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‘These colours don’t run’

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In his remarks to the American Enterprise Institute last week, Dick Cheney said that inmates at Guantánamo should remain imprisoned on Cuba because they are too dangerous to be incarcerated in American jails. What about the Americans arrested and jailed under the terms of the war on terror? Should they be incarcerated on Cuba, or does Cheney suppose that Americans are, regardless of what they have done, inherently less dangerous than other people and therefore don’t need to be jailed at Guantánamo?

Nor – surely – can Cheney have forgotten that immediately after 9/11, hundreds of men were rounded up by the FBI and other police forces in the US and imprisoned in high security American jails: 760 in total, 184 of whom were considered especially interesting by the authorities. Just over half of them were interred at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a former warehouse on the waterfront overlooking the harbour and the Statue of Liberty. The story was covered by the New York Times, but it was treated, mostly, as local news and carried in the ‘New York Region’ section of the paper.

Almost all of the prisoners were held for infractions of their immigration papers; without the status of citizens, they were held indefinitely and had little recourse to lawyers. None of them was waterboarded or electrocuted but many were physically abused by some of the prison guards. A favourite tactic was to blindfold a prisoner and then order him to walk forward without telling him he was going to walk into a wall. Noses bled; some presumably were broken. A T-shirt had been hung on the wall, and on it, along with the spilt blood of the prisoners, was an American flag and the words: ‘These colours don’t run.’

The wardens woke the prisoners up in the night – the lights were anyway left on to make it hard to sleep. The prisoners were regularly strip searched, and shackled at all times. Cameras monitored their every movement. Some video footage showing abuse was destroyed, but not all of it. When a group of prisoners went on hunger strike, wardens were caught on film talking about how they would ‘break’ these inmates: ‘Let’s get a team,’ the warden said. ‘Let’s go with a tube. The first guy that gets that tube shoved down his throat, they’ll be cured! We’re going hard.’ On hearing this plan of action, another warden said: ‘Outstanding!’ Then the first warden carried on where he had left off: ‘We’re going hard.’

Some had pens stuck up their rectums. All, it seems, were howled at: ‘mother fuckers’, ‘fucking Muslims’ and ‘bin Laden Junior’ were some of the names they were called. Also heard at the prison were these remarks:

  • ‘Whatever you did at the World Trade Center, we will do to you.’
  • ‘You’re never going to be able to see your family again.’
  • ‘If you don’t obey the rules, I’m going to make your life hell.’
  • ‘You’re never going to leave here.’
  • ‘You’re going to die here just like the people in the World Trade Center died.’
  • ‘Someone thinks you have something to do with the terrorist attacks, so don’t expect to be treated well.’
  • ‘Don’t ask any questions, otherwise you will be dead.’
  • ‘Put your nose against the wall or we will break your neck.’
  • ‘If you question us, we will break your neck.’
  • ‘I’m going to break your face if you breathe or move at all.’
  • ‘Shut the fuck up! Don’t pray. Fucking Muslim. You’re praying bullshit.’
  • ‘Welcome to America.’

The abuse of prisoners in Brooklyn was the subject of a Justice Department inquiry in 2003, though there was never the same furor about what happened at that prison as there was over Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram Air Force Base. ‘We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks,’  Barbara Comstock, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said of the report.

One inmate, an Egyptian, was eventually awarded $300,000 in damages, though no warden was prosecuted. Nor, for that matter, was any of these prisoners ever among those charged with terrorism, though they were all said at the time of their arrest to be highly dangerous. In the end, many were simply deported and events in Brooklyn were forgotten, though last week one of the former inmates saw his case reach the Supreme Court – he had argued that the former attorney general John Ashcroft was responsible for the abuse – only for it to be thrown out.

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