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Former U.S. Army guard at Guantanamo speaks out about abuse of detainees

by Marian Houk

February 15, 2009

A former guard at the detention facilities in the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba has given a rare interview to the Associated Press describing abusive treatment of prisoners who were detained in Afghanistan and other parts of the world after the 9/11 attacks (on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington), and then transferred to the isolated and off-shore detention facility.

On the suspicion that they might have belonged to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, these men -- and some boys -- found themselves classified as "illegal/enemy combatants", a new legal status invented by the Bush administration as part of its open-ended "war on terror", and facing indefinite imprisonment in a legal limbo.

The AP said that the interview with Pvt. Brandon Neely -- one of the first by a former guard describing abuses at Guantanamo -- recounted "a litany of cruel treatment by his fellow soldiers, including beatings and humiliations he said were intended only to deliver physical or psychological pain".

U.S. Army prison specialist Neely, 28, told the AP that "The stuff I did and the stuff I saw was just wrong".

Newly-inaugurated U.S. President Barak Obama promised before his election that one of his first acts in office would be to close the Guantanamo detention facilities. He has recently ordered their shut-down within a year.

At the peak, the Guantanamo detention facilities held -- without any guarantees of legal protection -- over 660 men. There are, reportedly still nearly 250 detainees in custody at Guantanamo.

According to the AP: "Pvt. Brandon Neely was scared when he took Guantanamo's first shackled detainees off a bus. Told to expect vicious terrorists, he grabbed a trembling, elderly detainee and ground his face into the cement — the first of a range of humiliations he says he participated in and witnessed as the prison was opening for business ... Neely says he feels personally ashamed for how he treated that elderly detainee the first day. As he recalls it, the man made a movement to resist on his way to his cage, and he responded by shoving the shackled man headfirst to the ground, bruising and scraping his face. Other soldiers hog-tied him and left him in the sun for hours. Only later did Neely learn — from another detainee — that the man had jerked away thinking he was about to be executed".

In the full transcript of the interview, see below, Neely recounted that "I am very ashamed to admit it and tell you that I was involved in the very first IRFing incident at Camp X-Ray ... A couple days later I found out from a detainee who was on that block that the older detainee was just scared and that when we placed him on his knees he thought he was going to be executed. He then went on to tell me that this man had seen some of his friends and family members executed on their knees ... I remember seeing him the next day when I walked into camp. His face was all bruised and scraped up".]

The AP reported that Neely also said "that the circumstances changed quickly once monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived".

AP wrote that "Neely's account sheds new light on the early days of Guantanamo, where guards were hastily deployed in January 2002 and were soon confronted by men stumbling out of planes, shackled and wearing blackout goggles. They were held in chain-link cages and moved to more permanent structures three months later. The soldiers, many of them still in their teens, had no detailed standard operating procedures and were taught hardly anything about the Geneva Conventions, which provide guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners of war, Neely said, though some learned about them on their own initiative ... Only months had passed since the Sept. 11 attacks, and Neely said many of the guards wanted revenge. Especially before the first Red Cross visit, he said guards were seizing on any apparent infractions to 'get some' by hurting the detainees. The soldiers' behavior seemed justified at the time, he said, because they were told 'these are the worst terrorists in the world'."

The full AP report, including comments from military spokespersons made in response to Neely's interview, can be read online here.

The AP wrote that "An urge to tell his story led him [Neely] to the University of California at Davis' Guantanamo Testimonials Project" -- that also obtained public statements made by three other former guards. But, the AP said that "Neely was the first to grant researchers an interview. He also spoke extensively with the AP".

The Guantanamo Testimonials Project -- which can be consulted online here -- reported that "The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been conducting visits to Guantánamo since January 2002. Although reports of these visits are confidential, it decided to make public statements about one of them 'because of lack of action'." In 2003, A senior ICRC official in Washington told the New York Times that ´´One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely.´´

The NYTimes article was published on 10 October 2003 -- almost two years after the first alleged Al-Qaeda and Taliban members arrived in the detention facilities of the U.S. Naval base on the tip of Guantanamo, Cuba.

