The first extensive study of prisoners released from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, finds that many of them are physically and psychologically traumatized, debt-ridden and shunned in their communities as terrorist suspects.
“I’ve lost my property. I’ve lost my job. I’ve lost my will,” said an Afghan man, one of 62 former inmates in nine countries interviewed anonymously by UC Berkeley researchers for a newly released report.
Another man, jobless and destitute, said his family kicked him out after he returned, and his wife went to live with her relatives. “I have a plastic bag holding my belongings that I carry with me all the time,” he said. “And I sleep every night in a different mosque.”
The report, “Guantanamo and its Aftermath,” also found that two-thirds of former prisoners interviewed between July 2007 and July 2008 suffered from psychological problems, including nightmares, angry outbursts, withdrawal and depression.
Many also reported recurring or constant pain from their treatment in captivity. Six men said that for them, the treatment included being suspended from the ceiling in chains at a U.S. air base.
The authors called for a commission to investigate conditions at Guantanamo and other prisons where terrorist suspects are held and, if warranted, recommend criminal investigations “at all levels of the civilian and military command.”
“We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation’s history under the rug by simply closing the Guantanamo prison camp,” said Eric Stover, director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. “The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable.”
Other co-authors are Laurel Fletcher, director of UC Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, and Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group representing some Guantanamo inmates.
President-elect Barack Obama has said he plans to close Guantanamo. During the campaign, he criticized the military commissions that President Bush established to try a small number of prisoners at the base and said he preferred regular civilian or military courts, where defendants have more rights. But Obama has not yet announced his plans for the trials or for the majority of inmates who are being held without charges.
Asked for comment on the report, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, the government’s spokesman on Guantanamo, said, “Our policy is, and always has been, to treat detainees humanely.”
A few former inmates, their lawyers and interrogators have given personal accounts of Guantanamo and other prisons in memoirs and court affidavits. The 136-page UC Berkeley report is the first to examine the fate of large numbers of released prisoners.
The report acknowledged that the inmates’ narratives often lack independent confirmation. But it said they can be considered credible because they’re consistent with other accounts – by other former prisoners, and by 50 past and present U.S. officials, lawyers and others with firsthand knowledge of Guantanamo who were interviewed for the survey.
The 62 men in the study spent an average of three years at Guantanamo. Most were classified as enemy combatants before being released without charges, like two-thirds of the 775 men who have been held at the naval base. Of the 255 remaining prisoners, 23 have been charged with war crimes.
More than one-third of the 62 said they had been turned over to U.S. authorities in Pakistan for a bounty; one man described standing outside an airplane with other detainees, hooded and shackled, and hearing an American voice tell the Pakistanis, “Each person is $5,000.”
Others said they had been arrested on flimsy grounds – for carrying guns that they used for personal protection, for possessing binoculars that one man used for hunting birds, or for failing to pay bribes to local officials.
According to the men’s accounts, their most brutal treatment occurred at a U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, where half of them were held before being flown to Guantanamo. The men said American guards regularly beat them, left them in freezing temperatures with thin blankets, used dogs to terrorize them, and, in the cases of six men, hung them from ceilings by chains for hours.
At Guantanamo, 24 of the 55 men who were willing to discuss their interrogations reported no problems, and a few described their questioners as “very nice.” But others said they had been shackled in contorted positions and subjected to extreme heat or cold, both during interrogation and afterward.
Chained and cold
Eight men said their worst ordeal was being chained to the floor in a refrigerated isolation room, unable to move without being cut by the shackles. The report quoted a former U.S. military guard as saying prisoners were sometimes kept in such rooms in cramped positions for more than 10 hours.
Other men described sexual humiliation and barrages of loud music and strobe lights for extensive periods.
The cumulative effect of such treatment over time, combined with the prospect of indefinite confinement, would “in some cases clearly rise to the level of torture,” the report said.
Warren, the Center for Constitutional Rights director and attorney, said the nation owes the men an apology, compensation and a chance to clear their names.
Read the report
To read “Guantanamo and its Aftermath,” go to: links.sfgate.com/ZFJQ