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Five years of Camp X-Ray: Why are two British residents still in Guantanamo Bay?
Because the UK will not let them home to join their families despite accepting they have spent four years in jail for no reason...
An extraordinary legal wrangle has left two men with British families languishing for four years in Camp X-Ray, where they are at breaking point

London Independent | January 7, 2007
Marie Woolf

Two British residents left languishing for years in Guantanamo Bay despite being charged with no offence are suffering such serious health problems their lawyers warn they may never recover.

Bisher al-Rawi, who is locked in solitary confinement in a 6ft by 8ft cell, is gradually "losing his mind" and is in danger of irreparable damage to his mental state after five years of incarceration and torture.

On the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay this week, lawyers acting for two UK residents are to warn the Foreign Secretary that the psychological deterioration of Mr al-Rawi is so serious that he may be unrecognisable as the "same person" unless he is swiftly released. His friend Jamil el Banna, who was seized with him five years ago by the CIA, is diabetic and, because he does not receive an appropriate diet, is beginning to lose his sight.

The men, known in Guantanamo as prisoners number 905 and 906, have not been charged with an offence and are not deemed enough of a security risk to be incarcerated in the UK or even for a control order to be imposed. Indeed, Mr al-Rawi was trusted enough to be recruited by MI5. While British citizens in Guantanamo Bay have returned to the UK, these two have been left in limbo. Ministers argue they have no responsibility to bring them back to the UK because, although their families are British and they have lived here for years, they do not hold UK passports.

Yesterday senior politicians said it breached the men's human rights to keep them in Guantanamo Bay. Sir Menzies Campbell, whose request to see the prison's conditions has been refused, said: "Guantanamo Bay violates every accepted principle of law. It is not enough for the Prime Minister and government ministers belatedly to condemn Guantanamo; they must accept their moral responsibility towards those British residents who have been left to languish."

This week MPs will argue the two Britons should be returned to their families in the UK to face any charges against them. In a Commons debate tomorrow, Ed Davey MP will call on the US to give the UK residents a fair trial.

"If the British government doesn't act urgently to meet its moral obligations there is a danger there won't be much left of Bisher al-Rawi to bring home," said Mr Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton. "He is in a horrendous situation and all his rights have been chucked out of the window."

After five years of imprisonment, Mr al-Rawi's mental health has deteriorated to such an extent he now talks to himself constantly. Lawyers who have visited the 39-year-old Iraqi citizen say that his behaviour verges on hysteria and fear he may be losing his grip on reality. Jamil el Banna, who is in a lower-security wing, suffers from excruciating pains in his leg and his eyesight is beginning to fail because the US authorities refuse to give him extra salad in his diet.

For the MPs and lawyers campaigning to have the men returned to their families in Britain, it is hardly surprising that they are suffering extreme trauma. Both men were snatched five years ago by the CIA while on a business trip to Gambia. After a tip-off by MI5, they were arrested by Gambian authorities in 2002 and taken on a secret CIA flight to the Dark Prison in Kabul by masked Americans who claimed they were from "the embassy".

Once in Afghanistan they were beaten, starved and held in 24-hour darkness. The men were played heavy metal music at deafening volumes. Like many Guantanamo inmates, they can recite the lyrics of Eminem and Metallica.

While in Kabul they were manacled and chained to the wall and even had their clothes cut off. They were then flown to Guantanamo, where they have been kept in outdoor cages, shackled and blindfolded, and subjected to sustained isolation and sleep deprivation. Mr al-Rawi was beaten up so badly by the guards that his ribs were broken.

Since last March Mr al-Rawi has been held in solitary confinement in the notorious Camp V, which is cut off from the rest of the prison. In his tiny cell, the lights are kept on 24 hours a day and the men are kept in solitary confinement and under constant camera surveillance. They have no human contact except with guards who escort them to the shower. They are shackled, manacled, blindfolded and made to wear ear muffs if they are moved for interrogation ­ which is known, euphemistically in Guantanamo, as " reservation".

But despite the constant questioning, and evidence against them provided by the UK security services, neither man has been charged with plotting any crime. Mr el Banna is considered so low a security risk he was permitted last year to talk for an hour by phone to his wife in London. Mr al-Rawi, far from acting as a threat to Britain, even received a visit from an MI5 officer in Guantanamo who told him he had not come to interrogate him but to say hello.

