Q&A: Guantanamo Bay’s secrets uncovered

With the leaking of documents about the US detention camp, the debate about how to treat terrorism suspects hots up.

Q: Why is Guantanamo Bay in the news?

A: Secret documents have been released by activists at the website Wikileaks, revealing details of torture and indiscriminate detention in the USA’s offshore prison on the Caribbean island of Cuba.

Q: America holds prisoners in another country?

A: Since 2002, the US Government has used a rump of land it controls as a naval base in Cuba to set up an internment camp. Here, suspected terrorists can be held and questioned beyond the protection of America’s justice system. The international agreement on how to treat prisoners of war, the Geneva Convention, doesn’t apply there either.

Q: Is this a new phenomenon?

A: There has been a low-profile prison at the US naval base on Cuba since 1991. But after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, President Bush’s government started using Guantanamo to hold and interrogate dozens of Afghans suspected of being Taliban or al-Qaeda.

Q: And what do this week’s leaks tell us?

A: Well, of the 780 prisoners named in the files, 150 were described as effectively innocent and another 380 as being low-level activists. But 220 were described as terrorists, of whom 15 were said to be ‘kingpins’ of al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, and 100 al-Qaeda operatives.

Q: Worth keeping them out of circulation, then?

A: The American authorities believe so, yes, but their treatment at the camp, where they are held without trial, has provoked fierce controversy. The routine interrogation methods used – including disrupting sleep, subjecting prisoners to heat or cold, and isolating them — are harsh, and the files reveal torture was rife.

Q: So where does Barack Obama stand on this?

A: The US President promised that he would close Guantanamo within a year of being elected, saying it undermined America’s international reputation and helped recruit terrorists. But in practice this has been difficult — so it remains open as an embarrassment to his administration. There are still over 170 people being held there.

Q: Why is it embarrassing to lock up terrorist suspects and interrogate them if you need to?

A: There’s a moral question about treating them badly outside the law. And there are political implications for America: the latest revelations have allowed China to accuse the US of double standards and a ‘malicious design to pursue hegemony under the pretext of human rights’.

Q: What is hegemony?

A: Cultural and political dominance – imposing your own values on everybody else because you can.

Q: And remind me why it’s difficult for Obama to have Guantanamo closed down?

A: He wants to put the terrorists on trial but there is an argument about whether evidence that might have been obtained under torture can be used in the US courts – he can’t just free them. Some could be sent home but no country will accept them. The Senate has blocked moving them to US gaols.

Q: So who are Wikileaks?

A: Wikileaks itself is very controversial – it’s a website which posts secret communications because it believes in total freedom to access anything said or written by authority. But it has been accused of risking lives in Iraq and Afghanistan by disclosing details of spy networks.

Q: And how do they get this stuff?

A: There’s an American soldier called Bradley Manning whom the US suspects of leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to Wikileaks. He’s in prison in the US and being interrogated – his treatment has also become the subject of a campaign. Meanwhile the mysterious Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, is wanted in Sweden on sex charges, but he argues that he is the subject of an international witch-hunt.

You Decide

  1. One of the detainees was only 14. Another was an old man suffering from dementia. These two, and many others, were eventually freed. Do these mistakes undermine the whole Guantanamo operation?
  2. America, a nation which exports the values of freedom and democracy, is involved in organised, systematic torture? Discuss how this might have happened after 9/11.

Activities

  1. Watch the video (see right) of Barack Obama, write a summary of his arguments against keeping the internment camp open, and make a short speech to the class.
  2. The files name London's Finsbury Park and Regents Park mosques as hubs of extremism. Research how other countries have labelled the UK capital 'Londonistan.' Are they right?

Some People Say...

“It's OK to use torture on terrorists.”

What do you think?

Subjects

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