A tiny light to a happier future

Despatches from Guantanamo

It was against regulations, but some guards appeared on the prison block wearing silly red hats. The prisoners, I remember, were nonplussed. Many of the men from the backroads of Yemen or Afghanistan had never heard of Christmas and had no idea what these strange people were up to. Some were intrigued. No doubt some thought this was to be yet another bizarre aspect of the endless interrogation process.

That year, the guards tried to celebrate in Guantanamo Bay, though it was not a happy place for them to spend Christmas, any more than the prisoners. At least they received Christmas cards, and were allowed to call their families. They played carols on the radio. But they were still far away from home. In one block, a heavily accented voice rang out, sneering at the festivities: "Are you dreaming of a white Christmas?"

There was plenty of snow at Christmas when the prisoners were held in the freezing cages of Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, shivering through their first winter of captivity. But there was not much of it in the Caribbean climes of Gitmo. The closest many prisoners came to a real winter here was when the air conditioning was turned up to HIGH during interrogation. This was described by Donald Rumsfeld as "environmental manipulation", an interrogation system that "altered the environment to create moderate discomfort". Rumsfeld conceded that "some nations may view this technique . . . to be inhumane". Hardly in the spirit of Christmas.

Santa has never been to Gitmo, either. It would have been hard for him to slip in at an appropriate time. Another of Rumsfeld's approved techniques was "sleep adjustment": reversing the prisoner's sense of night and day. Rumsfeld's cover memo assured us that "this technique is NOT sleep deprivation", but with the prisoners awake all night it would have been difficult for Father Christmas to drop off presents in secret.

The prisoners have had chocolate occasionally. The kinder guards might slip some to an individual if they like him. Moazzam Begg, from Birmingham, was taken aback when a guard promised him a kiss. It was a Hershey's Kiss, a silver-wrapped, bell-shaped chocolate. Moazzam had never seen one before.

This Christmas is the sixth that many prisoners will spend in American custody, without charges and without a trial. The prisoners do not much care for the Christian holiday, if they have ever heard of it. This year, by chance, the lunar calendar has almost converged the Muslim and Christian holidays: Eid ul-Adha is on 20 December. For most Muslims, this is the big Eid, more important than the end of Ramadan.

Eid is meant to be a day of festivity, with family celebrations and meals. Moazzam reports that for the first Eid he spent in captivity, the military made the prisoners fast. It was not because of anything the prisoners had done - the military had an ongoing dispute with the Red Cross, which had brought special food for the prisoners so they could celebrate. The military did not like having the Red Cross around, so they announced that it was not Eid after all. The prisoners never got their food, though one female soldier was offended at her superiors' petty attitude, and shared her own rations with Moazzam. He remembers that act of kindness as a bright star which might, one day, lead all of us to a better world.

For Moazzam and 470 other Guantanamo pri soners, this will be a better Eid than some. They have been released, and are now at home with their families. Though many were repatriated for "continued detention", less than 2 per cent have been convicted of any crime in their home country. Three more of the British residents will be home for Eid, if all goes well with the current negotiations. For the remaining 300 prisoners, the misery continues: Binyam Mohamed, who lived in Kensington, must face another holiday in his isolation cell, contemplating the 18 months of CIA-sponsored torture he suffered in Morocco.

When you have finished writing your Christmas cards, spare a thought for them. You can send them an Eid card and contribute a tiny light to a happier firmament for the future.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve. Find the names and addresses of Guantanamo prisoners at www.reprieve.org.uk, or through Reprieve, P O Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS (tel: 020 7353 4640)

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007