It was shortly after five on a Saturday morning last April. The prisoners in the communal cellblock at Camp 6 in Guantanamo Bay Prison had just gathered for morning prayers. Suddenly the overhead lights went out, the cell doors slammed shut and tear gas canisters exploded in the room.
Military guards charged into the cellblock, firing shotguns loaded with plastic bullets toward the huddled detainees. Three men fell to ground, writhing in pain from being struck by the ‘non-lethal’ ammunition. The other prisoners, most of whom had long been cleared for release, were forced onto the floor with guns pointed at their heads and kept prone on their bellies for the next three hours.
According to Guantanamo officials, the action was launched to quash a protest by the detainees, who had placed blankets over the surveillance cameras in their cells. But it seems more likely that the storming of the cellblock was a punitive strike against hunger striking prisoners.
The raid came only hours after members of the International Red Cross had left the prison, following an investigation into the abusive treatment of prisoners then entering the twelfth week of a hunger strike.
One of the detainees roughed up by the guards that morning was a Moroccan political dissident named Younous Chekkouri. Chekkouri has been imprisoned at Guantamo Bay since 2002. Prior to that he had spent five months in a jail in Kandahar, where he’d been swept up in the first stages of the Afghanistan war. In all that time, Chekkouri has never been charged with a crime or allowed to argue the case for his own freedom.
Chekkouri’s descent into Kafkaland began in the summer of 2001. He had been living in the suburbs of Kabul, working for a charity devoted to helping children of Moroccan descent. After the attacks of September 11, Chekkouri decided to move with his young wife back to Pakistan, where he had gone to university in Islamabad. His sent his wife out first and Chekkouri followed a few days later, but was snared at the border in the driftnet set out to detain men of Arabic descent. He was thrown into a mass prison outside Kandahar and five months later auctioned off to the CIA.
The CIA interrogated Chekkouri for several weeks in a secret prison in Afghanistan. He revealed nothing of value and the spooks soon wrote him off as human by-catch in the war on terror. Even so, the agents believed they might be able to coerce information about other Arabs in the region from him and packed Chekkouri off to Guantanamo.
More interrogations followed, some more bracing than others. But it was the same story each time. After a few months, the inquisitors gave up, resigned to the fact that Chekkouri was a dead end as any kind of informant. The interrogators stopped coming. But Chekkouri’s confined life remained much the same.
Year after year passed. Eventually, a military tribunal secretly cleared Chekkouri for release. Yet he remained locked up. Indeed, he, like dozens of other detainees, was denied the right to challenge his imprisonment.
In the spring of this year, Chekkouri joined about 100 other detainees in a hunger strike, protesting the grim, hopeless conditions in the prison. At first, the US military tried to cover up the hunger strikes. Then word began to leak out to press, followed by angry denials from Gitmo. The Red Cross team was dispatched to Cuba to conduct interviews, a visit that prompted the storming of Chekkouri’s cellblock.
Then the government’s tactics changed. They began a brutally force-feeding regime on more than 44 of the hunger-strikers, including Chekkouri. A torture without end.
Yet, these men have nothing to confess. They hold no secret knowledge that can be extracted by prolonged suffering. They have committed no crimes deserving of such savage punishment. Their hidden torments serve no deterrent effect. This is torture for the sake of torture, in a quadrant of the world unbound by legal or moral restraints.