, led a team of his students who investigated the US
Government's documentation against all Guantanamo detainees,
including its submissions to the tribunals. From both these
exhaustive reviews there comes the question: apart from a small
handful of hard cases, what does the US think it is achieving by
continuing to hold most of these prisoners?
Hegland found that a majority of the detainees were not Afghans
but were captured in Pakistan. Seventy-five per cent of those who
have brought habeas petitions are not accused of conducting
hostilities against the US. The information points to the fact that
about 80 per cent of the detainees were never members of al-Qaeda
and many were not Taliban foot soldiers. They were caught in a
dragnet searching for Arabs in Pakistan after September 11, 2001.
Some had loose associations with the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
Many were simply in the region at the wrong time. Much of the
evidence against them is flimsy, having been gathered second-,
third- or fourth-hand. Often it is based on admissions of other
detainees. Hegland cites examples.
One prisoner at Guantanamo made accusations against more than 60
fellow inmates, more than 10 per cent of the prisoner population. A
US military officer, designated as a personal representative for
the purpose of the tribunals' hearings but not a lawyer,
investigated the accusations and found that none of the accused had
been in Afghanistan at the time they were said by this man to have
been in a training camp. It didn't matter, because the tribunals
still went ahead and declared many of them "enemy combatants".
Here's an example of loose association: a Saudi held in
Guantanamo was classified as an enemy combatant because he spent a
couple of weeks at a Taliban bean farm. However, he says he was
imprisoned on the farm because the Taliban thought he was a Saudi
Others, at least 10, are held because when they were rounded up
they were wearing Casio watches and the US Defence Department says
these watches are similar to a model with a circuit board used by
al-Qaeda for making bombs. This model is sold in shops around the
These are not isolated instances, but similar circumstances are
repeated in the files. Many of those handed over to the Americans
came from bounty hunters in Pakistan and Afghanistan paid by the US
to round up Arabs.
The Denbeaux study is even more exacting. Essentially it found
that 55 per cent of the detainees were not accused of committing
any hostile act against the US and only 8 per cent were
characterised as al-Qaeda fighters.
Numerous people are detained because they have "affiliations"
with groups not on the Department of Homeland Security's
Eighty-six per cent of the prisoners were not captured by the
US, but turned over by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance,
often for money or as reprisals for all sorts of hatreds and
When Michael Scheuer, a CIA man who headed the agency's Osama
bin Laden unit until 1999, was told that the largest group in
Guantanamo came from custody in Pakistan, he said: "We absolutely
got the wrong people."
The US keeps these people locked up, mostly without charge,
because it dare not release those it has so embittered. If they
were not dangerous before, they are now. They also have to stay
there for the political needs of the coalition of the willing.
Guantanamo is held out as showing the world that the "worst of the
worst" are behind bars and to that extent, we can sleep a little
tighter at night. And many believe it.
Copyright © 2006. The Sydney Morning Herald