Guantánamo’s Alice in Wonderland justice system

They’ve been cast into a black hole, left in legal limbo, made to appear before a kangaroo court. Over the years commentators have reached for various images to describe what happens to detainees in the lawless, extra-judicial world of Guantánamo Bay. But nothing ever quite captures it.

Seven hundred and seventy-nine men scooped up from different parts of the world and deposited behind razor wire and military watch towers in the Caribbean; the logic-defying justifications from Rumsfeld & Cheney, the initial international outrage, Red Cross visits, legal battles, reports of torture and violent treatment from the “Forcible Cell Extraction” teams;  then the slow trickle of releases, Obama’s* broken closure promise, the waning of international interest, hunger strikes, and the grinding year-after-year continuation of the camp - how can you hope to neatly sum up this 13-year-long experiment in mutant, distorted justice? (It’s a little like HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, except it’s the rule of law that’s being horrifically mangled, not humanoid animals).

I’d add another image to this busy set of Guantánamo comparisons - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s dark-edged daydream steers a delirious course between the humorous and the sinister, but with a few tweaks we wouldn’t be far from the upside-down world of US detention in Cuba. Guantánamo’s military tribunals, for example, widely criticised from their inception, are ridiculously prone to malfunction, often for darkly bizarre reasons. Just this week a hearing was stopped when a set of defendants said they recognised an interpreter they’d been provided with because they’d seen him in the CIA “black site” secret detention centre where they’d once been held. The interpreter, potentially a witness - or even party - to abusive CIA interrogations, has been banished from the proceedings but the case - notwithstanding the background of black site detention and torture - sails on.

Past fiascos have included the discovery of secret listening devices in smoke alarms in rooms where defence lawyers met their clients, and an Orwellian moment where a “government entity” (widely believed to be the CIA) intervened to cut off an audio link between a courtroom and public gallery, something that even the judge hadn’t been aware the “entity” had been able to do.

This might almost be laughable were we not talking about the world’s most expensive place of detention where some inmates face being put on trial for their lives. It’s no laughing matter either that people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are going through a badly mismanaged legal process at Guantánamo instead of the proper civilian trial on the US mainland that justice requires and that 9/11 victims’ relatives surely deserve. (As Andy Worthington remarks, KSM should rightly be on trial in the Southern District of New York court, proximate to the World Trade Center itself).

Waiting for some kind of justice, detainees have grown old and died at Guantánamo and there have been a spate of suicides, including three that are alleged by some to be covered-up murders by the guards. Remember, of course, that 122 men still eke out their half-world existence at the camp, over 50 of these supposedly “cleared for transfer” but still there nonetheless. One supposedly waiting with his bags packed is the former UK resident Shaker Aamer, a Guantánamo veteran of 13 gruelling years who still awaits news of a release an astonishing eight years since he too was cleared for transfer (there’s an Amnesty petition on his case here).

In Alice’s rabbit-hole world due process is similarly distorted. There’s a famous sham trial where the Queen cross-examines everyone with manic shouts of “off with their heads”, while a dormouse regales Alice with this Guantánamo-like account of topsy-turvy legal process:

Fury said to a mouse, That he met in the house, ‘Let us both go to law: I will prosecute you. Come I’ll take no denial: We must have the trial; For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, ‘Such a trial, dear sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breathe.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury’, said cunning old Fury; ‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.’

Truth is stranger than fiction and I think Guantánamo’s botched experiment with justice might actually disturb even Carroll’s devil-may-care dormouse. Anyway, at least Alice could finally come out of her daydream world, returning safe and sound back with her sister on the river bank. Instead, Guantánamo detainees wake up each morning only to find themselves still exactly where they were before. Trapped.


*BTW, I wonder if Barack Obama realised, when paying tribute to the US aid worker Kayla Mueller as representing “what is best about America”, that one of things that Mueller apparently did as a fledgling activist at college was to research reports of the torture of detainees at Guantánamo? If so, he would perhaps have to acknowledge that a full investigation into these reports of torture would need to be undertaken for any truly decent USA to emerge from the ruins of the Guantánamo years. Just a thought.

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