Detainees at Guantanamo Bay are turned into “nomads” to keep them agitated and to punish those who break rules, a Sudanese journalist recently released from the U.S. military prison said Friday.
Sami al-Haj said moving detainees between camps and from cell to cell appeared to be part of an official policy to destabilize them. “They were made into nomads,” the Al-Jazeera journalist said.
Frequent cell transfers at the prison became an issue in May when a Pentagon-appointed defense attorney sought to have an Afghan detainee’s charges dismissed citing abusive interrogation tactics. The lawyer alleged his client was subjected to “frequent flying,” a sleep deprivation technique that involves round-the-clock cell transfers before questioning.
The Pentagon Friday denied that al-Haj was mistreated. Earlier this week, the current commander of the prison, Navy Rear Adm. David Thomas, said that “there is no unnecessary movement in and out of cells by detainees,” but would not comment on allegations that detainees were subjected to sleep deprivation before he took command on May 27.
Al-Haj said he saw three reasons for detainees being moved around the prison at the U.S. Navy base on Cuba.
“There was a policy of the camp administration to stop the detainees from feeling they were in a stable state, and therefore they kept the detainees in movement all the time, moving them from one camp to the other every week, every two weeks,” al-Haj told The Associated Press.
By moving detainees, variously isolating them and then putting them back within speaking distance of other inmates, authorities also tried to gather information from conversations between detainees, he said.
“In certain camps there was the possibility to speak to each other. It wasn’t allowed, but it was possible. It was very much a police tactic to listen to us,” al-Haj said. “They knew that when one is deprived of contact and then one has the possibility to speak to others, one might say things.”
Al-Haj claimed that a second reason for moving detainees was to prepare them for interrogation. He said he was subjected to the so-called “frequent flyer” program and was rotated between cells every two hours for up to a month.
Finally, he said, detainees were moved to separate cells when they breached prison rules.
Al-Haj described a cellblock named Romeo where inmates were placed in a cold room and stripped of all clothes except a pair of shorts.
Guards would frequently check on the detainees, making them move their limbs “to know you are alive,” al-Haj said. “They have the right to check you all the time. So they use this to disturb you, because they need all the people to follow the rules.”
The Pentagon said Friday that there was nothing to support al-Haj’s claims.
“We have no evidence to substantiate his claims that he was mistreated at Guantanamo. We investigate claims of abuse, and in those relatively rare instances where allegations are deemed credible and substantiated, we hold those responsible accountable,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Al-Haj, 38, now works as a producer for Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. He was released from Guantanamo in May after more than six years in U.S. detention.
The military alleged he was a courier for a militant Muslim organization in the 1990s, a claim his lawyers have denied. Al-Haj was never prosecuted, and it is unclear how the allegation relates to his arrest on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in December 2001.
The only journalist from a major international news organization held at Guantanamo, he has said his arrested was because of U.S. hostility toward Al-Jazeera and because the media was reporting on U.S. rights violations in Afghanistan.
Al-Haj, who has used a walking stick since his detention, was in Geneva to meet with officials at the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“Human rights and security are inseparable,” al-Haj told a public event on Thursday.