The legacy of torture in Guantanamo prison lives on for detainees

The prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open. And while advocates including former detainees fight to close it down, the legacy of detention and torture live on. This is the first of a three-part series in which IDEAS producer, Naheed Mustafa, peers into the house the War on Terror built.

Guantanamo prison has receded from media attention but remains open

Since 9/11, nearly 780 Muslim men have been brought to Guantanamo prison. Thirty-nine detainees are still there and only 12 have been charged with war crimes — five of them are facing military trials. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

This is the first of a three-part series in which IDEAS producer, Naheed Mustafa, peers into the house the War on Terror built. 

*Originally published on December 3, 2021.

August 30, 2021, was touted as the end of the so-called 'war on terror' when the last American soldier left Afghanistan. The end was chaotic, deadly, filled with fear and desperation — much like how it started. 

But some of the most brutal parts of the conflict remain open, like wounds that refuse to scab: rendition, indefinite detention, and torture. The nexus of these three features of the war on terror converge at the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

Since 9/11, 779 Muslim men have been brought to Guantanamo. They were called "the worst of the worst." Thirty-nine remain imprisoned. Only 12 were ever charged and, currently, five are facing military trials.

Guantanamo represents different things to different people.

For America, it is the place where Americans decided the open embrace of torture — euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation" — was a key way to keep themselves safe. For the detainees, both those long gone and those who are still incarcerated, it is the place that snatched their freedom, brutalized them, and left them with deep scars.

Years of torture

In 2001, Moazzam Begg and his family moved to Afghanistan to do charity work. After 9/11 and the American-led invasion, he shifted his family to Pakistan. He followed soon after.

One night in February 2002, Pakistani and American agents showed up at his home and took him away. He spent a year in detention at the American base in Bagram just outside Kabul. From there, he was transported to Guantanamo. He endured years of physical and psychological torture. Eventually the British government secured his release and he returned home — uncharged — in 2005.

Begg says despite his years of travelling and meeting all kinds of people, he wasn't particularly politicized. Until his detention at Guantanamo.

'When you see what's taking place [in Guantanamo prison], people being beaten to death, people being tortured... this is not a law enforcement exercise, this is an exercise in vengeance,' former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg told IDEAS. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Like Begg, Mansoor Adayfi was also in Afghanistan on 9/11. Unlike Begg, Adayfi did not have any meaningful understanding of what happened in America on September 11, 2001. Afghanistan at the time was fairly cut off from the world and keeping up with international events wasn't a priority.

Adayfi had been sent to Afghanistan by a scholar in his native country to do some research on al-Qaeda. When the U.S. offered bounties to Afghans and Pakistanis in return for al-Qaeda and Taliban members, it created a sellers' market for possible suspects. Adayfi was kidnapped by Afghan warlords and sold to the CIA. He would go on to spend years in Guantanamo where he was repeatedly tortured, and wouldn't see freedom until 2016.

"The right not to be tortured is the most universal right that human beings have. It's comparable only to the right not to be enslaved because it is an absolute right," says Lisa Hajjar. She's a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has been studying torture long before 9/11.

U.S. military police watched detainees in a holding area during their processing at Camp X-Ray inside Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Jan. 11, 2002. (Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Department of Defense/Reuters)

Hajjar says in those early days after 9/11 she was certain the U.S. would "fight terror with torture." There were early media and human rights reports pointing to the fact that torture was happening but it was unacknowledged in official circles.

Until Abu Ghraib. 

'Irrefutable' evidence of torture policy

In April of 2004, photographs of naked prisoners being humiliated and taunted, terrified with dogs, and standing on wooden boxes with wires attached to their body were released by CBS News.

"For the first time, these photos provide irrefutable proof that the U.S. government has authorized the torture program and that the U.S. government is a torturing regime," says Hajjar. Torture had been going on since the very start at various American detention facilities — both open and secret — and the justifications for the torture program at Guantanamo "flowed back" to Afghanistan and then Iraq, adds Hajjar.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said that he was satisfied with the facility and treatment of the detainees after visiting Camp X-Ray, Jan. 27, 2002, at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Joshua S. Higgins/USMC/Getty Images)

By the time the Abu Ghraib photos were released, the prison at Guantanamo Bay had been filling up with unnamed detainees who were denied any rights. They were not deemed prisoners of war, had no access to legal help, and had no right to challenge their detentions.

In May of 2004, there were multiple hearings in the U.S. Congress which ultimately led to the release of the so-called torture memos — legal documents that outlined acceptable forms of interrogation of detainees in the war on terror.

"They proved beyond any reasonable doubt that torture was policy that had been authorized from the top. There were White House, Pentagon and Justice Department fingerprints all over the torture policy," says Hajjar. 

The United States' 9/11 torture program officially ended in January 2009 when then-president Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the torture and cruel treatment of detainees. In 2014, he openly acknowledged torture by name. 

Former U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the 'War on Terror' prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Jan. 22, 2009. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Life resembles prison

For Moazzam Begg and Mansoor Adayfi, torture and Guantanamo live on.

They both carry the scars — physical and emotional — of what was done to them but Guantanamo has also become their work. Both Begg and Adayfi campaign to have the prison shut down and both have written memoirs detailing their lives in detention.

But Mansoor Adayfi says he continues to live in a version of Guantanamo. Unlike Begg who returned to Britain after his release, Adayfi — who was also never charged — was only allowed to go to Serbia after the U.S. negotiated a deal. In Belgrade, Adayfi lives a life under constant surveillance and threat of arrest. 

Hajjar says even though the torture program has ended, torture itself remains a litmus test in America. She says the fact no one was ever held accountable for either the torture program or the torture itself and that no legal deterrence exists for future government to resurrect the program, means it remains on the table.

She points out that in 2016, Donald Trump included as part of his campaign promises, bringing back waterboarding. Hajjar says what stood in his way of actually following through was that people in the CIA and military knew the damage torture had done to their own institutions.

"They weren't willing to go along with that Trumpian agenda to reinstitute torture but there are no barriers to another president coming along and authorizing that policy in the future" 


Guests in this episode:

Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo detainee and the outreach director of the advocacy group Cage. He is the author of Enemy Combatant.

Mansoor Adayfi is a former Guantanamo detainee and the author of Don't Forget Us Here.

Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California in Santa Barbara. She's the author of the upcoming book, The War in Court: The Inside Story of the Fight against Torture in the "War on Terror."

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