Guantánamo Bay: 10 years of controversy

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Torturous, painful, hopeless, oppressive, unrelenting: these are the words used by Moazzam Begg to describe his three years of detention in the United States prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. One of the world’s most infamous prisons is 10 years old this week. A decade of controversy.

Guantánamo Bay was set up after the 9/11 attacks on the United States to imprison suspected terrorists. It opened on 11 January 2002, and hundreds of suspects were sent there without being charged.

Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of international law at the University of San Francisco, finds it more difficult than Mr Begg to describe the situation at the prison camp. While researching a book, he visited Cuba and set up the project, Witness to Guantánamo, interviewing former inmates and members of their families about what happened to them.

Moazzam Begg, who has duel British-Pakistani nationality, was picked up in Pakistan on suspicion of having links with al-Qaeda.

“Before I got to Guantánamo, I was held in Bagram, a military detention centre in Afghanistan. I was physically tortured there. My hands were tied behind my back to my ankles. I had a bag over my head, I was beaten and kicked. I was naked and was spat at. Once in Guantánamo, the torture was different, much more psychological.”

Professor Honigsberg heard that from other prisoners too. They said they were often kept in solitary confinement for months, even years on end. “Just 30 days in total isolation is terrible, just imagine what years of solitary confinement does to a person.”

The phrase, Frequent Flyer Programme, was given a new meaning at Guantánamo. Professor Honigsberg:

“Prisoners were moved to a different cell every three hours. This sometimes went on for weeks at a time. They became totally disorientated, suffered from sleep deprivation and weren’t able to feel at all at ease anywhere. Many former prisoners think psychological torture is much worse than physical torture.”

Black hole
One reason why torture was possible was because of the way then US president George W Bush described the war. “Bush thought it was a new kind of war and that this meant the Americans didn’t need to adhere to the rules of the Geneva Convention,” explains Professor Honigsberg. The convention says prisoners of war must be treated humanely during a war. “But Bush didn’t call them ‘prisoners of war’ but ‘enemy combatants’. This was how a judicial black hole was created in which the prisoners had no rights.”

Prisoners were also not able to take advantage of the US judicial system because Guantánamo was sited in Cuba. No contact with lawyers was allowed during the first years after the prison camp was set up.

Mr Begg was in solitary confinement for two of the three years he was held. He wasn’t allowed contact with anyone. “I thought about freedom the whole day, about my family, about other people who were even worse off than I was. I thought about how I’d hold America responsible for what they’d done to me.”

There was a breakthrough in June 2004: prisoners were allowed to see a lawyer. But Mr Bush employed a number of legal manoeuvres to prevent them challenging their detention. Professor Honigsberg:

“He set up small ‘combatant status review tribunals’ in the prison. This is not part of the US legal system, actually it flies in the face of it. Detainees were told that they were all ‘enemy combatants’ and formed a danger to US society.”

In 2005, after three years of solitary imprisonment and torture, Mr Begg was told he was a free man. He admitted having attended an al-Qaeda training camp but denied having been a member of the terrorist network. Once back in Great Britain, he set up Cage Prisoners to ensure that the world would hear what was happening in the judicial black hole known as Guantánamo.

Blemish on US
For many prisoners, the process leading to their being found guilty or released took longer. Only in 2008, were they given the constitutional right to challenge their detention. Many prisoners were then transferred or released. Barack Obama won the US presidential election that year. Professor Honigsberg:

“When Obama was elected, the whole world thought something would change. On the second day of his presidency, he promised to close Guantánamo. Everyone was relieved. But nothing at all has come of it. He has signed legislation into law [in December 2011] allowing Guantánamo to remain open – forever. It is, and remains the greatest blemish on US history.”


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