Victims of U.S. Torture Respond to the New Terror-Detainee Report

Omar Deghayes was blinded in one eye by a guard at Guantanamo. What does he think of the Constitution Project's conclusions about detainee treatment?

Deghayes at a news conference in London in 2009 (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

By releasing Tuesday a detailed new report on the mistreatment of terror-law detainees, the experts at the Constitution Project aren't really telling us anything we didn't already know about America's descent into the madness of torture. The truth is, we've known for a decade or so that, in our name, terror suspects were tortured for information. And we've known for nearly that long that senior officials within the Bush Administration both authorized such conduct and then sought to protect themselves, and the actual torturers, from liability for their conduct.

But that doesn't mean the report isn't important. It is. First, our attention spans being what they are, the "findings and recommendations" made in its 577 pages are vital reminders of what happened, and how, and why; and of how little accountability has ever sprung from one of the darkest episodes in American legal history. If it were up to me, there would be a comprehensive report like this issued every five years or so, just around the time the nation is apt to forget again how fragile the rule of law can be in times of crisis. From the introduction:

Task Force members generally understand that those officials whose decisions and actions may have contributed to charges of abuse, with harmful consequences for the United States' standing in the world, undertook those measures as their best efforts to protect their fellow citizens.

Task Force members also believe, however, that those good intentions did not relieve them of their obligations to comply with existing treaties and laws. The need to respect legal and moral codes designed to maintain minimum standards of human rights is especially great in times of crisis.

It is encouraging to note that when misguided policies were implemented in an excess of zeal or emotion, there was sometimes a cadre of officials who raised their voices in dissent, however unavailing those efforts.

Second, the report is important as a bipartisan expression of disdain for the poor judgments made by executive branch officials, as well as those made by members of Congress, in the formation, implementation, and justification of these torture policies. Nor was blame restricted to the realm of government. "The architects of the detention and interrogation regimes sought and were given crucial support from people in the medical and legal fields," the report concludes. "This implicated profound ethical questions for both professions ..." Republicans signed onto these conclusions. So did Democrats.

Third, the report is important as a tool to shame federal lawmakers, and Justice Department officials, to do more to develop the historical record of this story. "The members of the Task Force believe there may be more to be learned," the report concludes, through the use of "subpoena power to compel testimony and the capability to review classified materials." There is no reason to think that the Obama Administration or Congress would now undertake such a review. But will the White House or Congressional leaders even be questioned about the report and its conclusions?

Fourth, there are the recommendations made by panel members. One is that the government should "strengthen the criminal prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." Another is that the President should "direct the CIA to declassify the evidence necessary for the American public to better evaluate" the torture claims. Only on the topic of whether to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, did Task Force members disagree. Two conservative panelists argued in favor of keeping the facility open for now. Will these recommendations even be seriously debated in Washington?

Since I have little standing to speak about the substance of the report -- since so few of us can truly understand what American policy really meant for those who found themselves in those interrogation rooms-- I thought it would make sense to ask someone who does to share with us his perceptions of the work done by the Task Force. So I asked Maher Arar for his views. Arar is the Syrian-born Canadian resident who was apprehended by American forces in 2002, tortured in Syria, and then released without charges or a trial (or an apology from U.S. officials).

After reading the report, I asked, what would you want to say to John Yoo or any of the other architects of the American torture policy? Arar told me: "If anything your torture program not only was harmful to the people you torture but it was equally harmful to your nation's ideals and values. Your forefathers and Founders would be ashamed of your actions. ... Today," he continued, "the main target are Muslims. Tomorrow it could be you. Never take what your officials say for granted."

I also posed these questions, and more, to Omar Deghayes, a Libyan man who was tortured at Guantanamo Bay, to read the report and to offer his perspective. What happened to Deghayes is appalling. In 2010 he shared his story with the Guardian's Patrick Barkham:

It is not hot stabbing pain that Omar Deghayes remembers from the day a Guantánamo guard blinded him, but the cool sen­sation of fingers being stabbed deep into his eyeballs. He had joined other prisoners in protesting against a new humiliation -- inmates ­being forced to take off their trousers and walk round in their pants -- and a group of guards had entered his cell to punish him. He was held down and bound with chains.

