(Image Source: AP)

UN Finally Visits Guantanamo Bay Prison After 20 Years

Published on 28 Jul 2023

The extrajudicial prison at Guantanamo Bay has been a global stain on America and our legal concept of “due process” for over 20 years because almost 800 Muslim men and boys disappeared there (many of them without ever being charged with a crime). Since the first Muslim detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 by the George W. Bush administration, there have been at least 741 men who have been released (with 150 of them having been resettled in 29 countries and the remaining repatriated to their home country). At least 30 men have since died (9 of which died in custody at the military prison) and another 16+ men currently remain at Guantánamo who are cleared for transfer out of the prison.

In June 2023, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights led the first official visit of a U.N. expert to Guantánamo Bay prison. After her visit, the Irish academic and human rights lawyer  produced a 23-page UN report on her visit to Guantanamo Bayan official 23-page UN report on her visit, offering her official recommendations on the importance of closing one of the most infamous prisons in the world today.

This June 2023 UN report clearly stated at the outset that in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, hundreds of thousands of Muslim men were illegally rendered across borders, forcibly disappeared, held in secret detention, and/or subject to egregious human rights violations with any due process of law. The UN special rapporteur noted that US authorities subjected detainees to waterboarding, walling, deprivation of food and water, extreme sleep deprivation, and continuous noises while in detention. The prisoners were told that their family members would be harmed and detainees were also subject to mock executions and subject to sexual violence, including anal penetration (rape) and other heinous acts. Her report reaffirmed previous “UN Special Procedures finding of structured, discriminatory, and systematic rendition, secret detention, and torture and ill-treatment at multiple (including black) sites and at Guantánamo Bay.” The U.S. government authorized and U.S. personnel enabled and sustained this textbook campaign of torture.

The UN rapporteur stated that the “exceptionalism, discrimination, securitization, and anti-terror discourse perpetuated by the continuing existence of and justification for Guantánamo have pervaded well beyond its confines with enormous human rights consequences” for over 2 billion Muslims worldwide. The report concluded by stating that the United States had failed to promote and protect fundamental human rights and called on the American government to develop an approach for responsibly reducing the detainee population and setting the conditions to close the prison facility once and for all.

In 2016, President Barack Obama called the Guantánamo Bay prison “a stain on our broader record” but a few years later, the next president, Donald Trump, took a different approach and promised instead to “load [Guantánamo] up with some bad dudes.” Although Obama promised to close it while in office- Obama did reduce the total number of inmates from several hundreds to a few dozen- it still remains in operation ever since Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep it open. Either way, there cannot be any honest analysis of this extrajudicial prison without analyzing how Islamophobia has allowed it to remain open for over two decades.

“Guantánamo continues to operate as a symbol of Islamophobia,” according to Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of security with human rights. In 2005, a former Gitmo detainee named Tarek Dergoul told CAGE, a UK-based human rights organization about how prison guards had desecrated the Holy Quran while he was imprisoned. “I witnessed the Qur’an being thrown around and kicked, torn up and thrown into a bucket which was being used as a toilet,” he said.

“Islamophobia was widespread at Guantanamo,” said former Captain James Yee, who served as a U.S. Army Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay. Chaplain Yee once told Esquire Magazine that anti-Muslim hostility was also felt by many patriotic American Muslims who were also serving at Gitmo in the military (or as civilian contractors) at the time. In one case, he noted that the commander of Guantanamo’s prison operation at the time- Major General Geoffrey Miller- unilaterally stopped the accommodation of “halal” religious dietary requests for Muslims for no reason, which negatively impacted American-Muslim military personnel who were stationed to the prison base.

“Did torture occur at Guantanamo Bay? Yes, it did,” said Yee who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 2005. “What was also utterly disturbing was the way in which prisoners were systematically persecuted for their faith. Korans were desecrated, Islamic prayers were ridiculed, and water was denied to prevent washing before prayers. Prisoners had their beards forcefully shaven, and sometimes satanic symbols were used during interrogations. I later learned of how prisoners were forcefully baptized by interrogators disguised as Catholic priests.”

The 2005 Quran desecration story at Guantanamo Bay prison was first reported by Newsweek magazine which claimed that the holy book was flushed down a toilet at the prison camp. That Newsweek story (which was later retracted by the magazine in a one-line press release) prompted global condemnations and violent demonstrations erupted in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries (which ended up with at least 15 people being killed in these protests). Notwithstanding the magazine’s retraction, the United States government did later confirm and substantiate that there were at least five (5) different cases in which military guards/interrogators were indeed proven to have mishandled prisoners’ copies of the Quran at Gitmo, but claimed to find “no credible evidence” to confirm the Newsweek report that a holy book was flushed in a toilet. Almost a decade later in 2013, nearly half of all Guantanamo detainees went on hunger strikes in response to Gitmo guards again desecrating more copies of the Quran which had bizarrely occurred again 8 years later.

“Guantanamo was not created as a place for justice—especially not for the Muslim men detained behind its bars,” wrote Dr. Maha Hilal from the Muslim Counterpublics Lab. She further writes that these Muslim men were immediately labeled as “terrorists,” which prevented anyone to see them as innocent until proven guilty. While incarcerated for 20 years without cause, these same Muslim men were emotionally and physically tortured with techniques deliberately meant to shock the sensibilities of their Muslim male identities. Finally, the government was allowed unfettered access to the mainstream media to help shape strategic narratives carefully crafted to dehumanize and characterize the Gitmo detainees as “irredeemable terrorists” to the global public.

Most recently in April 2023, The New York Times editorial board called on President Joe Biden to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison once and for all. They rightfully noted that with the upcoming 2024 presidential campaign season set to begin shortly, we will begin to see an influx of Republican presidential candidates who are more likely to label any efforts at closing Gitmo as being ‘soft on terrorism.” The board also mentioned that America’s condemnations of other countries’ brutal detention centers and acts of torture will “ring hollow” if we fail to close the infamous prison which continues to tarnish our global reputation around the world each day it remains open.

For over twenty years, the world has watched in collective disappointment as both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to close Guantanamo Bay. By understanding this brief history of one of the most notorious extrajudicial prisons in the world, which once held 780 Muslim boys and men (the vast majority having never been charged with a crime), we can hopefully understand the importance of shutting down such an institution in order to truly uphold our values and constitutional principles.