Isolation. Torture. Extreme hot and cold. Sleep deprivation. No family contact. No lawyer. No charge. No timeline. No end in sight.
I understood that the Bush administration was breaking the law in prisons at Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Bagram (Afghanistan) and Guantánamo Bay (Cuba). I understood men were being detained for years without charge. I understood that some of them were being tortured and/or ill-treated. Of course, I didn't like the sound of it.
But when I stepped into Amnesty International USA's replica of the prison cells at the U.S.-controlled detention facility at Guantánamo, it hit me hard; I imagined what it would be like to be trapped in a small box without knowing why I was being held or when I would see my family again. Would I be tortured next, or worse?
The discussion about detainee rights reverberating throughout the nation can seem very ivory tower-like and intangible. It is easy to be distracted from the detainees' experience by legal lingo such as ''unlawful enemy combatants'' and the complex rulings of the highest U.S. courts. This cell replica helps bring the Guantánamo discussion to a level where it should be easier for more of us to understand and acknowledge the cruelty of indefinite detention.
Beaten, force fed
Inhuman conditions, including the denial of basic legal rights, are day-to-day life for Guantánamo detainees. They are beaten, force fed, exposed to extreme temperatures and religiously and sexually humiliated. Canadian detainee Omar Ahmed Khadr was 15 years old when he arrived at Guantánamo. He has been held in solitary confinement for more than a month at a time during his detention. German national Murat Kurnaz only spoke with his family for the first time after three years at Guantánamo. He was later released; there was no evidence that he had committed any crime.
With such cases, it is no wonder the detainees' hoods and orange jumpsuits have become the global image associated with the Bush administration's human rights violations in the war on terror.
The domestic and international consequences of Guantánamo are beginning to weigh heavily on the American conscience. More people now understand that Guantánamo has undermined justice instead of serving it. It has threatened our safety, not ensured it. Five former U.S. secretaries of State who served Republican and Democratic presidents -- Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell -- concur that closing the detention facility is important to bolstering the U.S. image abroad. In the high stakes campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barak Obama agree on one thing -- it's time to close Guantánamo. President Bush himself said he'd "like Guantánamo to end.''
Even former U.S. officials, once the key architects of Guantánamo, are joining the chorus of opposition. The chief prosecutor at Guantánamo Bay, Col. Morris Davis, resigned, alleging Pentagon officials had approved the use of torture-tainted evidence.
But nobody wants to sign up for the difficult policy decisions that would accompany the facility's closure. To shut down Guantánamo, first, detainees should either be charged with a crime and given a fair trial or released from detention.
But in the prosecution and sentencing of detainees, will the courts take into account the years these men have already served without charge, in harsh and inhuman conditions?
As for the detainees released, will the U.S. government simply send them to their home countries, where they could be at risk of torture or ill-treatment? Will anyone be held accountable for gross violations of domestic and international law? Such dilemmas are the U.S. government's moral obligations to address.
This week, Amnesty International USA is launching its national tour of a Guantánamo prison cell replica in Miami at Bayfront Park. As the cell replica tours the country, Americans have an opportunity to try to imagine indefinite detention and have their voice heard.
Americans must join together to send a strong, unified message that we will not stand idly by as the nation's highest officials trivialize the United States' reputation, morality and safety. For every reason, shutting down the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo is long overdue.
Larry Cox is executive director for Amnesty International USA.
Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.