I was released from Guantanamo in 2007 but mentally I still haven’t escaped. Years of violence and degradation there and in US custody in Bagram, Afghanistan, are etched into my memory, from the sexual assault and electric shocks to the beatings, one of which permanently blinded me when a guard struck my eye.
Flashbacks come without warning, transporting me back to the sensation of starvation, of being kept in the freezing cold, of having excrement smeared on my face. Worst of all are the images that haunt my dreams of detainees being maimed, shot and beaten to death. These are crimes that the guards forced me to watch so that when they threatened to kill me, I knew they were capable of it.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. As we mark 20 years since President Bush opened America’s own heart of darkness, 39 men still languish there. Some of them have been detained since the beginning: two decades of their lives stolen without justification.
You may think “there’s no smoke without fire”, but for most of us there was no smoke, not even a whiff.
Like many others, I was captured by bounty hunters in Pakistan and sold to the US. I now know that an anonymous informant wrongly picked me out as the man in a videotape later revealed to be an insurgent leader killed by Russians in 2004.
In cases like mine, they’d got the wrong guy. In many others, bounty hunters simply rounded up Muslim men who fit the profile, with the US dishing out between $3,000 and $25,000 per person.
Because you’re not allowed to know the allegations against you or about any of the evidence they profess to have, let alone challenge it in court, it’s only after years of severe physical and psychological torture that the mistakes and false information come to light.
This is precisely the problem: the purpose of Guantanamo is to detain in order to get information, rather than to detain on the basis of information. It would be unthinkable in any ordinary criminal justice system to imprison someone without reasonable grounds to suspect them of committing an offence. But Guantanamo was specifically designed to operate outside of that system by circumventing the US constitution.
One of the generals all but admitted this to me when he vowed to squeeze me like a lemon to get information and then throw me away. And that’s exactly what they did, even though I had nothing to give.
Although President Biden promised to close Guantanamo, a year into his presidency he has only released one detainee. Despite the fact that others have been unanimously cleared for release by top federal agencies, they still haven’t been let go – even though it was revealed in a Senate report that one of those men, Ahmed Rabbani, was, like me, detained simply because of mistaken identity.
But release doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. Dozens of men were transferred by the US to the UAE where they were immediately imprisoned again, in horrific conditions. One, Ravil Mingazov, remains at risk of repatriation to Russia where he faces further torture and persecution.
Even in less extreme circumstances, former detainees are still not provided with compensation or with the assistance needed to rebuild their lives, with the human rights organisation Reprieve having to step in. I myself benefited from Reprieve’s Life After Guantanamo project and, while working for the organisation, was able to support my fellow former detainees.
Guantanamo still casts a shadow over our lives, with most of us being blacklisted by banks and airlines after our information was sold by the World Check database, the ripple effects of which continue to affect us even after we brought successful legal action.
Whereas we continue to face repercussions for offences we didn’t commit, not one person has been brought to justice for the heinous crimes perpetrated against us. Not the guards who committed murder, grievous bodily harm and sexual violence with impunity, nor the generals who oversaw it, nor the politicians who made it possible and the corporations that profited. Yet the government has the audacity to proclaim the US is a liberal democracy and even the “leader of the free world”, while this legal black hole continues to imprison without charge.
This 20-year anniversary should never have been reached. It should be a wake-up call to President Biden to remove such a blot on America’s conscience once and for all. Although Guantanamo will haunt us forever, closing it will finally bring that chapter of our lives to an end, and give us a chance to find peace.
Omar Deghayes was imprisoned without trial at Guantanamo from 2002 to 2007. He is currently a lawyer working in the oil and gas industry