Prisoners, physicians and psychologists describe ‘humiliating punishments’ and ‘deteriorating’ conditions during the Obama Administration at the U.S.-run detention center, Andrew Wander reports at al Jazeera.
by Andrew Wander
9 Nov 09 | AJE
On the night that Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, 21-year-old Mohammed el Gharani was sitting in a segregation cell in Guantanamo Bay’s high security Echo Block.
He remembers the excitement among his fellow prisoners at the prospect of an Obama presidency. “Everyone was very hopeful; people were saying he was going to change things, that he would close the prison,” Gharani, who was released in June, says.
“Even the guards were telling us that if he won, things would improve for us.”
They were to be disappointed. A year after Obama’s election win, Al Jazeera has learnt that despite the new president’s pledge to close the prison and improve the conditions of detainees held by the U.S. military, prisoners believe that their treatment has deteriorated on his watch.
Authorities at the prison deny mistreating the inmates, but interviews with former detainees, letters from current prisoners and sworn testimony from independent medical experts who have visited the prison have painted a disturbing picture of psychological and physical abuse very much at odds with White House rhetoric on prisoner treatment.
While no-one is alleging a return to the early days of the prison, when detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are today widely regarded as torture, prisoners say day-to-day life at Guantanamo has become harder under the Obama administration.
Within days of Obama’s inauguration and subsequent announcement that he would close Guantanamo, prisoners say authorities introduced new regulations and revoked previous privileges at the prison.
“They took away group recreation for prisoners in segregation, which was the only time we saw anyone,” Gharani remembers. “They took away the books we had from the library. They even sprayed pepper spray into my cell while I was sleeping, so I’d wake up unable to breathe.”
Gharani says he was beaten so badly by guards that he is still suffering pain today.
Al Jazeera has obtained letters written by those currently being held in Guantanamo that tell a similar story. In one, written in March, a prisoner, who has asked that he remains anonymous for fear of repercussions, says he is writing to “depict to what degree our conditions inside Guantanamo detention have deteriorated” since Obama took office.
“I am in the very same cell, wearing the same uniform, eating the same food, yet treated much worse compared to mid-2008,” the prisoner writes. “We are unable to understand the goals of the policy of more restrictions and inflexibility.”
According to the letter, prison authorities inflict “humiliating punishments” on inmates and prisoners face “intentional mental and physical harm”.
“The situation is worsening with the advent of the new management,” the prisoner writes, noting, like Gharani, that the new rules were imposed in January this year. Conditions, he says, “do not fit the lowest standard of human living”.
Separately, two prisoners have complained to their lawyer that their belongings, including their bedding, were removed from their cells on several occasions for no reason. Each time, they were told that the removal was a “mistake,” and the belongings were returned, only to be confiscated again.
More disturbingly, the same two prisoners say that during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, their recreation time was moved to prevent them from taking part in traditional group prayer.
Using religion to punish prisoners is illegal under international law. Authorities at Guantanamo deny the prisoners are kept from practising their religion, although they concede that recreation times are sometimes moved “due to operational needs”.
They say that personal belongings are not removed from cells “unless detainees misuse the items”; the prisoners categorically deny that they did so.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which monitors prisoner treatment at Guantanamo, declined to comment on specific allegations at the prison, but says that it recognises the cumulative effect low-level abuse can have on the well-being of prisoners in general.
“In some cases, a single act may amount to torture,” ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno says. “In others, ill treatment may be the result of a number of methods used over time, which, taken individually and out of context, may seem harmless.”
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