Clive Stafford Smith

Christmas in Guantánamo Bay

on 30 November 2007

The guards tried to celebrate in Guantánamo Bay, though it was not a happy place for them to spend Christmas, any more than the prisoners.

It was against regulations, but some guards appeared on the prison block with silly red hats. The prisoners 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.

The guards tried to celebrate in Guantánamo 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.

Sometimes a Guantánamo Christmas was more a time for confrontation than a time of peace. In one block, a heavily accented voice rang out, sneering at the guards’ celebrations: “Are you dreaming of a white Christmas?”

There was plenty of snow when the prisoners were held in the freezing cages of Bagram Airforce Base, in Afghanistan, shivering through their first winter of captivity. But there was not much snow 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 U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as “Environmental Manipulation” in his April 16, 2003 memo, an interrogation system where the military would “alter[] the environment to create moderate discomfort (e.g., adjusting temperature…).” Rumsfeld conceded that “some nations may view this technique … to be inhumane.” It was hardly the spirit of Christmas.

Far removed from the convivial Christmas party round, Rumsfeld’s “Isolation” technique did not exactly add to the cheer. He did “caution” that “this technique is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days,” and add a caveat that “the nations that believe the detainees are subject to POW [Prisoner of War] protections may view use of this technique as inconsistent with the requirements of Geneva III.” No such squeamishness afflicted the Gitmo authorities who were implementing these policies. Shaker Aamer, late of South London, holds the record with almost two years in isolation.

Father Christmas never came to Gitmo either. Notwithstanding the absence of chimneys, it would have been hard for him to slip in unnoticed at an appropriate time. Another of Rumsfeld’s approved techniques was “Sleep adjustment”, defined as 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 was difficult for Santa to drop off presents in secret. Perhaps this was why none ever arrived for the prisoners.

There was occasionally chocolate. If they liked a prisoner, the kinder guards might slip some his way. Moazzam Begg, from Birmingham, was initially taken aback when a guard promised him a kiss. It was the first time Moazzam had tried the silver bell-shaped chocolate marketed as a Hershey’s Kiss.

We now come to the sixth Christmas that many prisoners will spend in American custody, without charges and without a trial. The prisoners do not much care much for the Christian holiday, if they have ever heard of it. In 2007, by chance, the lunar calendar means that the Muslim and Christian holidays have almost converged. Eid al Adha is on December 20th. For most Muslims, this is the big Eid, more important than the end of Ramadan, coinciding with the religious obligation of the Haj, the visit to Mecca.

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 from dawn until almost midnight. It was not because of anything the prisoners had done – the military had an on-going dispute with the Red Cross, who had brought special food for the prisoners to 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 the bright star that might, one day, lead all of us to a better world.

For Moazzam and 470 other Guantánamo prisoners, this will be a better Eid than some. They have been released, and are at home with their families. Though many were repatriated for “continued detention”, fewer than two percent have been convicted of any crime in their home countries. These are the men who President Bush tarred as “bad people,” the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world.

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, remembering the CIA-sponsored torture he suffered in Morocco. When you are through 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.

This article also appeared in the New Statesman.

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