Guantanamo Voices

Guantanamo Basics

Why place suspected terrorists in a prison in Cuba?

The U.S. base on Guantanamo Bay is conveniently close to the U.S. but highly secure. Also, since Cuba is a foreign territory, the U.S. Justice Department says that it is beyond the jurisdiction of any United States Court. Detainees therefore do not have to get the same legal rights and process as would apply in the American justice system, such as habeas corpus, so they can be held for indefinitely without being charged with a crime. The Bush administration argued that this sort of detention is necessary because it considers the detainees extraordinarily dangerous and potentially full of information about future terrorist attacks.

How many people are in Guantanamo Bay? Who are they?

Since 2001, 800 detainees have passed through the prison camp. Some inmates can be declared no longer threatening and released and other inmates have been transferred to prisons in their home countries or to countries willing to take them. At the beginning of 2008, there were 273 detainees left in Guantanamo Bay. The prisoners vary in age and country of origin — most come from Arab nations (the biggest populations originally were Saudi and Yemeni) and all are male. The youngest detainees were between 13-15 years old and the most elderly was about 80, though he didn’t know his exact birthday.

Cage Prisoners has the background story on every Guantanamo inmate, as well as photos.

In addition to prisoners, about eleven hundred army guards live at Guantanamo Bay. They come from numerous branches of the military, including the National Guard, and life for these guards can be very boring and stressful. Also living at Guantanamo are Americans who staff the base’s services and restaurants (Guantanamo boasts Cuba’s only Starbucks and McDonalds), a strange collection of Cuban refugees who wound up at the base seeking asylum and teams of lawyers working on behalf of the detainees. These lawyers, some of them hired by detainees’ families and many working pro bono to defend the detainees, fly in from the mainland for every client meeting.

What sort of crimes did the detainees commit?

All the detainees were imprisoned because the U.S. suspected they were involved with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but after seven years, only some have actually been charged with specific crimes. It is difficult to piece together a comprehensive portrait of the detainees at Guantanamo because much of the information about them is classified, including the evidence collected about their alleged crimes. One way to figure out what sort of crimes detainees may have committed is to read through the testimony from the military tribunals tasked with determining whether the prisoners qualify as dangerous “enemy combatants.” Of the 534 detainees who went through these tribunals
– 59 claimed membership in Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
– 13 said they were part of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but against their will.
– 64 denied affiliation with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but admitted facts that the army panel thought qualified them as some sort of armed enemy.
– 62 denied they were part of Al Qaeda or the Taliban but admitted they at some point stayed in a safe house or training camp for the groups.

The other 336 prisoners either denied all the allegations against them or refused to make any statement at all.

Legal scholar Benjamin Wittes, who analyzed all the testimony from the tribunals, writes that about seven percent of the detainees (that’s 42 people) were accused of being top-level Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders. That includes infamous detainees like Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. In February 2008, after four years of detention, the U.S. Department of Defense charged Mohammed and Binalsibh with helping orchestrate September 11th, to which the two confessed along with a list of other major terrorist actions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the first military tribunals found that 11 percent of the prisoners were “no longer enemy combatants” (meaning, essentially, innocent) and could be let go. Since then, dozens of detainees have been released without ever being charged with a crime. Many of these men were never involved with terrorist activities but were instead chicken farmers, businessmen and doctors caught up in post-9/11 roundups. Many of these men suspect someone fabricated charges against them to collect one of large cash bounties the U.S. distributed for capturing Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. Some of these innocent men, like journalist Sami al Haj, who was held without charge for six years, are now engaged in social justice activism.

The majority of the detainees at Guantanamo are accused of being foot soldiers for the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Some of these men were at Tora Bora, others may have fought American troops or Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and others are accused of crossing into Afghanistan with the intent to commit jihad. For the most part, though, points out Wittes, “The members of this group may have done little more than train to fight against forces that later become American allies.”

How are the detainees treated? Are they tortured?

It’s important to recognize that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are not granted all the rights of prisoners of war as required by the Geneva Convention. In 2002, the Bush Administration established that people captured by the U.S. as part of the War on Terror would not be considered “prisoners of war” but instead “enemy combatants.” Since enemy combatants are considered extremely dangerous, much of the information about them is classified indefinitely and it’s difficult to find out how they’re treated.

Some of the most well-known images of Guantanamo detainees are of the first prisoners who arrived at the camp in 2002. They were blindfolded, handcuffed and their ears covered in large muffs to keep them in a disorienting silent blindness. From there, they were moved to Camp X-Ray and placed in cage-like cells made of chain link fencing. In April 2002, the detainees were moved into a different section of Guantanamo which has small concrete cells. Detainees who are considered cooperative are placed in Camp 4, which has “dormitory-like barracks” that connect to an inner courtyard where detainees can meet to pray and talk. Prisoners are moved between cells frequently to make it hard to form friendships and cliques. Detainees who are considered uncooperative or dangerous live in Camps 5 and 6, where they are kept in conditions similar to death row in some American prisons. They are not allowed to congregate for any reason and are kept in white-walled solitary confinement cells 24 hours a day, except for a weekly 15 minute shower and 15 minutes outside weekly to exercise. Detainees are typically allowed to pray five times a day and the call to prayer is played every morning, though some detainees say they were restrained during interrogations or forced feedings (during hunger strikes) and not released to pray.

