Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Secrecy Pandemic

"Lost in Prison Space" by Zeno. 26 by 16 inches. Oil paint on canvas
via Prison Art

No Fairytales Allowed

Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith has 36 clients in Guantánamo and has visited many times. In this powerful extract from a new book he argues that secrecy in the camp is a disease

Saturday April 21, 2007
The Guardian

In Guantánamo, the military began with smaller lies and worked upwards. I was visiting Camp Echo one day and they had messed up the visitation schedule. The client I was meant to see was not there, although I had sent the schedule for my visits several weeks before. I thought I might as well go ahead and see Shaker Aamer [British resident captured in Afghanistan], whom I was not meant to meet until later in the week. So I asked the SOG (the sergeant of the guard, in charge of the camp) whether Shaker was in his normal cell. "No, he's not here," the SOG replied. I settled down for another wasted hour, waiting for the military to bring over someone I could see. It was hot even under the umbrella at the "picnic table" - the area behind one of the cells in Camp Echo where they made lawyers wait. I watched a lizard crawling up the green mesh on the wire fence. I thought about the spider in Robert the Bruce's cave, continually battling to spin its web and teaching patience to the early Scottish nationalists.

The next day I saw Shaker. "Were you here yesterday?" I asked. "Yeah, of course. I've been here for weeks," he replied. So why did the SOG lie to me? He could have said, "Sorry, sir. I am not permitted to speak about that," or "Yes, sir, he is here, but I am afraid we cannot deviate from the schedule." Instead he looked me in the eye and lied. It was unsettling. He had seemed a clean-cut, well-mannered sort of person.

The dissembling disease got worse as time passed. First there was the effort to suppress the truth, with censorship or silence rather than any overt falsehood. Then there was the lie by semantics, where the US military redefined the language to provide plausible deniability. Finally, there was the bare-faced lie. This kind of culture does not germinate in a vacuum. Rumsfeld is responsible for a reconstitution of the English language. I set about compiling a glossary of the Gitmo-speak. The language was so deceptive that I found it appalling and amusing in equal measure.

In a December 2004 press conference, the US navy secretary Gordon England tried to defend conditions in Guantánamo by producing the novel argument that the camp was rehabilitative: "People have learned to read and have learned to write, and so it's not just being incarcerated. We do try to get people prepared for a better life." Prisoners had some difficulty exercising their new-found abilities. Indeed, contrary to England's statement, prisoners in Guantánamo were certainly not considered "people" and the guards were not even allowed to call them "prisoners". One of the escorts told me that, on pain of punishment, soldiers are required to call them "detainees". He wouldn't even say the word "prisoner" out loud. The Pentagon had come to the conclusion that it sounds better for us to "detain" someone for several years, given that he has not been offered a trial. Naturally I set about avoiding the word "detainee".

Non habeas corpus. No "prisoners" here. Only "guests".


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