Guantanamo Witness Relief

Few people were talking about Guantanamo when a group of Humboldt (Calif.) Meeting members began laboring over a response to the illegal detentions and reports of abuse and torture there. Despite the fact that hundreds of men (estimates range from 600 upward), primarily from Afghanistan, were transported there and held without charge, without trial, and most without legal representation, there was no outrage expressed by the American people. Yet our group felt called to serve and provide relief to both sides: the detainees and the U.S. military.

Now the Guantanamo story is better covered by the media. We know that most of these men, once labeled "the worst of the worst" by the U.S. government, were conscripted low-ranking foot soldiers, low-level functionaries, or completely innocent bystanders. We know that four years after first being detained, the vast majority of these men have still not been charged with any crime. Despite vigorous denial from the government, widespread abuse at Guantanamo is reported by former detainees, lawyers of current detainees, and even U.S. military who served there. Yet there is no expression of public outrage as the Humboldt Guantanamo Group struggles to follow our leading to witness at Guantanamo.

It’s a formidable task. The government has refused to allow even well-known watchdog groups like Amnesty International and the United Nations Witness Against Torture to talk to detainees at Guantanamo. Reporters, doctors, members of Congress, and others are allowed to visit the facilities but not to see or talk to the prisoners. Our group would not be satisfied with just visiting; we want to listen and offer what comfort we can to detainees and military personnel.

The six-member core Humboldt Guantanamo Group (we have been graciously served by advice and support from a number of visiting members) has chosen to at least begin its work with the "inside" road to the detention center. We began by meeting with our Congressional Representative, Mike Thompson, who wrote on our behalf to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We sent our own letters to them as well as to General Jay Hood of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo. We received a letter denying our request from then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs Matthew Waxman. Our current strategy is to launch a petition campaign to support our mission so that we can directly approach members of Congress and members of the administration who might be in a position to aid our cause.

Beyond the denial of legal counsel and due process, detainees routinely suffer many privations, including sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to extreme tropical heat, lack of exercise, and restriction of communication from families. Moreover, detainees are subject to notorious Extreme Reaction Force (ERF) for usually minor infractions of the rules, like translating what the guards are saying in English for Arabic speakers. Reports indicate these events are brutal; in one case, a guard reportedly jumped on a detainee’s head with his full body weight. Later the detainee suffered a stroke and paralysis of one side of his face. On another occasion, guards pushed a detainee’s face into the toilet, then repeatedly flushed until he nearly suffocated. This was followed by holding him down and pushing a garden hose into his mouth, and opening the spigot full force to the point that he could not breathe. The viciousness of the ERF responses has been corroborated by Army Specialist Sean Baker, who suffered from seizures and traumatic brain injuries sustained when he posed as a detainee during an ERF training exercise.

Lately, the media have reported hunger strikes by detainees who find their unlimited detention even more unbearable than the harsh treatment. Consistent with the practice of U.S. prisons but contrary to the ethical stand by the World Medical Association, U.S. military medical personnel have responded to the hunger strikes with forced feedings. These feedings necessitate the use of restraints and are accompanied by a high risk of pain and even injury.

Guantanamo is one egregious example of the government’s alarming incarceration program for suspects in the war against terror. Even if Guantanamo is eventually closed, detainees would be transferred, joining approximately 70,000 illegal and "disappeared" detainees (as estimated by Amnesty International), in mostly secret camps scattered throughout Asia. Their treatment most likely would be worse than what they have experienced at Guantanamo.

Humboldt Meeting holds that Guantanamo Bay and other illegal detention camps are in violation of the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Treaty, and the United Nations Convention against Torture. Most importantly, the treatment at these camps violates the values we share as Quakers.

Perhaps the case against the policies at Guantanamo can best be made by the story of Tarek Dergoul, as reported by David Rose in his book Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights. Raised in East London by Moroccan immigrant parents, Tarek Dergoul was neither political nor religious. After dropping out of school at 15, he tried his hand at a series of low-paying, unskilled jobs and managed to scrape together £5,000 in savings. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he and some friends planned a real estate venture to buy up property in Afghanistan and resell it after the war for a profit.

Unfortunately, Tarek’s friends were killed and he was injured by a stray explosion before their purchase of property outside of Jalalabad in 2002. Tarek was picked up by the Northern Alliance, sold to the U.S. military for a $500 bounty, and shipped to a U.S. detention camp in Bagram, near Kabul. There he endured the now familiar abuses of being transported with a bag over his head, stripped naked, photographed, and receiving full body cavity searches. For some reason, he was spared the "beat downs" of his fellow detainees, but observed guards forcing them to squat for hours, and when they fell over, beating them unconscious. After guards threatened to strip his family in England of all their assets, Tarek "confessed" to being at Tora Bora despite the fact that he had been in Great Britain at that time.

Tarek was never told where he was going when he was shipped to Guantanamo. He was placed in the typical 56-square-foot metal box cell in the punishing heat. In addition to the routine privations of Guantanamo, Tarek was subject to four or five ERFs. Rose quotes Tarek’s account of one incident: "They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching." Tarek also spent over a year in isolation for hunger strikes and non-cooperation drives. Through all of this, he was never charged or tried for anything. Through the intervention of the British government, Tarek was finally released and determined not to be a threat. He was discharged into the hands of the British government, which released him within hours, declaring he was completely innocent. After suffering nightmares, flashbacks, migraines, depression, and memory loss, Tarek received treatment from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in England.

Sources estimate that from half to nearly all of the detainees at Guantanamo are as innocent as Tarek, while even those who may have participated in armed combat were low-ranking foot soldiers who have little or no useful information.

We repeat our intention: to minister to both sides of the war on terror—the U.S. soldiers as well as the detainees. We do not deny that the threat of terrorism is serious. We do believe our government should employ legal, humane, and ethical means to provide defense. Anyone wishing to join our mission can sign our petition at. Signatures can also be mailed to Carol Cruickshank and Fred Adler, P.O. Box 4359, Arcata, CA 95518.

(On June 28, 2006, the United States Supreme Court struck down the military commissions established by President Bush to try suspected al-Qaida members. This decision could allow new legal claims by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, but it does not address the treatment of detainees currently held there.)

Fred Adler

Fred Adler, Andrea Armin-Hoiland, Carol Cruickshank, Margaret Thomas Kelso, Richard Recklefs,, and Karin Salzmann are the members of the Humboldt (Calif.) Meeting Guantanamo Group.