In the October 2003 NYTimes article, Christophe Girod, who was then a senior Red Cross official in Washington, "said that it was intolerable that the complex was used as '' 'an investigation center, not a detention center'." The NYTimes added that "United States officials have said they have begun moving to sort the detainees, choosing which to release and which to take before military tribunals on criminal charges. Some officials, notably Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have said the detainees may be held until the effort against terrorism ends. Mr. Girod said, ''The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem' ... Mr. Girod said that in meetings with members of his inspection teams, detainees regularly asked about what was going to happen to them. 'It's always the No. 1 question', he said. 'They don't know about the future' ... Mr. Girod's comments departed from the usual reluctance of the International Red Cross to issue public criticism. The International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, is the sole group outside the government allowed to inspect the main detention center and meet the detainees. Under longstanding procedures, the committee agrees that in exchange for access it will not generally publicize its findings but rather take complaints or criticisms to the government in charge in the hope that they can be addressed. Only when the Red Cross decides that its views are not being heeded does it publicize its concerns. Mr. Girod said the views he was expressing had recently been placed on the Red Cross Web site, here. He said the International Red Cross had been urging the Bush administration for months to make significant changes in operations here if it intended to keep using the site as an investigation center. The administration, Mr. Girod added, should consider establishing a policy under which most, if not all, of the detainees have some idea of when they can learn whether they will be charged or released". This NYTimes article can be found here

Again, that was in 2003.

Professor Almerindo Ojeda of the University of California at Davis is director of The Guantanamo Testimonials Project. His interview of Neely is posted online here and also on the Talking Dog blog here.

In this interview, Neely explained to Professor Ojeda that on 6 January 2002 "I was told that we would be deploying to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within the next 24hrs. It was not until later that afternoon that we were told that we would be starting and running a detainee facility, not an EPW (or Enemy Prisoner of War) camp. We were told that a detainee camp had never been ran before, and that this would be the first time in history this had taken place since these people would not fall under the Geneva Convention".

After being transported to Cuba, Neely recounted "On January 9 we all got together and marched down to Camp X-Ray and walked around for a quick tour. It was nothing like I had ever seen before. The cells--or cages as I call them--were small. 'Something like you would put a dog in', I thought. And, on top of that, it was all outdoors. Except for a small metal roof. The whole camp was rocks. No matter where you stepped you were stepping on rocks".

Neely said that the next couple of days were spent in intensive training: "Since we were all MPs we were pretty well trained in handcuffing. But we covered it anyways: how to properly handcuff (hand restraints) and leg shackles. Over and over. We went over escorting procedures. Since they would be wearing a belt with cuffs we were to grab the back of the belt with one hand and, with the other hand, grab their arm. Since escorting was a two-man job, one of the people escorting would force the detainees' head down while we walked so he could not see where he was going. Some of use also went through the five man internal reaction force training. This team would be called upon supposedly when a detainee was out of control. The Number 1 Man would have the shield. Once the cage door was open he would go in and hit the detainee as hard as he could with the shield. Number 2 Man would go in and gain control of the detainee's left arm; Number 3 Man would gain control of the right arm; Number 4 Man would go for the left leg, and Number 5 Man would go for the right leg, take him down, and handcuff him. This training went on for the next 2 days and, on January 10, we were told that the first batch of detainees would be arriving sometime the next day, so we would be on standby the next day... QUESTION [Professor Ojeda]: And what about minimal force? SOPs [standard operating procedures] say IRFings have to use the minimal amount of force necessary. And guards' reports that have been released say they were conducted in this way as well. On the other hand, you say that the Number 1 Man of the IRF team had to 'hit the detainee as hard as he could with the shield'. That does not seem consistent with minimal force… ANSWER [Neely]: All I can say to this question is I am sure a lot really has changed in the way the day-to-day activities take place. Especially with regards to IRFing. But at Camp X-Ray, especially before ICRC (or International Committee of the Red Cross) arrived, I heard many times the IRF team being told (and telling each other before they went to get a detainee) that it was their time to 'get some', which is to say inflict pain, get revenge. But we were instructed that the Number 1 Man on the IRF team was to hit the detainees as hard as possible ... After we got off that day it was late. No one really spoke much. I went back to my tent and laid down to go to sleep. I was thinking 'those were the worst people the world had to offer? Not what I expected'. I guess I was expecting people who looked like monsters or what-not".

