A military officer probing new charges of prisoner abuse here will encounter a pervasive atmosphere of hostility and suspicion between the detainees and U.S. troops who consider themselves at war.
Even on a recent, controlled visit, an Associated Press reporter and photographer found that the prison brims with hatred. Former prisoners say the guards kick and punch them for no reason and treat them as subhuman. Guards say the inmates fling excrement at them, along with racial slurs and death threats.
Guantanamo is under renewed scrutiny after a U.S. Marine working for a detainee’s defense team said she heard guards boast about beating detainees and depriving them of personal items without provocation. The guards described the abuse as commonplace, the Marine said in an affidavit, prompting the Pentagon’s Inspector General to order an investigation.
In an interview at the base, a guard told the AP journalists a detainee used an ugly racist epithet in an attempt to provoke him. A defense attorney accused an interrogator, in an unrelated incident, of using exactly the same language against his client.
“I get threatened all the time. Harassed all the time,” the Navy guard, sitting at an umbrella-shaded table in a sun-splashed courtyard, said after finishing his shift.
The sailor, who is African-American and from Fairfax, S.C., said he was threatened only hours earlier.
“This morning, a detainee woke up as I was walking past his cell, put his hand to his throat and, after using a racial slur, said, ‘I will kill you. I will kill you in Iraq,'” he said. “I thought, ‘OK,’ and kept on going.”
The 19-year-old guard refused to give his name for security reasons, but his tale is hardly unique.
From July 2005 through August, the military recorded 432 assaults by detainees using “cocktails” of bodily excretions thrown at guards, 227 physical assaults, 99 instances of inciting or participating in disturbances, and 726 threats against guards.
Meanwhile, attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who represents Mohammed el Gharani, who is of Chadian nationality, said interrogators repeatedly used racial slurs against him as part of a pattern of verbal abuse “which has upset him a lot, and he has attempted to harm himself on more than one occasion.”
Stafford Smith said in an e-mail that el Gharani, 19, lived in Saudi Arabia before traveling to Pakistan, where he was arrested at age 14.
Sometimes, the antagonism between the guards – many of them still in their teens or early 20s – and the detainees turns violent, according to some former detainees.
Habib Rahman, a 20-year-old Afghan who was flown from Guantanamo to his homeland on Thursday, said he was beaten as recently as four months ago.
“They were kicking us all the time, beating us with their hands,” Rahman told reporters in Kabul, adding that he was once kept awake for 38 hours while being questioned.
Army Brig. Gen. Edward A. Leacock, deputy commander of the detention operation, insisted that detainees are treated humanely and noted that an al-Qaida training manual instructs captured members to invent claims of torture.
But Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey wrote in his request for an investigation that “physical and mental abuse of detainees by the guard force at Guantanamo Bay appears to be a regular and common occurence.” An Army colonel, who name has not been released, was assigned on Friday to investigate.
Sgt. Heather Cerveny – the Marine who filed a sworn statement alleging she heard guards discussing how they beat detainees – described in her affidavit hearing a Navy guard justify abuse of detainees.
The guard, identified only as Steven, said that even when a detainee is being good, guards will take his personal items away, to anger him so he can be punished further.
“He said it is because he hates the detainees and that they are bad people,” Cerveny said. “And he stated that he doesn’t like having to take care of them or be nice to them.”
The vast majority of the 450 detainees at Guantanamo have been formally classified as enemy combatants – even though human rights groups say detainees have scant opportunities to defend themselves against often vague and unsubstantiated accusations.
Many soldiers at Guantanamo are convinced all the detainees are dangerous men and don’t think twice about whether they deserve to be locked up.
“The reason the detainees are here is they are a threat to the American way of life,” said Army Capt. Dan Byer.
When soldiers pass through the “sally port” – the heavily guarded entrance to some of the detention camps on this 45-square-mile base – they rip their Velcro-attached name tags off their camouflage uniforms. If the name tags are sewn on, they cover them with black tape. Civilian visitors are advised to put their military-issue ID tags into their pockets.
“This is to prevent detainees from organizing attacks against them or their families,” Army Sgt. Vince Oliver said as he went through the sally port. As he entered the compound, a recording of a muezzin calling Muslims to prayer echoed from loudspeakers.
An Army nurse who said he worked at its medical facility for a year until last May wrote in a blog that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill a former detainee if he saw him in his town.
“I can tell you that if I ever saw a detainee face-to-face here in the States, I would immediately assume that I was targeted and do my best to kill them without further warning,” wrote the soldier, who would be identified only by his nickname, Stashiu.
Prospective guards are trained at Fort Lewis, Wash., on the treatment of detainees, including Geneva Conventions provisions which ban abusive and humiliating treatment, said Navy Cmdr. Robert Durand, a Guantanamo spokesman. The guards are even taught Middle Eastern culture and Islamic religious practices, Durand said.
But some would prefer not to be at Guantanamo. The guard from South Carolina said he did not volunteer, but instead was “voluntold” to come.
Stafford Smith said that as a whole, he came away from his visits to Guantanamo with a good impression of the guards.
“The guards were uniformly pleasant the whole time I was there,” the attorney said. “They are basically decent people who have been given a terrible job to do.”
The guard from South Carolina said he refrains from retaliating to insults and threats by putting the situation in perspective, and decompresses after his shift by running and listening to jazz.
“I’ve been called everything in the book,” he said. “But I know that I still have a job, and a home, and they’re going to be here when I leave.”