Panel investigates treatment of detainees at Guantanamo

By Bianca Sepulveda

With more than 600 detainees being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, a panel of humanitarian and psychiatric specialists addressed issues surrounding the legality of such detention and the treatment of the detainees by the U.S. military authorities.

The panel, held Wednesday evening at the International House, was sponsored by organizations including the Human Rights Program, the Chicago Society, the U of C Amnesty International Chapter, and the ACLU at U of C.

Andreas Feldmann, post-doctoral fellow of the Human Rights Program moderated and opened the event, offering background information. The U.S. is holding suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from more than 40 different countries since January 2002 Feldmann said that the detainees were mostly captured during the Afghan conflict following 9/11.

Over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, 660 individuals have been detained, including an undisclosed number of children. Information about the detainees has still not been made public: who they are, what they have allegedly done, and whether they will be charged or released. Those detained at Guantanamo have had no constitutional rights or hearings to determine their legal status. In addition, breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law have been the basis of strong criticism against the Bush administration’s decision to hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The first panelist, Christophe Girod, represented the Guantanamo Bay detention investigation team of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Washington, DC. Working with the ICRC since 1985, Girod has worked in Pakistan, Israel, and Lebanon. Currently, as the Head of the Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada, Girod led an ICRC team that has monitored and reviewed the detention conditions at Guantanamo Bay.

Girod noted that although the ICRC has been one of the only organizations allowed to gain access and work within the detention center, its mandate with the U.S. government prevents it from releasing any information to the public concerning conditions in the area.

“The Bush Administration claims the ‘war on terror’ is a legitimate war [and] the Geneva Conventions do not apply—it is a legal black hole,” Girod said.

He added that the ICRC can make recommendations to US officials for improving the state of conditions at Guantanamo.

Alison Parker spoke next. She is a senior researcher and refugee policy expert at Human Rights Watch and co-author of “Above the Law: Executive Power after September 11 in the United States,” a report which covers the “executive privilege” of the Bush administration to circumvent judiciary scrutiny in the name of “national security.”

Parker’s work with the Human Rights Watch in investigating the human rights abuses in Guantanamo, unlike the ICRC, has been limited to only those formerly released detainees consenting to interview.

In examining the mental health of the detainees, she compared the detention center to American maximum-security prisons because of the use of solitary confinement and similar security measures.

“Guantanamo is a place to gather intelligence, not to control security,” she said. “Rules are based on incentives and disincentives.”

Parker noted that although little is known about the degree of force used by the military, there is information concerning human rights violations prior to incarceration. There is also a special initiative group at Guantanamo called the “immediate response force,” which coerces detainees to cooperate with interrogations that would give authorities possible leads to terrorist actors.

The third panelist, Dr. Daryl Matthews, was a former forensic consultant for the U.S. Army at Guantanamo Bay. He is currently a professor of psychiatry and director of the Forensic Psychiatry Program at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine.

Matthews evaluated Camp Delta, part of the Guantanamo detention camp, where a mental ward was set up for those inmates who had attempted suicide. Matthews said that the stress of uncertainty was crippling to the mental health of the detainees.

“Nobody really knows when they are going to leave, even if they are acquitted,” he said.

Stemming from this uncertainty, there have been over 30 suicide attempts and one-third of the detainees are on anti-depressants. “By now the army has been clever enough to stop counting suicide attempts,” Matthews added.