Survivors of torture and other ill-treatment in Guantanamo Bay spoke Saturday at the beginning of a three-day conference hosted by Amnesty International and Reprieve.
For several, this was the first time they had seen each other since their release.
For two of them, it was the first time they had met, even though they had been held in neighbouring cages.
Eight UK nationals told their stories of how they ended up in Guantanamo and the horrors they endured.
In stark contrast to US President George Bush’s assertion that the USA does not torture, Moazzam Begg, a UK national who was held in the US-run detention centre, said that ‘torture does happen, it continues to happen, and it destroys lives.’
He and other former detainees spoke of being shackled in painful stress positions, their extreme fear and exhaustion, the lack of medical care, the beatings and broken bones.
They highlighted how the rule of law was denied to those in Guantanamo.
One reported that, on arrival, he was told by a US soldier ‘you have no rights to make a phone call, to see a lawyer, to do anything except what we tell you.’
With torture thriving in secrecy and the US government blocking meaningful access to Guantanamo, Clive Stafford Smith, Legal Director of Reprieve, said, ‘if we open Guantanamo up, they will have to close it down.’
A panel of experts looked at how to challenge the practice of ‘outsourcing’ torture and the use of ‘evidence’ obtained from torture abroad.
Governments that want to ignore the ban on sending people to countries where they risk torture or other ill-treatment have sought ‘diplomatic assurances’ that the person will not be ill-treated on arrival.
These assurances were described as not worth the paper they are written on.
Elsewhere, delegates shared their campaigning and legal strategies to combat torture.
The day ended with several family members in tears, talking about their loved ones in Guantanamo Bay.
The conference continued Sunday and today with detainees, family members, lawyers and other activists not only sharing stories, they were also, as Irene Khan, Amnesty International Secretary General, said, ‘harnessing the voices of all who know that torture doesn’t stop terror. Torture is terror.’
Amnesty highlights case studies of detainees on its website to coincide with the conference.
One study on the case of Canadian national, Omar Khadr, 19, says: ‘Omar Khadr was taken into US custody when he was 15 years old.
‘The US government has said that all detainees are “treated in a manner appropriate to their age and status”. If this is true, then the case of Omar Khadr indicates that an “appropriate manner” involves torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as denial of any form of justice.
‘Perhaps because the USA is one of only two states that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises that children need special safeguards and care, it feels free to trample on the human rights of juveniles in its “war on terror”.
‘Omar Khadr is one of at least four and possibly nine of the current Guantanamo Bay detainees who were aged under 18 when detained.
‘In April 2003 the US authorities revealed that children as young as 13 were detained in the prison.
‘Reports of torture and attempted suicide by juvenile detainees undermine the claim by US authorities that they are receiving “special emotional and physical care”.
‘Contrary to international standards the Pentagon has defined child detainees as those aged under 16, rather than under 18.
‘Lieutenant Corporal Johnson, a spokesperson for the US military, stated in 2003 that, “until we ensure that they’re no longer a threat, that there’s no pending law enforcement against them, that they’re no longer of intelligence value”, the children would continue to be held.
‘Omar Khadr was wounded by US soldiers during a battle near Khost, Afghanistan, and taken into US custody on 27 July 2002.
During his capture he was shot three times and is nearly blind in one eye as a result of his injuries.
‘The US military says that Omar Khadr killed a US soldier, Sergeant Christopher J Speer, in the operation.
‘Even though Omar Khadr was seriously injured, his interrogation started as soon as he was taken into custody.
‘A US official stated that captured prisoners were so scared of abuse by US soldiers that they would talk without prompting.
‘The prisoners “sometimes think we are going to cut out their livers” he said, giving Omar Khadr as an example of a prisoner “singing like a bird”.
‘Omar Khadr alleges that: he asked for pain medication for his wounds but was refused’.
He alleges that he was instead subject to torture.
‘On 30 August 2002 Canadian officials sent a diplomatic note to the US authorities asking for consular access to Omar Khadr while he was held in the US airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan.
‘The US denied the request on 9 September, saying only that they would notify the Canadian government if any Canadian citizens were transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
‘Omar Khadr was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in October 2002.
‘He alleges that as soon as he arrived he was subjected to a range of torture and ill-treatment. . .
‘Omar Khadr was held in Camp V of Guantanamo Bay for over a year and, according to his lawyer, was only transferred recently to Camp IV.
‘Camp V is the most notorious of the camps still operating at Guantanamo, styled on the harsh super-maximum security units on the US mainland. It is reserved for “high value” or “uncooperative” detainees.
‘In addition to the beatings, isolation and frequent interrogations, Omar Khadr has been threatened with transfer to Afghanistan, Jordan and other places.
‘He understood that these were threats of transfer to places where he would be tortured. He was also told that an Egyptian soldier, known to him only as Soldier Number 9, would be sent to rape him.
‘In protest against his treatment and conditions at Guantanamo, Omar Khadr embarked on a hunger strike in July 2005 along with up to 200 other detainees.
‘He went without food for 15 days, during which he was taken to the camp hospital twice to be given intravenous fluids. Omar Khadr lost 30 pounds (13.5kg) during the strike. Another detainee, Omar Deghayes, says he witnessed Omar Khadr vomiting blood.
‘During the hunger strike the abuse did not stop. On one occasion, when guards were transferring him to the hospital, he was told to walk back to his cell. As he was too weak to do so, the guards allegedly lifted him off the ground and repeatedly kicked his leg.
‘The hunger strike ended in July when the US authorities apparently made a number of concessions to the detainees.
‘The detainees resumed their hunger strike in August, however, because the camp authorities had not kept their promises and in response to particularly brutal abuse. One of those at the receiving end of a beating was Omar Khadr . . .’