All detainees are allowed to meet with lawyers, but, practically, legal access is limited. Because military policy created complicated legal hurdles to representing detainees, the difficulty of finding interpreters, detainee distrust of legal teams and other reasons, after five years in detention fewer than half of the detainees had met with a lawyer.

Detainees can send and received mail through the Red Cross, though it is thoroughly screened and censored. Sometimes they can watch pre-screened movies and they have some access to books, though the selection is very limited in some languages. Pashto-speaking detainees complained that the only books available to them were the Koran and Harry Potter.

Amnesty International investigated conditions at Guantanamo in 2005 and found that life for prisoners was “cruel and inhumane.” If you’re interested in more detail about how detainees live, read Amnesty’s full report online.

The question of torture is difficult. The definition of “torture” has become complicated and politicized under the Bush Administration, so perhaps its better for you to judge for yourself whether the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo qualifies as torture.

During interrogations and to decrease morale overall, detainees were routinely subjected to activities which several international humans rights groups say are torture but Dick Cheney and George W. Bush define as “enhanced interrogation techniques”:

sleep deprivation, the prolonged use of stress positions, forced nudity, hooding, exposure to extreme temperatures, subjecting prisoners to loud music and flashing lights, “treating them like animals,” intimidation with unmuzzled dogs.

According to psychology researcher Philip Zimbardo, Donald Rumsfeld specifically proposed the following tactics for use at Guantanamo:

– Sexual humiliation and degradation
– Humiliation based on religious and cultural practices
– Sensory deprivation and sensory overload
– Hypothermia
– Water-boarding

Whether or not they are “torture” the psychological effects of these tactics was profound. Several hundred prisoners have attempted suicide at Guantanamo since it opened and, in 2006, three men (none of whom had been charged with crimes) succeeded in hanging themselves with their own bedsheets.

So do the detainees get trials?

Not like trials in the rest of the American justice system. The detainees are being held indefinitely as “enemy combatants” and have no right to a speedy trial. In response to pressure from the Supreme Court, in 2005 the military set up a system of review that decides whether they should actually be considered “enemy combatants.” These are called Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) and they do not decide whether the detainee is guilty or innocent of any crimes. Instead, if the panel discerns that the detainee is not an enemy combatant, he can be set free. While detainees do not get any legal counsel, are considered guilty until proven innocent and are arguing against classified evidence they’re not allowed to see, the CSRTs do comply with the Geneva Conventions and give detainees a place to tell their side of the story. Nearly seven percent of the detainees who have had CSRTs have been acquitted and set free.

If the CSRT finds that the U.S. is justified in holding onto the prisoner, they go before a second board, which determines whether they can be transferred to another country for trial or released as free in his home country. The first two years these boards met (2005 and 2006), they released 14 detainees and transferred 174.

Meanwhile, those detainees who the two boards decide are enemy combatants and don’t transfer must stay in Guantanamo waiting for the Justice Department to charge them with crimes and undergoing frequent interrogations.

In June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that detainees are entitled to rights under the U.S. Constitution, including habeas corpus. That should mean that the detainees will all have to be charged with crimes soon or released. How this will play out depends heavily on what the Obama administration decides to do about the legal complications surrounding Guantanamo.

Where do the detainees go after they’re released?

They are supposed to go back to their home countries and their own government will decide whether or not to pursue charges against them. What happens to the detainees varies once they get back home – some have been immediately released to freedom and some are still in detention by intelligence or military officials.
However, an estimated 50-70 men who the U.S. has “cleared for release” are stuck in Guantanamo. Some home countries of some of these men won’t take them back into their prison system. In other cases, there is a serious fear that their home countries will kill or torture them if they are returned. And some of the men are prisoners the U.S. refuses to hand over because the home government has stated it will set them free and the US still considers them “too dangerous to release.”
While Obama has promised he will close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camps, what will happen to the 273 men who remain there is not yet decided.



Moazzam Begg. Enemy Combatant. (The New Press, New York). 2006.

Mahvish Rushsan Khan. My Guantanamo Diary. (PublicAffairs, New York). 2008.

Joseph Levyfeld. “The Least Worst Place.” The War on Our Freedoms, ed. Richard C. Leone and Greg Anrig Jr., The Century Foundation, New York (2003) pp. 100 – 127.

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side. (DoubleDay, New York). 2008.

Philip Zimbardo. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Bad. (Random House, New York) 2007.


John Burton, “US Supreme Court upholds habeas corpus for Guantánamo Bay prisoners” GlobalResearch, June 13, 2008.

Paul Reynolds “Why US is ‘stuck’ with Guantanamo Bay” by Paul Reynolds, BBC International 5/21/2008.


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