False allegations from MI5 put my clients in Guantánamo Bay and the British government has failed them abysmally

G Brent Mickum Guardian.co.uk 1/9/07

January 11th marks the confluence of two ignominious anniversaries. The first is the five-year anniversary of the opening of the notorious prison camps run by the US at the Guantánamo naval air station in Cuba. In the five years since the US started shipping prisoners from around the world to Guantánamo, approximately 99% have never been charged with any transgression, much less a crime. Approximately 400 prisoners, characterised by the Bush administration as “the worst of the worst”, have been released without charge, many directly to their families. That any prisoners have been released is due almost entirely to the outrage of the civilised world.

It is also the start of my clients’ fifth year of captivity around the world. Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, both British residents, are prisoners because British intelligence tipped off the CIA that they were travelling from the UK to Gambia and falsely described them as Islamist terrorists. We know this because in a court proceeding last year the British government produced copies of telegrams sent by MI5 to the CIA. Although the names are redacted from the documents, we know that the CIA was the recipient because the judge in the case inadvertently noted that they had been sent to the CIA. In the telegrams, MI5 provided knowingly false information to induce my clients’ arrest and subsequent rendition.

Bisher and Jamil remain prisoners because, until March of last year, Britain refused to demand their release. Then the foreign secretary made what appears to be a half-hearted request for the release of Bisher in the face of public exposure of the connections with MI5. Britain, however, still refuses to demand the release of Jamil and seven other British residents. None will ever be charged; there is no evidence in the record I have reviewed that would withstand the slightest scrutiny in any court. Moreover, the treatment of Bisher and Jamil has been so appalling, the Bush administration would never allow their story to be exposed to the world in open court. And, of course, some of that story directly implicates British officials.

Bisher and Jamil have withstood various forms of physical torture during their five years as prisoners. Both have suffered numerous beatings (Bisher suffered broken ribs and perhaps a broken foot because of beatings by guards, though both injuries went untreated – despite Bisher’s requests for medical assistance), stress positions, temperature extremes, extreme sleep deprivation, death threats, threats to family and, at various times, starvation and being denied water that was fit to drink.

It pains me to report that, at the start of his fifth year in prison, the once healthy and extremely articulate Bisher is failing. He is no longer able to withstand the most insidious form of torture being used by the US military: prolonged isolation combined with environmental manipulation that includes constant exposure to temperature extremes and sleep deprivation.

Bisher is, slowly but surely, slipping into madness. British officials have long been aware of Bisher’s treatment. To my knowledge, they have done nothing to intercede on his behalf. Until last March the British government adamantly refused to intercede on behalf of any of the British residents still interred at Guantánamo.

That changed suddenly when the government asked for Bisher’s return on non-humanitarian grounds, belatedly conceding that Bisher had worked for MI5. Unfortunately for Bisher, this long-overdue admission, and the British government’s request for his immediate repatriation, coincided with Bisher being thrown into isolation. He remains there more than nine months later, with no end in sight.

Bisher’s world is a cell 6ft by 8ft in Camp V, where alleged “non-compliant” prisoners are incarcerated. After all these years and hundreds of interrogations, Bisher finally refused to be interrogated further. Despite the fact that Guantánamo officials have publicly proclaimed that prisoners are no longer required to participate in interrogations, Bisher is deemed to be non-compliant and hence is tortured daily.

While in isolation he has, in addition to the temperature extremes, been subjected to other sensory torments. His cell is frequently unbearably cold because the air conditioning is turned up to the maximum. Sometimes his captors take his orange jump suit and sheet, leaving him only in his shorts. For a week at a time, Bisher constantly shivers and is unable to sleep because of the extreme cold. Once, when Bisher attempted to warm himself by covering himself with his prayer rug, one of the few “comfort items” permitted to him, his guards removed it for “misuse”.

Dinner never arrives before 9:30pm, and sometimes comes as late as 12am. It is almost always cold. Changes of clothing take place at midnight when prisoners are given a single, thin cotton sheet. Prisoners are unable to sleep until close to 1am. They are awakened at 5am, when each is required to return his sheet. All of Bisher’s legal documents and family photographs were seized from him last June and have never been returned.

What the British government knows and the British public needs to know is that Bisher’s treatment is designed to achieve a single objective: causing an individual to lose his psychological balance and, ultimately, his mind. Every aspect of Bisher’s prison environment is controlled and manipulated to create constant mental instability. The damage to Bisher’s psyche is not unexpected. The ravages of extended isolation and sensory deprivation leave no marks, but they destroy the mind.

I have conveyed my concerns about Bisher and Jamil to the British embassy in Washington for some time now. Most recently, I provided detailed declarations, submitted under oath, detailing Bisher’s deteriorating mental condition and his appalling treatment. Although I have been assured that great progress has been made negotiating the terms of his release, it is still uncertain and, I’m told, is at least four more months away. If Bisher spends four more months in the conditions I have described, the man I met in September 2004, who was healthy, articulate, thoughtful and humorous, will in all likelihood no longer exist. He will probably slip into a madness that is permanent. If that comes to pass, Britain must recognise and accept the grave culpability it bears.

Almost a hundred prisoners that we know of have died in US custody; 33 of these deaths are formally classified as homicides by the military. Not since the second world war, when the US imprisoned American citizens of Japanese descent, has this country experienced such a constitutional nadir.

If the world is to fight this war on terror, morality must not be allowed to become collateral damage. The time is long past for the British government to demand Bisher’s and Jamil’s immediate return. Paradigms of innocent suffering, they will remain wraiths that hover above the political and moral landscape, constantly reminding us that the destinies of those who would wage just war and those against whom that war is waged are mingled.

In the process of reasserting the moral high ground in this war, Britain must not forget to reclaim the war’s innocent victims. The victims of the United States are too innumerable to count. Britain has Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna.

George Brent Mickum is an American lawyer representing Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, British residents who are detained at Guantánamo Bay; for a longer version of this article visit commentisfree.co.uk/brent_mickum