Michael Ratner is a prominent civil rights lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights In his jost recent book,Guantanamo, he collaborates with political journalist Ellen Ray to describe the illegal detention and mistreatment of so-called “enemy combatants” held in the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ratner probably knows more about conditions in Guantanamo than any other American lawyer. He has represented four Guantanamo prisoners and is currently at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case designed to test the status of individuals confined in detention centers outside the US.

According to the US Administration, anyone designated as an “enemy combatant” can be imprisoned incommunicado without trial or legal counsel. But on the battlefield, according to Ratner, the identification of so-called “enemy combatants” was often arbitrary.

When the US military went into Afghanistan in October 2001, both combatants and noncombatants were indiscriminately arrested and detained by the Northern Alliance, a coalition of local warlords which had been fighting against the Taliban. The US military offered to pay cash rewards of $50 to $5000 for captured enemy fighters.

This was big money for soldiers of the Northern Alliance, who were highly motivated to kidnap their enemies, their neighbours, and, finally, anyone they could catch and deliver for the promised ransom. In total, the warlords of the Northern Alliance eventually imprisoned an estimated 40,000 individuals at great profit to themselves. In many cases the fate of these individuals remains unknown. Some were sent to US military detention centers in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan, where they were beaten and tortured during interrogation. Difficult cases were “subcontracted” to undergo more sophisticated torture techniques in Egypt. Others were crowded into metal shipping containers and sent to Guantanamo. Many died of heat prostration and suffocation during the journey.

Once arrived in Guantanamo, the survivors underwent intensive interrogation during which they were subjected to a variety of techniques ranging from humiliation to torture.

In spite of official denials, the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo is no secret. Recently released prisoners have reported systematic patterns of abuse, humiliation and torture approved of and carried out by the US military.

On May 13, 2004, two British clients of Ratner's Center for Constitutional Rights sent an open letter to President Bush and members of Congress in which they described the US government's description of interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo as “completely untrue.”

The ex-prisoners described interrogations during which they were forced to wear blacked-out goggles and masks while tightly chained for long periods in extremely painful positions. During interrogations lasting as long as 12 hours they were not permitted to use a toilet, but had to urinate and defecate on the floor. US interrogators threatened them with attack dogs, held guns to their heads, threatened to kill them, and beat them with iron pipes. After interrogation they were returned to solitary confinement, where they were forced to remain for three months.

They write: “We wish to make it clear that all of these and other incidents and all of the brutality, humiliation and degradation were clearly taking place as a result of official policies and orders [under the regime of General Miller]. (The complete four-page letter is reproduced verbatim in Ratner's “Appendix.”)

Information gained during such interrogations will be used in so-called “military commissions,” or secret kangaroo courts designed to determine the alleged guilt of individual prisoners. Ratner writes: “It is awful enough to try to gain intelligence for the so-called war on terror through torture and coercion, but to compound that by using forced information in criminal proceedings is to double the outrage. These are obviously coerced statements and totally unreliable.”

Rather speculates that an important activity at Guantanamo is to recruit Muslim informants as undercover agents who will go back to their countries of origin and spy for the US. A recently released British prisoner reported that US intelligence agents asked him to be a secret agent and inform on the Muslim community after his return to England. As a reward for his services the intelligence agents offered him enough money to buy a new home and afford a comfortable life style. They added: “And we'd like you to sign a confession, because if you don't sign a confession, you're never going to get out of here.”

In response to a writ of habeus corpus filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Supreme Court agreed in November 2003 to review the question: “Whether the United States courts lack jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.”

In June, 2004, shortly after the publication of Ray and Ratner's book, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have jurisdiction over legal challenges by Guantanamo prisoners. This decision, however, has resulted in much confusion as lawsuits brought by prisoners proliferate, while government lawyers and attorneys for prisoners squabble over implementation of the court's decision.

The justices did not specify what rights prisoners have or how they can gain access to lawyers, and Guantanamo prisoners – because they are held abroad — have no right to counsel. In a recent editorial the Washington Post blames what it calls “the current mess” on vague wording by the Supreme Court, lack of action by Congress, and the Bush administration's failure to create a procedure for dealing with Guantanamo prisoners. “The result,” says the Post, “is hard to excuse: lower courts left guessing at what process they should use and what law they should apply. It's no way to run a court system — much less a war.”

This concise and well reasoned book is particularly timely now, when reports of military commissions in Guantanamo are just beginning to appear in the press. Guantanamo: What the World Should Know is a welcome ray of light and reason in a dark and dirty mess. 

Reviewed by Steve Gilbert
People's Voice, September 16-30, 2004