Suicide and Spin Doctors
By H. Candace Gorman
Never knowing when–or if–you will be released is a cruel form of torture. It allows you to keep hope while filling you with fear.
Now that the U.S. military has “cleared” my notes, I can tell you about my July meeting at Guantánamo with my client Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi.
Al-Ghizzawi was visibly shaken when I entered the meeting room and he immediately told me of his despair over the May death of a fellow inmate, a young Saudi man named Abdel Rahman Al Amri. Al-Ghizzawi knew that Amri had been suffering from Hepatitis B and tuberculosis, the same two conditions from which he himself suffers. Like al-Ghizzawi, Amri had not been treated for his illnesses. Al-Ghizzawi, now so sick he can barely walk, told me that Amri, too, had been ill and then, suddenly, he was dead.
Al-Ghizzawi also mentioned that Amri had engaged in hunger strikes in the past but had stopped a long time ago because of his health. I knew about Amri’s death. I also know our military has called it an “apparent suicide.”
As I sat with al-Ghizzawi I found myself thinking about South African anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko. In his book I Write What I Like, Biko declares that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” There are many ways for the oppressor to force himself into the mind of the oppressed, but one surefire way is through indefinite detention. Never knowing when—or if—you will be released is a cruel form of psychological torture. It allows you to keep hope while simultaneously filling you with fear. South Africa’s apartheid government sharpened this tactic when it passed the Terrorism Act of 1967, which allowed the police to pick up Biko as a “suspect” involved in terrorism (“involvement” under that law was defined as “anything that might endanger the maintenance of law and order”) and detain him for an indefinite period without trial. Biko’s indefinite detention ended after only a month, when he suffered a brutal death at the hands of the South African police. The government claimed that Biko died as the result of a hunger strike. (In U.S. military parlance, that would be an “apparent suicide.”) Autopsy results later showed that Biko died of a head trauma and that his body was badly beaten. Our government officials, clever devils that they are, apparently learned from the “mistake” of South Africa and refuse to release Amri’s autopsy records.
Back in 2005, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld explained in a speech that Guantánamo is a great training ground for our interrogators because they learn what works and what doesn’t. The Pentagon’s little laboratory gathered speed last December when the military moved several hundred men into Camp 6. Included in the randomly selected group was al-Ghizzawi.
Camp 6 is worse than any of America’s supermax prisons because inmates are given little to occupy their minds as they sit in tiny cells with no natural light or air for at least 22 hours every day. The men are allowed one book per week, but it’s the same old books that have been around year after year. Guards also allow the men two hours of “recreation time” in four-foot-by-four-foot cages. As part of the experiment, the military plays with the “rec” times: Sometimes the guards show up at 3 a.m. for al-Ghizzawi’s recreation time. He is too polite to tell the guards what I would feel compelled to say. Instead he shows his dignity by refusing to stand in the dark. Other times, when the Cuban sun is at its hottest, al-Ghizzawi is offered the opportunity to stand in the metal cage under the blistering sun where there is no shade.
Al-Ghizzawi told me in July that he now finds himself talking out loud even though no one is there to talk to. We both know he is in dangerous territory. We talked about ways to help fight the mental deterioration, such as trying to read, exercising his body or focusing on his wife and daughter. Even though his body is already shot to hell with almost six years of physical and psychological abuse and medical neglect, at least he had been maintaining his mind. He was able to put his life in perspective. He had hope, though mingled with fear for the future. But now he can no longer read the books because his eyes too are shot, so he spends his days in tedious boredom. (In September, I requested that military officials provide him reading glasses, but what is the likelihood that they will give him glasses when they will not give him medical treatment?) So al-Ghizzawi spends his days pacing in his cell, washing and rewashing his clothes and preparing for the death he knows is looming.
When I left our September meeting a few days ago, al-Ghizzawi was doubled over in pain and gagging on his own phlegm. Again, I thought about Steven Biko and the young Saudi, Amri. I feared al-Ghizzawi may suffer a cruel, solitary death. I promised him the only things I could: that his death will not go unnoticed and that I will not let him be listed as an apparent suicide. Then I asked al-Ghizzawi to please not let them take his mind.
Until they clear my notes, his response is classified.
H. Candace Gorman is a civil rights attorney in Chicago. She blogs regularly about legal issues surrounding Guantanamo detainees at The Guantanamo Blog.