Guantanamo Bay: A Wound We Won't Let Heal

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On a dark anniversary, remembering the story of a detainee who spent seven years in the prison, never knowing what evidence the United States had against him


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When I think of the American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, now exactly 10 years old, I think of Mustafa Ait Idr. He was one of the hundreds of men who were rounded up and detained at Gitmo in the months following the terror attacks on America and who were later released out of political convenience or because the evidence against them was not credible or was simply non-existent. As America observes this dubious anniversary -- a wound we still refuse to allow ourselves to close -- men like Idr deserve to have their stories retold.  

Captured by American forces in January 2002 and suspected of ties to Al Qaeda, Idr spent nearly seven years at Gitmo before he was released back to his native Bosnia in December 2008. The only reason I know his story, and remember it today, is because of U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green. In January 2005, she highlighted the absurdity of the government's treatment of Idr. Memorably, she quoted at length from the transcript of Idr's interrogation during his Combat Status Review TribunalHere is the transcript of the session.

When I first read it, years ago, I was struck by this passage.
Recorder: [Item 3.a.4.] While living in Bosnia, the Detainee associated with a known Al Qaida operative.

Detainee: Give me his name.

Tribunal President: I do not know.

Detainee: How can I respond to this?

Tribunal President: Did you know of anybody that was a member of Al Qaida?

Detainee: No, no.

Tribunal President: I'm sorry, what was your response?

Detainee: No.

Tribunal President: No?

Detainee: No. This is something the interrogators told me a long while ago. I asked the interrogators to telI me who this person was. Then I could tell you if I might have known this person, but not if the person is a terrorist. Maybe I knew this person as a friend. Maybe it was a person that worked with me. Maybe it was a person that was on my team. But I do not know if this person is Bosnian, Indian or whatever. If you tell me the name, then I can respond and defend myself against this accusation.

Tribunal President: We are asking you the questions and we need you to respond to what is on the unclassified summary. If you say you did not know or you did know anyone that was a part of Al Qaida, that is the information we need to know.

Detainee: I have only heard of Al Qaida after the attacks in the United States. Before that, I had never heard of Al Qaida. Even after I heard of Al Qaida, I felt that Al Qaida was the Taliban and the Taliban was AI Qaida. Then after watching the news, I knew Al Qaida was associated with Bin Laden and the Taliban was associated with the Afghans.

I called this Orwellian at the time -- tell me, the government agent says, if you know the person I refuse to identify -- but perhaps Kafkaesque is a better meme. Or maybe we need to go back even further than Kafka, to the Inquisition itself, to place into historical framework the sort of symbol Gitmo presents to the world beyond our borders. We held men like Idr for years even though our classified intelligence was telling us that we did not have enough evidence to sustain legitimate convictions against them.

We did it in the name of security, of course, and in spite of the fact that our federal courts kept telling us that we could and should do better. Now that I read the Idr transcript again, however, it's impossible to ignore what else we now know about what allegedly happened to him while he was at Gitmo. It was evidently worse, much worse, than anyone had a right to think. In July 2006, the New York Center for Constitutional Rights published  its Report on Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Here is one of the many entries relating to Idr contained in the CCR report: 
Mustafa Ait Idir asked to speak with an officer after guards refused to turn down fans that were making prisoners cold. He was alone in his cell at about 2 p.m. when guards entered, saying they wanted to search his cell. He sat on the floor as he was instructed, and his hands were secured behind him. Suddenly guards grabbed him and picked him up. They began to curse him and to say horrible things to him and about him and his family. The bunk in that cell was on a 3-foot high steel shelf. The guards banged his body and his head into the steel bunk. The bunk and cell appear to be of a single piece or welded construction -- much like a tub and wall unit -- but made of steel. The guards then threw him on the floor and continued to pound him and bang his head and body on the floor. The guards then picked him up and banged his head on the foot stirrups of the toilet unit in his cell. Mustafa described the toilet as like a Turkish toilet -- with a hole beneath it and a sturdy place to place one's feet and from which to squat. They banged his head onto the foot holding apparatus. He was taken to solitary confinement after that beating. Officers visited him twice that night to examine the bruises covering much of his upper body.
There is more. From the CCR Report: 
Mr. Ait Idir's resistance during the episode of religious-physical abuse described above led to a further, unprovoked attack, which ultimately resulted in partial facial paralysis and a life-long disability. One day shortly after the pants related beating, guards told him they wanted to search his cell. There had been no intervening disciplinary issues. He sat on the floor as instructed. Despite his full cooperation, he was sprayed in the face with chemical irritant, and put into restraints. Guards then slammed him head first into the cell floor, lowered him, face-first into the toilet and flushed the toilet -- submerging his head. He was then carried outside and thrown onto the crushed stones that surround the cells. While he was down on the ground, his assailants stuffed a hose in his mouth and forced water down his throat. Then a soldier jumped on the left side of his head with full weight, forcing stones to cut into Mr. Ait Idir's face near his eye. The guards twisted his middle finger and thumb on his right hand back almost to the point of breaking them. The knuckles were dislocated. As a result of this incident, the left side of Mr. Ait Idir's face became paralyzed for several months. The symptoms from that attack continue to plague him two years later.
Now do yourself a favor and read Cullen Murphy's  excellent essay on the history of torture in this month's Atlantic. Just as there is a link between Guantanamo Bay and the atrocities at  Abu Ghraib, there is an indisputable link between some of the darker moments in human history. You would think a civilized nation, when confronted by this ugly tie, would race to break the bond by closing the prison. Nope. It may be soon enough for Hollywood to make a  sad movie about 9/11 -- but it's still too soon for the U.S. government to shut down its most visible example of official injustice since Plessy v. Ferguson
 
Story continues after the gallery
So today we should praise and be thankful for people like  Mark and Joshua Denbeaux, who made meaning of the tribunal records;  David Cole, the law professor who has written so eloquently about the legal and moral failures of Gitmo; and Carol Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, who has bravely written about the most significant event to hit Cuba since the Bay of Pigs. We know we still don't know the whole story of the prison. But what we do know has come from these people, and many more, who have sought to bring light to the darkness.

But back to Idr and his story. Here is how his tribunal session ended:
Detainee: If it is the same point, but I do not want to repeat myself. These accusations, my answer to all of them is I did not do these things. But I do not have anything to prove this. The only thing is the citizenship. I can tell you where I was and I had the papers to proves this. But to tell me I planned to bomb, I can only tell you that I did not plan.

Tribunal President: Mustafa, does that conclude your statement? 

Detainee: This is it, but I was hoping you had evidence that you can give me. If I was in your place -- and I apologize in advance for these words -- but if a supervisor came to me and showed me accusations like these, I would take these accusations and I would hit him in the face with them. Sorry about that. [Everyone in the Tribunal room laughs.]

Tribunal President: We had to laugh, but it is okay. 

That exchange took place on October 11, 2004, nearly three years after Idr was detained. It would be more than another four years before he would be set free. That is the legacy of America's disgraceful business at Guantanamo Bay. It is the legacy of a country, known for its civil liberties, which allowed government power to exceed reason or justice or morality. So long as the place remains open, so long as men are detained there, the wound we opened but refuse to close cannot meaningfully heal.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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