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28 January 2002

I know what Camp X-Ray feels like

Charles Glass on how his fellow Americans treat prisoners worse than Hezbollah treated him

By Charles Glass

The first thing they do is cover your eyes. They make you strip to make sure you’re not carrying anything. They replace your clothes with uniforms that are not clothes at all. They chain you by hand and foot. They drag you away and leave you on your own. They interrogate you. They say you are going to die if you won’t talk. They feed you – you’re not much good to them if you starve to death.

It sounds like Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to which the United States military is deporting men it has captured in Afghanistan. But it was Lebanon in the 1980s. The Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shi’ite Muslim Party of God, kidnapped foreigners between 1982 and 1989 at the behest of their Iranian benefactors. I remember the drill – the blindfold, chains, solitude and loneliness. I was there for two months in 1987. It was a bad time, and it seemed unlikely to me then that I would one day see photographs of my countrymen treating Muslim prisoners much as I was treated.

I thought the Eighth Amendment to the US constitution prohibited “cruel and unusual punishments”. I’m looking at the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments that Americans regard as sacred, and read the words “nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. Full stop. It does not say that only American passport-holders, legal residents of the United States and members of the Senate who take contributions from corporations that violate the law are exempt from government torments. It makes clear that no category of human being is excluded from America’s obligation to refrain from cruel and unusual punishments. Amendment VIII means suspects; it means enemies; it means criminals; it means prisoners of war; it means – and the term is as new to me and you as it undoubtedly is to the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld – “illegal” combatants. Who is illegal and who is legal, by the way, has always been for the courts of the United States to decide, not the Department of Defence. As for international law, the Geneva Conventions say that “captured combatants or civilians” have certain rights – including to correspond with their families – without any distinction between “legal” and “illegal” combatants.

I wonder now whether some mullah in Tehran said, when a score of Americans and Europeans were illegally held against their will in Lebanon: “Obviously, anyone would be concerned if people were suggesting that treatment was not proper.” That is what Rumsfeld said on television the other day. Rumsfeld’s concern for the Muslims chained like Caliban on America’s Caribbean base seems to match what Tehran’s mullahs felt for us. The mullahs, at least, knew that holding American, French, British and German captives in Lebanon during the 1980s was so shameful that they never admitted it. Rumsfeld seems proud. His is not some secret operation, like the CIA’s Phoenix programme of assassinations and torture in Vietnam. It’s out in the open.

If Rumsfeld has not read the constitution to which he has taken an oath, if he does not see the cruelty in the treatment of those men in Cuba, he could at least admit that tying men up, blocking their sight, cutting them off from their families and flying them around the world is unusual.

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“The fact is that treatment is proper,” Rumsfeld insisted. “There is no doubt in my mind that it is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Conventions for the most part.” For the most part? Which part? The shackles? The blindfold goggles? The six-by-eight-foot cages? At least Hezbollah put me in a normal-sized room.

It wasn’t much of a room, bare but for a paper-thin mattress on the floor, with a sheet of steel to seal the window. I never saw daylight, but they did turn the electric lights off at night so I could sleep. The men in Guantanamo enjoy no such luxury: arc lights are left on all night so the US marine guards can keep an eye on them. I’m not sure why. Where are they going to go? We are told they don’t even know where they are. If they manage to clear the fences and minefields, the Cubans on the other side have said they’ll hand them back to the US.

During the 62 days I spent alone in that room in Beirut, all I could do was sit for hours and hours, thinking, praying, hoping. Some friends of mine did that for five years. It was mistreatment, cruel and unusual. The Hezbollah interrogators justified it. The Israeli army, they said, kept Lebanese inmates of Khiam prison, in south Lebanon, under worse conditions. (When international observers at last went into Khiam after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, they confirmed that the interrogation rooms and cells were much, much worse than anything I had experienced as a hostage.) The Israelis’ brutality to their prisoners no more justified what the Hezbollah did to its hostages in Lebanon than the Hezbollah’s actions excuse what the US is doing in Cuba.

An American may some day be arrested or kidnapped by those whose sympathies lie with the Camp X-Ray detainees. What will his captors say when he pleads that his conditions violate international law? Will their answer be to play for him videotapes of the X-Ray detainees and of Rumsfeld’s press conferences?

Britain, as it has done with every US action in every battle or bombardment for the past 20 years, justified Camp X-Ray. A government spokesman was quoted as saying, after a British delegation toured the camp last Friday: “There were no gags, no goggles, no earmuffs and no shackles while the detainees were in their cells.”

Why would anyone need to shackle and blind them in their cells? The Hezbollah let its hostages remove their blindfolds when they were alone in their locked rooms. When a guard or interrogator entered, however, the blindfold had to come on quickly. The Hezbollahi, realising that they might be held accountable in court for their crimes, did not want us to identify them. It was a sensible precaution. Perhaps Rumsfeld should wear a hood over his head so no one will recognise him.

(c) Charles Glass, 2002