Ten years ago, Omar Deghayes and Morris Davis would have struck anyone as an odd pair. While they have never met, they now share a profound connection, cemented through their time at the notorious U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Deghayes was a prisoner there. Air Force Col. Morris Davis was chief prosecutor of the military commissions there from 2005 to 2007.
Deghayes was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S. military. He told me: "There was a payment made for every person who was handed to the Americans. ... We were chained, head covered, then sent to Bagram [Afghanistan] -- we were tortured in Bagram -- and then from Bagram to Guantanamo."
At Guantanamo, Deghayes, one of close to 800 men who have been sent there since January 2002, received the standard treatment: "People were subjected to beatings, daily fear ... without being convicted of any crime."
While Deghayes and his fellow inmates were suffering in their cages, the Bush administration was erecting a controversial legal framework to prosecute the Guantanamo prisoners. It labelled those rounded up "enemy combatants," argued they had no protections under the U.S. Constitution, nor under the Geneva Conventions, no rights whatsoever. Guantanamo became a legal black hole.
When I asked Col. Davis if he felt that torture was used at Guantanamo, he said:
"I don't think there's any doubt. I would say that there was torture. Susan Crawford, a Dick Cheney protegee, said there was torture. John McCain has said waterboarding was torture, and we've admitted we've waterboarded. There have been at least five judges in federal court and military courts that have said detainees were tortured."
Chained, kept in cages in orange jumpsuits, subjected to harsh interrogations and humiliations, with their Muslim faith vilified, the prisoners at Guantanamo began to fight back, through the time-honoured tradition of nonviolent non-co-operation. They began a hunger strike. In response, examples were made of Deghayes and the other protesters. He recalled: "After beating me in the cell, they dragged me outside, and then one of the guards, while another officer was standing, observing what was happening, [tried] to gouge my eyes out. ... I lost sight in both of my eyes. Slowly, I regained my sight in one of the eyes. The other eye has completely gotten worse. And they went to do the same thing to the next cell and the next cell and next cell ... to frighten everyone else from campaigning or from objecting to any policies."
Deghayes now has sight in one eye. His right eye remains shut. After his release from Guantanamo, he was sent back to Britain. He is suing the British government for its collaboration in his imprisonment and torture.
Col. Morris Davis, disgusted with the military tribunal process, resigned his position in 2007, and in 2008 retired from the military. He went to work at the Congressional Research Service. After penning an opinion piece critical of the Obama administration's embrace of the military tribunals, which was published in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, Davis was fired.
Deghayes notes that the hundreds of men who have left Guantanamo this past decade have been released because of pressure on governments from grassroots campaigning. That is why more than 350 separate protests were held this week, on Guantanamo's 10th anniversary. One hundred seventy-one men remain imprisoned there, more than half of whom have been cleared for release, but languish nevertheless.
To make matters worse, in what Col. Davis called a "complete act of cowardice," President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, giving the U.S. government the power to detain anyone, without charge, for an indefinite period of time. Davis explained that it "is not a dramatic departure from what the policy has been for the last few years, but now it's law."
One could imagine an "Occupy Guantanamo" movement, but that would be redundant: The United States has occupied Guantanamo since 1903. Since the U.S. has maintained a crushing embargo against Cuba for more than half a century, presumably because it doesn't like Cuban policies, you'd think the U.S. would exhibit model behavior on its little slice of Cuba. It does just the opposite. Which is why grassroots movements are so important. With the U.S. presidential race heating up, be assured that the Republican and Democratic parties see eye to eye on Guantanamo.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.