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Thursday, November 24, 2005

The follies of Guantanamo

23 November 2005

Clive Stafford Smith is Legal Director of Reprieve, a British charity group specializing in aiding those facing the death penalty around the world. In the recent years he has taken on the task of representing "some 40 Guantánamo Bay detainees". In his article titled "Inside Guantanamo" (New Statesman, November 21, 2005) Smith gives his first-hand account of the visits to the prison camp. Aside from a well-versed description of the harshness and routine boredom of life there, as well as of the harsh and degrading treatment meted out to the prisoners, Smith's article contains a powerful example of how incompetently the process is sometimes run:
In addition to being devoid of law, Guantanamo sometimes seems like a truth-free zone. I am scheduled to see my client Mohammed el-Gharani. The military says he is 26 and denies that there are any juveniles on the base. Let us assume the camp authorities really believe this: what does it say about the quality of Guantanamo intelligence if they cannot even work out his age after four years of interrogation? Mohammed was not quite 15 when he was seized, and is still a teenager. I got the birth certificate from Saudi Arabia to prove it, but they still won't believe me. "He sure does look young," says one of the guards.

Hard to believe? Definitely sounds so - especially given that Guantanamo is a place where, according the Bush Administration, "the worst of the worst", the people who are our most feared adversaries, are housed. Surely one would expect that the best available resources would be brought to bear to obtain as much valuable intelligence as possible from the catch as valuable as the vicious terrorist killers our Administration officials never tire of claiming we have got under lock and key in Guantanamo Bay.

The reality of the situation, however, may be not as dramatic when it comes to how bad those "bad guys" are. Only a few of them have thus far - after sometimes as much as almost four years in detention - been charged with any crime. A number of them have been released. Some have been deemed innocent and not released because the prison authorities have not figured out what country to release them to.

And Smith's account of the interrogators' incompetence seems not to be out of line with some other news coming out of that prison camp. Seen next to a report on how three years after 9/11 the FBI still lacked the capability to translate relevant foreign-language materials, or digital storage to handle its audio materials the failure to determine a prisoner's age would not look like such a big deal anymore.

I don't like the term "war on terror". As somebody very aptly remarked, "You can't declare war on a noun". However, we certainly must do the police work necessary to intercept and disrupt various extremist groups in their violent endeavours. However, with the illegal operation like the one in Guantanamo our chances of success are slim.

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