"I didn't realise what was going on until the guy had pushed his fingers ­inside my eyes and I could feel the coldness of his fingers. Then I realised he was trying to gouge out my eyes," Deghayes says. He wanted to scream in agony, but was determined not to give his torturers the satisfaction. Then the officer standing over him instructed the eye-stabber to push harder. "When he pulled his hands out, I remember I couldn't see anything -- I'd lost sight completely in both eyes." Deghayes was dumped in a cell, fluid streaming from his eyes.

The sight in his left eye returned over the following days, but he is still blind in his right eye. He also has a crooked nose (from being punched by the guards, he says) and a scar across his forefinger (slammed in a prison door), but otherwise this resident of Saltdean, near Brighton, appears ­relatively ­unscarred from the more than five years he spent locked in Guantánamo Bay.

Deghayes is one of the lucky ones. He was thereafter released from Gitmo, without ever having to stand trial, and now lives as a free man. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

COHEN: There were portions of the report, detailing detainee abuse, which surely were difficult for you to read given your history. What was your initial gut reaction to the contents of the Report? Did it make you angry? Did it make you sad?

DEGHAYES: It is quite painful reading through the report and having to relieve and remember the unwelcome thoughts of the Guantanamo days, not that it is ever forgettable ... But I was shaken the most by the case of Dilawar, the innocent Afghan taxi driver who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was tortured to a degree that caused him to lose his sanity and daydream to death.

Another case is Yasser Talaal Az-Zahrani, this young man who was shown hell alive. After his death, the story of mental and psychological torture was extended to his family, as -- after long years of wrongful detention -- they received the dead body of their son, but incomplete, without the throat. Yasser was buried, and along with him the truth of his case also was buried.

COHEN: The panel that investigated the treatment of detainees concluded that it is "indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture." What was your reaction when you read those findings and conclusions? Does this belated acknowledgement by some of America's political and social leaders change the way you perceive your own experiences at the hands of your captors?

DEGHAYES: I felt as if I was reading that it is indisputable that the light of the sun can be seen! It took 11 years to establish this fact that is known to every human being! To be honest, I think of those still in Guantanamo and other torture facilities more than thinking of my own experience and of those who have been freed ... I have no doubt that more acknowledgements will follow. It is a matter of measuring political gains, and simply a matter of time -- the truth eventually comes out.

COHEN: The Task Force also concluded that "the nation's highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture." What do you think that responsibility is? And what would you like to see done about it?

DEGHAYES: As the report unveiled, Carolyn Wood said that the seniors had set no guidelines on how to treat the detainees, so the guidelines were simply none. That was a green light for sadistic movie lovers to bring their evil imaginations into practice... [S]adly, we were stripped of all our dignity and rights at the hands of those claiming to be human rights' gatekeepers! Every victim loves to see justice taking place, so those who engaged in these practices, be it giving orders, or committing the actual dirty act of torture -- both seniors and juniors on all levels -- should be brought to justice, publicly.

COHEN: Have you ever thought about what you would say to John Yoo, or Jay Bybee, or Alberto Gonzales, or David Addington, or Dick Cheney, or any of the other architects of the American policies which resulted in the treatment you received? Do you believe that they will ever have to answer for those policies more than they already have?

DEGHAYES: They will surely have to answer, if not in this life then in another life where the ultimate justice cannot be interrupted. This is my personal belief. I'd rather direct my word to every politician, journalist, and lawyer, and to every person who happens to have an influential word, a word that could bring shame to an entire nation, to take lessons from the past, and learn from the mistakes of others rather than repeating them!

COHEN: What lesson should the American people take from the treatment you received, and from the conclusions contained in the report?

DEGHAYES: The report exposes a lot of facts that were kept hidden from the public. I hope that every person could read it. I believe the vast majority of the American people are peaceful and they oppose all forms of injustice. The dirty policies of torture bring out enemies instead of getting rid of them.