Neely also recalled one abusive IRF he witnessed -- and noted that although he had not been directly involved, he realized immediately after it was over that he had been asked to stand in such a way that he would be blocking the view from a guard tower: "One night I was assigned to Charlie Block as a block guard. The medic was handing medication out on the block. He made his way over to one detainee on the block and instructed him to drink a can of Ensure (a lot of detainees were given this since they were underweight and malnourished). The detainee refused to take the Ensure. The medic told him multiple times to take it and the detainee still refused ... The call was made on the radio for the IRF team. The IRF team entered the block where they were met by the OIC and the medic. They were told of the situation and advised once they entered the cell they were to restraint the detainee so the medic could give him the can of Ensure. The IRF team then started to approach the cage the detainee was in. Since I was on the block I walked on the other side of the cage so I could watch what was going on. Once the IRF team was lined up and got in position to enter the cell the OIC unlocked the lock and pulled it off and opened the cage door. The detainee just stood there, facing the IRF team. BOOM! the Number One Man hit the detainee with shield causing him to fall to the cement floor of the cage. Quickly the whole team was on top of the detainee. I could not see exactly what they were doing. They stood him up and hand-cuffed him to fence in the cage. The person who had the shield held the detainee's head so he could not move. The medic then entered the cage with the can of Ensure. Once he entered the cage he looked up and saw me. He then motioned for me to move over to my left (his right). So I moved over. I did not think anything about it. He then opened the Ensure can, grabbed the detainee by the neck, and started to pour it down his throat. The detainee was attempting to move his head, and he wouldn't swallow any of it. The Ensure just ran down his face all over him. The medic looked up one quick time and punched the detainee twice on the left side of his face with his right fist. The medic then just turned around and walked out of the cage like nothing happened The detainee was then un-handcuffed from the cage and laid down on the cement in the cage. He was then hog-tied. He laid in this position for a couple hours. When the whole incident was over I turned around and noticed the guard tower where the Marines were stationed watching over and realized that the medic had placed me in front of the view of the tower and I had not even realized it. . I later learned through other detainees on the block the reason the man refused the Ensure was that he thought he was being poisoned".

The Talking Dog blog has interviewed Neely's interviewer, Professor Ojeda, who said that "The immediate goals of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project are to gather testimonies of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, to organize them in meaningful ways, to make them widely available online, and to preserve them there in perpetuity. At a more fundamental level, its goal is to shed light on human nature by plumbing the depths of human cruelty and triangulating the heights of the human spirit. And to begin the process of reconciliation with the rest of the world by the simple act of paying attention to what a victim–even an alleged one–has to say". This interview with Ojeda is posted here, as well as on the site of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project here.

The Talking Dog asked The Guantanamo Testimonials Project director: "Where do you see the Guantanamo situation going now that we have inaugurated as President (my college classmate) Barack Obama? Do you see any possibility the framers of the prior policies might be brought to account for their actions?"

And Almerindo Ojeda answered: "President Obama issued four amazing executive orders just today regarding our responses to the war on terror. Much to celebrate about that, especially (1) the recognition of Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions as a minimum baseline standard of treatment (2) subordination of all interrogation practices to those authorized by the Army Field Manual, (3) the elimination of extraordinary rendition (or torture by proxy), (4) the closure of all CIA-run black sites, (5) the universal access to detainees by the International Committee of the Red Cross, (6) the suspension of the discredited trials by military commission and, last but not least, (7) the closure of Guantanamo in a year or less. My only concern with these orders are that they leave open what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners (of which there now are, if we believe official documents, exactly 242). Here I believe there are only two possibilities: charge or release. Those charged should be prosecuted in regular federal courts or regular military courts, and under exactly the same procedures as anyone else, including the inadmissibility of tortured confessions. Those released should be returned to their native countries if there is no risk that they will be abused there. If so, we should ask (not demand) allied nations take some. The rest, we should grant asylum to until the conditions in their countries allow for their safe return. September 11 changed many things, but not the Constitution. Love this country? Live up to it. As to the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, its goals will not be met once Guantanamo is closed for good. The goals of the project will be met only when all the abuse that took place there has been entered. In a way, the closure of Guantanamo may initiate a period of growth for the project, as it should create an environment in which more people will come forth with critical testimony. I am looking forward, for example, to visual testimony of abuse. Every IRFing, for example, was taped. The ACLU is trying to get those tapes. Without much luck. I would also like to take a look at medical records. Or interview psychologists, interrogators, and guards. Not to mention all the newly released prisoners. I think it is unlikely that the architects of the policies and practices of detention develoed in the wake of the war on terror will be tried. At least in the immediate future. I find it much more likely that the Obama administration would launch a commission of inquiry that will gather evidence of abuse committed in the name of our security".

Neely himself said, at the end of his interview with Ojeda: "Since we started this interview President Barack Obama has said the detention facility in Guantanmo Bay will be closed within a year. That's great, but what are WE as the United States of America, the people who kidnapped and tortured these people going to do for them? Just send them home like nothing happened? In the USA if you are sentenced to prison and later on you are found not to be guilty through DNA or what not you are given compensation. Are we going to give compensation to these individuals that were so wrongfully held for so many years? We should. We started this mess and it's time we attempt to help this people move on with their lives. The sad part of this all is the people who are responsible. Former President George Bush and Former Vice President Dick Cheney will never be held accountable for the decisions they made. It's the detainees and the guards like myself that will have to live every day with what they went through, saw, and did while there". The interview (Neely with Professor Ojeda) is posted here.

This article originally appeared in the American Chronicle at the following link; it is posted on PLN's website with permission of the author, who is the copyright holder.

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