For four years now, I have been following the fates of the hundreds of men who have been -- and the 200 plus men who still are -- being held at Guantánamo Bay, and, the record is now clear, most of whom have been tortured. But until this week I had never actually heard such a single man's actual voice.
When I went to the prison in June of this year, we journalists were brought to view the prisoners from afar -- exactly as if they were dangerous animals in a cage. They called to us, anguishedly, in a voice that still haunts me. "Can I talk to them?" I asked. Many of them speak English. No; no, no, was the answer. No one is permitted to talk to them. Prisoners in the US have many rights to speak, even from prison; but silencing the Guantánamo detainees has been a key to maintaining a working injustice, as well as a key to manipulating US popular opinion. Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney have started a new organization to spin the torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere: 'Keep America Safe.' (Or: 'Keep Daddy Out of Prison.') But if the perpetrators are to continue to spin America, the prisoners' voices have to continue to be silenced.
Even those who empathize with the detainees tend to speak 'for' them -- casting them as faceless, voiceless victims, just as the opposite 'side' casts them as faceless, voiceless monsters.
Recently I have been in touch with Binyam Mohamed, who is the UK resident who was released from Guantánamo in February -- after seven years' captivity without charges -- and who last Friday won a major victory when a British court ruled that the US and the UK could not continue to conceal from the public seven paragraphs in documents that describe the horrific torture of Mr Mohamed in 'black sites' and at Guantánamo. He is also suing Boeing for its part in rendering him to 'black sites.'
The UK government is appealing the ruling, so we still can't know what happened to him; but officials have told reporters that one action that the paragraphs describe is the cutting of genitals with a razor; waterboarding, this official said dryly, is well down on the list of atrocities Mr. Mohamed suffered.
President Obama has sought to keep these seven paragraphs under seal. Hillary Clinton has also. Joe Lieberman drafted an amendment to a bill to conceal photographs relating to this abuse.
Why are our leaders still trying so desperately to cover up what Mr. Mohamed's record will show?
I have written here on the Huffington Post before now about the sexual nature of many forms of now fully documented cases of US abuse and torture at Guantánamo and Baghram (as well as the better-known cases at Abu Ghraib.) Physicians for Human Rights have fully confirmed that prisoners were often violated anally with objects. To these forms of sexual torture, Binyam Mohamed's seven paragraphs and the photographic evidence Lieberman wishes a law to suppress would add, it appears, the cutting of a man's genitals with a razor.
As Mr Mohamed told the UK Daily Mail, "they cut off my clothes with some kind of doctor's scalpel. I was totally naked.... One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction.
"I was in agony, crying, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming.... They must have done this 20 to 30 times in maybe two hours.... They cut all over my private parts."
This form of torture, Mr. Mohamed told David Cole of the Daily Mail, was repeated many times over the next 15 months.
Mr Mohamed said further that when he was later taken into direct US custody, a female official was sent in daily to photograph his intimate wounds, saying that the photos were "for Washington." These photos are almost certainly among the images that President Obama, Lieberman and Mrs Clinton are seeking to suppress. Such an image -- as you and every man in America, if not around the world, would agree -- would not be survivable, politically.
His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith of the UK rights organization Reprieve, was threatened with six months in prison by the US -- Obama's team -- for writing a letter to President Obama describing what had happened to his client.
In a masterpiece of perversity, the US classified the torture used against the prisoners -- so that in America, if US lawyers tell their clients' own stories -- IF THEY TELL THEIR OWN STORIES they are illegally releasing 'classified information.' It is like someone saying to a woman: I raped you, and now I will classify how I raped you, so if you tell anyone you were raped -- I can send you to prison.
(Right now, thinking about how the truth got out in Soviet societies before 1989, I am asking lawyers at rights organizations if I can legally tell these stories through allegory, as in Animal Farm. "Once there was an island...")
The Obama administration shocked those of us working on human rights issues by threatening the UK's intelligence service with refusing to cooperate in intelligence-sharing about terrorist threats if the UK did not continue to conceal these seven paragraphs. President Obama was willing to put the thirty million innocent UK citizens at grave risk in order to keep secret what happened to Mr Mohamed. Hillary Clinton, to her shame, sought to do so again as the trial
unfolded. I believe Mrs Clinton's female supporters in particular should think about the fact that America's self-styled premiere role model for feminism has lent her voice and influence to the cover-up of torture that took this form of a sexual assault.