The detainees came to the attention of the British authorities because they were friendly with the radical cleric Abu Qatada, who is in custody and is seen by some as a key operative in al-Qa'ida. Both men admitted to being close to the radical cleric, but they insist their relationship was social. Lawyers who have seen classified evidence against them say there are no valid grounds for their detention. They believe any evidence against them would be thrown out in court. The main evidence that they are "enemy combatants" is the existence of an electronic device in their luggage which turned out to be a battery recharger sold at Argos which had been modified so it was waterproof.

"Britain handed them over to the US to be tortured and held without trial. They now have it within their power to have these men released," said Sarah Teather, MP for Brent East. Mr el Banna is one of her constituents.

Air conditioning is also shut off for up to a week at a time, subjecting the prisoners to temperatures of up to 95F with no fresh air. At other times the air conditioning is blasted at maximum so that the prisoners freeze with only a single sheet to cover them. When Mr al-Rawi attempted to cover himself in his prayer mat for warmth, it was removed for "misuse".

"My fear is that if Mr al-Rawi is not released imminently from prison or at least from Guantanamo's Camp V, he will no longer be Mr al-Rawi," said Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer with the campaign group Reprieve. "My concern is that they will not bring him home until he is very mentally damaged."

Before he was taken to Guantanamo the 39-year-old was described as a humorous and good-natured "playboy". The great-great-grandson of a former prime minister of Jordan, he came from a privileged family background and attended Millfield public school and London University, where he studied engineering but dropped out before graduating. He was born in Iraq but fled to Britain with his family aged 14 after his father was arrested and tortured by Saddam Hussein's regime.

He was open about his friendship with Abu Qatada and acted as a translator and a go-between for MI5, delivering messages given to him by agents and collecting information about his views for the service. But when his brother asked to go into business with him he leapt at the chance. With Jamil el Banna he devised plans to start to a mobile peanut oil factory in Gambia. It was on a trip to the West African state to establish the plant that he was seized.

Mr el Banna does not come from as privileged a background as his friend. A Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, he sold cars at auction and is said to be a devoted family man. His five children, the youngest of whom he has never met, eagerly await his return from their north London home and write regularly to their father. But their statements such as "I love you daddy" are taken out by the US censors.

Although Mrs el Banna has worked hard to shield her children from the truth about Guantanamo, it is clear that Anas, aged 10, is well aware of what happened to the father who disappeared from his life when he was five. " They just kidnapped him and took him to Guantanamo, just because he never had the English passport. Everybody has to know that my dad went to jail for no reason," he said. "He always writes in the letters 'I just want to come back'. I tell him I like maths and computer and that I love him."

Ironically, the Americans say that the two men could in theory be released, but they argue they must be watched constantly by the security services if they return to Britain. In informal talks the UK is believed to have said it would be disproportionate to implement such stringent measures because the two men do not impose a sufficient security risk.

"We are not making representations on their behalf. They are not British citizens," said a Foreign Office spokesman. "We have no locus to make consular representations on their behalf."

A day in the life of Bisher al-Rawi

5am The prisoner is woken by guards banging on his cell door. The lights have been on through the night. The prisoner is told to return his cotton sheet, which he will not get back until nightfall.

8am The guards pass his daily ration of 15 sheets of toilet paper through a slot in the door. They are instructed not to talk, adding to the sensory deprivation.

9am Mr al-Rawi is served the first meal of the day: eggs, potatoes and water.

9.30am He is told to return the tray and plastic spoon through the slot.

11.30am Twice a week, the prisoner gets a rare treat: a shower. He is allowed out of his cell after being shackled and manacled and is taken to the shower by a guard. He is issued with a small piece of soap and watched at all times. He is allowed precisely five minutes.

12.30pm A lunch of cold halal chicken is passed through the slot in the door. No hot food has been allowed for the past five years. The plastic utensil is passed back through the door after 30 minutes.

3pm If he is lucky, this is the day for the prisoner's weekly letter writing session. He is issued with the internal part of a miniature Biro pen through the door. Again, the transaction will be carried out in silence.

3.30pm After 30 minutes, the slot on the door reopens and the prisoner is told to hand back the pen and paper. The letter is edited before being despatched.

5pm Mr al-Rawi hears neighbouring prisoners being taken to the exercise yard, but he will not be joining them, as part of the policy of denying him any social contact.

6pm A cold meal is passed through the door slot.

7pm The prisoner usually spends the next three hours pacing the 6ft by 8ft cell, talking to himself.

10pm The slot on the door opens for the final time of the day. He is issued with a sheet, but no blanket, and prepares his bedding on an inch-thick foam mattress.

Midnight The library cart rattles past cells but Mr al-Rawi is not allowed reading material, except a copy of the Koran.

1am The prisoner settles down to sleep. The fluorescent lamp in the ceiling will glare down all night.

 


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