Conditions at Guantánamo Are Cruel and Inhuman, U.N. Investigation Finds

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The last 30 detainees at Guantánamo Bay, including the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks, are being held by the United States under circumstances that constitute “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” a United Nations Human Rights investigator said on Monday.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, a law professor in Minnesota serving as special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, included the finding in a report drawn from a four-day visit to the prison in February, which included meetings with an undisclosed number of detainees and interviews with lawyers and former prisoners. She issued the report one month before her term as rapporteur ends.

She specifically cited the cumulative effects of inadequate health care, solitary confinement, restraints and use of force to remove prisoners from their cells as contributing to her conclusions. She said the conditions at the prison “may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”

Ms. Aolain was the first United Nations investigator to be granted access to the detention center in its two-decade history. She said in an interview that she met with a cross section of the 34 prisoners who were there in February, including former C.I.A. detainees who are facing criminal charges and others who have been approved for transfer to other nations. Today, 30 remain.

As part of her mandate, Ms. Aolain also met with families of the victims of terrorism.

The report called the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, “a crime against humanity.” But Ms. Aolain pointedly called the United States and its use of torture on the men now facing criminal charges at Guantánamo Bay “the single most significant barrier to fulfilling victims’ rights to justice and accountability.”

The torture, she said, “was a betrayal of the rights of victims” of the 9/11 attacks.

In response, the Biden administration released a one-page defense of the detention operation saying that current detainees at the Pentagon prison “live communally and prepare meals together; receive specialized medical and psychiatric care; are given full access to legal counsel; and communicate regularly with family members.”

The report highlighted the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a former aide to Osama bin Laden who is serving a life sentence “in isolation, raising serious concerns of solitary confinement in contravention of international law.” The prison intends to put him near other detainees four hours a day, the report said, but may not adhere to that plan.

Ms. Aolain offered the latest in mounting international criticism of health care provided to the detainees, particularly the inadequacy of facilities at the base to treat “an aging, vulnerable population” and the absence of “comprehensive holistic torture rehabilitation.”

She urged the United States to establish an independent, civilian health care program for prisoners who were tortured by the United States.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other prisoners accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks are making a similar demand in negotiations that were initiated more than a year ago by prosecutors, who proposed that the men would plead guilty in exchange for life in prison, rather than face a death penalty trial.

Ms. Aolain said detainees have permanent disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, chronic pain — including joint, gastrointestinal and urinary issues — as well as untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. She blamed torture and rendition programs for some of the medical issues. She attributed some of them to long-term detention, hunger striking and forced feeding at Guantánamo Bay.

Ms. Aolain’s visit was the first known visit to the prison infrastructure by an independent observer since the detention center’s staff dismantled media relations in April 2019.

Until this year, successive U.S. administrations had given only the Red Cross and defense lawyers access to the facility and to talk to the prisoners. The Biden administration offered the rapporteur a visit as part of an initiative to more actively engage with U.N. human rights investigative bodies.

The report criticized the United States for failing to provide trauma treatment and ensure the rights of the more than 700 former Guantánamo prisoners. Most have been repatriated although some, mostly Yemenis, were sent to other countries for resettlement.

She described the released prisoners as stigmatized by their detention, in some cases deprived of basic human rights and requiring reparations. She also urged reparations for the current detainees and victims of terrorism, particularly the children of Sept. 11 victims, saying they should be permitted to pursue financial, educational and trauma support as remedies that a surviving parent may have waived.

The White House did not issue a response to Ms. Aolain’s remarks on Monday. But President Biden released a statement noting that it was the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and declaring the United States’ “opposition to all forms of inhumane treatment and our commitment to eliminating torture and assisting torture survivors as they heal and in their quests for justice.”

Mr. Biden criticized torture in Russia, Syria and North Korea, adding, “I call on all nations around the world to join me in supporting rehabilitation and justice for torture survivors and in taking action to eliminate torture and inhumane treatment for good.”

Ms. Aolain, however, pointedly argued that the United States had an obligation to address its legacy of torture. “There is no statute for limitations on torture,” she said. “Those who perpetrated it, engaged in it, concealed it … remain liable for the entirety of their lives.”

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