I reached out to to Mr. Mohamed because he had known Mohamed al-Hanashi, the thirty-one-year-old Yemenite detainee, the prisoners' representative -- the man who knew all the crimes committed against his fellows -- who was declared an "apparent suicide" in Guantánamo in June. (He had been called into a meeting with the admiral and the head of the Guard Force three days before the inauguration -- never returned to his cell -- and was taken straight from that meeting to the psych ward, where it is impossible to kill yourself, until his death). Mr. Mohamed had said Mr. al Hanashi was an upbeat person with no mental problems and would never have considered suicide.
Lt. Commander Brook DeWalt, spokesman for Guantánamo, has confirmed now after four months of my asking the status of the investigation into Mr al-Hanashi's death that it is now a Naval criminal investigation -- meaning that he is no longer considered a suicide but a victim of a murder or a negligent homicide. Obama's Gitmo is still refusing to release to me any more information -- despite this secretive internal investigation being a violation of Geneva Conventions' strictures on what you must do -- hold an independent transparent investigation -- when there is a death in custody.
In the course of seeking Mr. Mohamed out, I received his email -- and had that odd sense of unreality to see this little piece of normality; not monster, not 'victim' alone; a guy with an email address.
We corresponded; and I read an Op-ed piece he is writing, which makes the case that America's actions in torturing people, and denying them due process, did more to inflate al Qaida's numbers than any other factor; and that America can regain hearts and minds around the world by prosecuting rather than concealing war crimes. He also points out that the US lumped all kinds of groups that were critical of the US but not wishing to take up any violent action against us under the "logo" of Al Qaida -- and, he said, terrified the Muslim world by saying "you are either with us or against us" -- meaning, you could not be anywhere in the middle.
This idea bears a great deal more elucidation. I was also shocked when he referred to US military as 'our kidnappers' -- but that is of course the literal truth from his perspective. Uncomfortable as it made me, it was good to be shocked by his voice; Jefferson knew that the power of free speech is that it forces you to face another human being's version of truth. (Jefferson's beliefs have been having a tough time; even as we emailed, though, I was aware that that very action could have gotten me too into legal trouble during the Bush era.)
I spoke to Mr. Mohamed by phone, a brief, unremarkable conversation about
logistics; but in speaking directly, human to human, for the first time, I had an existential shock. It is one thing when these names are abstract; another when you hear a voice, just like the voices of anyone you know, but with layers and layers of unspeakable sorrow resonating underneath and you think: this is one man here on the other end of the line who was tortured in my name, in our names.
I asked if I could interview him about his own story and I felt the closing-down: he explained that he is unable to tell me what was done to him, since his case is ongoing, and, I presumed, because of the issues of classification. This silencing still seemed to me as painful - painful on both sides -- as other kinds of pain.
The right to speak is a powerful one. The US offered to release Mr. Mohamed from Guantánamo years ago -- in exchange for his silence about what happened to him -- and he refused the deal. He chose to stay in rather than leave under a charge of silence.
President Obama wants to try some remaining prisoners in real trials; to release some; and he wants a third category, the devil's own category -- of people who will be held forever because of `problems with evidence.' What are the problems with evidence? The problems are political: it will be problematic that what was done to these men will emerge into light and will be so horrific -- say, like the seven paragraphs about the cutting of a prisoner's genitals -- that a continued cover-up and legal impunity will be unsustainable.
The US's argument has been that if the paragraphs and photos of this particular torture emerge, it will inflame Muslim anger against us. It is no secret in the Muslim world, though, what happened to Mr. Mohamed and others situated like him. And as for here in the West? Well, that argument doesn't hold water any more: I just told a million people what is in the seven paragraphs, and in at least some of the photos.
Mr Mohamed let me know he had 'friended' me on Facebook. I 'friended' him back. I may agree with him or not as we and other former detainees and I communicate directly, and as I seek to bring their voices through my websites and interviews to American ears. But, in agreement or not, there are voices I -- we -- need to hear. In a democracy, you supposed to be allowed to do that.
Ironically, European media has given a lot of space to the former prisoners' direct voices and stories; but we almost never hear them in our media bubble in the US. It is we Americans who are being kept, intellectually, in a soundproof, padded room. Only our hearing these voices can begin our long arduous path to our own sense of regained self-respect -- hearing, listening, facing, grieving, and owning the fact that this, this, is what we have done.