A freelance historian and journalist, Andy Worthington has spent several years looking at the undercurrents of post-war British social history – in particular the clash between the state and some of its most outspoken critics (protest movements, travelers and alternative communities).
In 2006, he turned his attention to the “War on Terror”. Like many decent-minded citizens of the world, he had been deeply concerned, from the moment Guantanamo opened in January 2002, that the US administration’s response to 9/11 was both cruel and misguided, although he conducted some research in the years that followed, it was not until March 2006, when he read Enemy Combatant by the released British prisoner Moazzam Begg, that he asked himself the fateful question, “Who’s in Guantanamo?” The quest to answer this question consumed over a year of his life, and led to the creation of The Guantanamo Files.
To coincide with the publication of The Guantanamo Files, he started providing additional information about the prisoners that he was unable to include in the book. In February 2008, he co-wrote a front-page news story with Carlotta Gall for the New York Times, and has also had articles published in the Guardian, Index on Censorship, Socialist Review and the Daily Star, Lebanon.
Since September 2007, he has also undertaken various interviews – with the BBC, Al-Jazeera, Press TV, INN World News and others – and speaking engagements, including the Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh (with Arun Kundnani), and various other talks with Moazzam Begg, Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at Reprieve, and former Guantanamo chaplain James Yee.
Following is the text of the interview Press TV’s Ismail Salami has conducted with Andy Worthington.
Press TV: Could you please explain about the structure at Guantanamo?
Andy Worthington:The prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is on land occupied by a US naval base. It was first occupied by the United States in 1903 and is maintained under the terms of a lease that cannot be broken unless both the American and Cuban governments agree to it.
As a “War on Terror” prison, designed to hold prisoners — known as “detainees” — without charge or trial, and without access to the US court system, Guantanamo opened on January 11, 2002, as the first of nearly 800 detainees arrived by plane from the US prison at Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan.
The detainees were initially held in cages that were open to the elements — in Camp X-Ray — but the first phase of a more permanent structure, known as Camp Delta, opened in May 2002. It now contains seven prison blocks — Camps 1 to 7 — plus an isolation block, Camp Echo, and another block, Camp Iguana, which was once used to house juvenile detainees.
Press TV: Could you please tell us about Camp 6 at Guantanamo?
Andy Worthington:Camp 6, modeled on “supermax” prisons on the US mainland, opened in late 2006. Although communal areas were incorporated into the structure, these have never been used. After unrest following the apparent suicide of three detainees in June 2006, it was decided that it was unsafe to allow the detainees to mix freely.
Although detainees in Camp 4 share dormitories and are allowed some communal leisure facilities, they are in the minority, and Guantanamo’s general population is held in Camp 6, where the detainees remain in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day, and are not allowed any kind of social life, even though they include dozens of detainees who have been cleared for release, following decisions made by military review boards. These innocent men cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured on their return, and are from countries including China, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.
Press TV: The Bush administration has claimed that the Third Geneva Convention does not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters even though it has become evident that many of the detainees at Guantanamo are being kept with no solid accusations against them. How can you interpret this?
Andy Worthington:The decision to deprive the detainees of the protections of the Geneva Conventions (GPW) was to facilitate their interrogation, which is otherwise prohibited. In the memo advising the President to remove GPW rights from the detainees (signed by his Chief Counsel Alberto Gonzales, but widely attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisors), it was also stated that depriving the detainees of their GPW rights “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act.”
Unfortunately, when the detainees failed to provide the intelligence that the administration had hoped for, the removal of GPW rights allowed the authorities to interrogate them coercively, using “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been widely interpreted as constituting torture.
Over time, of course, as I demonstrate in The Guantanamo Files, it became apparent that the majority of the detainees had no intelligence to offer because they were either innocent men — charity workers, missionaries, religious students and economic migrants — or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war against the Northern Alliance, who had, for the most part, no knowledge of the workings of al-Qaeda. Although the administration claimed that the detainees were “captured on the battlefield,” the majority had in fact been handed over to US forces by their allies, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a time when substantial bounty payments were being made for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects, and others had been picked up on the basis of false intelligence.
Press TV: Could you please explain to our readers about the Tipton Three?
Andy Worthington:The Tipton Three are three young men from the West Midlands, in England, who were captured in Afghanistan, where they had strayed in search of adventure after traveling to Pakistan to arrange the wedding of one of the men.
Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, during its surrender in November 2001 — they survived a massacre en route to a prison run by one of the Alliance commanders, when hundreds of prisoners were suffocated in container trucks, and were held in Guantanamo until March 2004, when they were returned to the UK and freed without charge.
Under pressure in Guantanamo, they had falsely confessed that they were figures in the crowd in a poor-quality video that featured a meeting between Osama bin Laden and lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, but their lawyers were able to demonstrate that, when the video was recorded, one of the three had been working at an electrical store in England. As a result, the British government was able to press for their release.
Press TV: One of the abuses at the camp is reportedly the abuse of religion while the US government claims they respect religious beliefs. If it is true, could you please give instances of religious abuses and elaborate more on the matter?
Andy Worthington:Religious abuse is something that has been widely reported in the statements of detainees released from Guantanamo. It was apparently widespread in the prisons in Afghanistan, where the detainees were “processed” for Guantanamo, and was also the trigger for the earliest hunger strikes in Guantanamo itself. It appears that abusing the Koran — by dropping it, treading on it, or otherwise treating it with disrespect — was an easy way to cause distress to detainees without having to lay a finger on them.
It has also been reported that the authorities in Guantanamo interfered with the call to prayer — by playing loud music, for example — and that in processing and interrogations they played on vulnerabilities caused by the detainees’ religious and cultural backgrounds; for example, in the use of enforced nudity, cavity searches and sexual humiliation.
Press TV: The appalling practices at the Guantanamo have been widely condemned by the international organizations? Can you think of any organization that defends the horrendous practices at the Guantanamo?
Andy Worthington:No, but it’s worth pointing out, I think, that repressive regimes around the world have been able to claim that their own brutal and lawless behavior is justified because it has been endorsed by the US administration’s flight from domestic and international laws.
If those captured are Prisoners of War, they should be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. If, on the other hand, they are criminals, they should be charged and tried as such, and not subjected to indefinite detention without charge or trial, and to treatment that contravenes the UN Convention Against Torture.
Andy Worthington’s book The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is published by Pluto Press. Visit his website at: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/