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Guantanamo Abuses Caught on Tape, Report Details

by Jessica Azulay

Further validating a number of claims that a special team is involved in severe mistreatment of Guantanamo Bay inmates, an official report describes secret video showing instances of abuse.

Feb. 2, 2005 – Nearly nine months after former Guantánamo detainee Tarek Dergoul went public with allegations that a special punishment squad abused him during his incarceration at the Cuba base and that the treatment was videotaped, some of the content on those tapes has been leaked to the press.

Last May, Dergoul, a British citizen who had spent 22 months in detention at Camp Delta, told the media that a US squad known among the prisoners as the "Extreme Reaction Force," or "ERF," had pepper-sprayed him in the face, pinned him down and attacked him, poked their fingers in his eyes, forced his head into a toilet pan and flushed, tied him up "like a beast," dragged him out of his cell in chains, and shaved his beard, hair, and eyebrows.

At the time, some US lawmakers and British officials demanded release of the videotapes, which were confirmed to exist by Lieutenant Colonel Leon Sumpter, spokesperson for the Guantánamo Joint Task Force. Sumpter told the UK Independent that all actions by the ERF were filmed and kept in an archive.

Now, the Associated Press reports it has obtained a report written by investigators from US Southern Command in Miami, Florida detailing some twenty hours out of approximately 500 hours of videotapes involving squads called "Immediate Reaction Forces" -- also referred to as "Immediate Response Forces," or "IRF."

Help us meet the Chomsky ChallengeAccording to the AP, the report cited "several cases of physical force," some of which investigators flagged for further scrutiny over possible misconduct on the part of the IRF teams. The investigators say they did not find evidence of systemic abuse.

One of the questionable incidents was one in which "one or more" IRF team members punched a detainee "on an area of his body that seemingly would be inconsistent with striking a pressure point." According to the AP, striking certain pressure points is a sanctioned tactic for controlling prisoners.

Other incidents flagged by investigators included a guard using his knee to hit a detainee in the head, a team strapping a prisoner to a gurney for interrogation, a platoon leader repeatedly pepper spraying a detainee and then letting an IRF team into his cell, and several cases in which military personnel stripped prisoners from the waste down, according to the AP.

The report says that the stripped prisoners were taken to the "Romeo Block." This notorious area of the Guantánamo detention center was described last August in a 115-page testimonial released in August by lawyers for three former detainees Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, detailing their treatment in US custody in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay.

"We would see [detainees] go and come from Romeo," Ahmed stated in the written document. "When they went they would go fully clothed. When they came back they would only have shorts on. They told us that they would have all their clothes taken off in the cell… If the interrogators after that thought you should be allowed clothes, then you were allowed them. This appeared to be an open-ended process depending on the interrogation and the interrogators."

Rasul, Iqbal and Ahmed all said IRF teams, known to them as ERFs, mistreated them and other prisoners. All three say that ERF teams forced them to receive unknown injections.

"The ERF team would come into the cell, place us face down on the ground then putting our arms behind our backs and our legs bending backwards they would shackle us and hold us down restrained in that position whilst somebody from the medical corps pulled up my sleeve and injected me in the arm," said Ahmed. His statement continues:

They left the chains on me and then left," he continued. "The injection seemed to have the effect of making me feel very drowsy. I was left like that for a few hours with my legs and arms shackled behind me. If I tried to move my legs to get in a more comfortable position it would hurt. Eventually the ERF team came back and simply removed the shackles. I have no idea why they were giving us these injections. It happened perhaps a dozen times altogether and I believe it still goes on at the camp. You are not allowed to refuse it and you don’t know what it is for.

Shafiq described an incident in which he witnessed an ERF team assault another prisoner, Jumah Al-Dousari, who Shafiq says was mentally ill. "There were usually five people on an ERF team. On this occasion there were eight of them," recounted Shafiq in the written testimony, which continued:

When Jumah saw them coming he realized something was wrong and was lying on the floor with his head in his hands. If you’re on the floor with your hands on your head, then you would hope that all they would do would be to come in and put the chains on you. That is what they’re supposed to do.

The first man is meant to go in with a shield. On this occasion the man with the shield threw the shield away, took his helmet off, when the door was unlocked ran in and did a knee drop onto Jumah’s back just between his shoulder blades with his full weight. He must have been about 240 pounds in weight. His name was Smith. He was a sergeant E5. Once he had done that the others came in and were punching and kicking Jumah…

Jumah had had an operation and had metal rods in his stomach clamped together in the operation… [Smith] grabbed his head with one hand and with the other hand punched him repeatedly in the face. His nose was broken. He pushed his face and he smashed it into the concrete floor. All of this should be on video. There was blood everywhere. When they took him out they hosed the cell down and the water ran red with blood. We all saw it.

In a related story that broke last June, National Guard Specialist Sean Baker said he was brutally beaten by members of an IRF team during a training exercise at the Guantánamo detention center. According to Baker, he was dressed as an inmate and told to play the role of an uncooperative prisoner. Baker says that soldiers beat him so badly they gave him a traumatic brain injury because of which he now suffers from seizures. He said the soldiers only stopped brutalizing him when they realized he was an American soldier.

The recent revelations about the IRF videos follow a flood of documents, unleashed as a result of court-backed Freedom of Information Act requests, which has begun to deluge the public with proof that detainees held at Guantánamo endured severe and unreported treatment at the hands of US personnel. Added to allegations from former and current prisoners, a leaked Red Cross report and accounts of US officials speaking to the press on condition of anonymity, the videos are just another piece of evidence that torture and abuse have occurred at the prison.

There are currently an estimated 550 detainees still incarcerated at the Guantánamo prison under suspicion that they are connected to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Rights groups have been fighting the US government for more than three years to secure even the most basic civil rights for the detainees. The Bush administration has declared that those held at the base are exempt from international law and has rebuffed attempts to provide the prisoners with legal counsel and access to civilian courts to challenge their indefinite detentions. Instead, the Pentagon has set up a system of status review military tribunals, which a federal court recently found to be unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the government under the Freedom of Information Act to release all photographs and videotapes showing the treatment of prisoners in US-run detention facilities. And though a court has repeatedly told federal officials to comply with the request, the civil rights organization says it has yet to receive any of the visual materials it demanded.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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