The Face of Torture

*Part of a series published in the Ottawa Citizen, February, 2004*

The other patrons of the little restaurant on a side street in Cairo may have thought the young man was talking excitedly about his studies, his plans for the future, or maybe just a good party. He laughed and bounced in his seat. His round, chubby face grinned. He waved his hands in the air and dug into the dishes scattered across the table.

But Mustafa was not talking about the usual things on the mind of a 22-year-old engineering student. He was telling me about how, four months earlier, he had been tortured.

“It was exam time. I was arrested by the police. `Shanghaied,’ you could say.” He laughed. Mustafa has a fine sense of gallows humour. And a robust appetite. He bit into a chicken thigh before continuing with his story.

A gay man had been murdered and the police had investigated as they routinely do — by rounding up and interrogating every gay man they could find, Mustafa among them.

The first night, the police beat Mustafa “from 10:30 until 3 a.m.” They didn’t ask questions. They just punched, kicked and hit him with nightsticks.

The next night, the police tied his ankles together and bashed the soles of his feet with a “big, heavy stick.” Later, they tied his wrists and hung him on a door while an officer flogged him.

Mustafa held up his hands. They trembled. It happens, he said, “whenever I remember this story.”

Then, he grinned, joked about “my days of suffering and torment,” and dipped some bread into a bean paste.

I told Mustafa I had spoken with other torture victims. Some had told me it’s not so much the physical pain that haunts them, it’s the humiliation.

His smile vanished. He nodded. “I can’t forget the words.”

Over and over, the officers called him khawal, a word similar to the English “faggot” but with the full viciousness of “nigger.” “It’s really painful to hear a word like that.”

In Egypt and throughout the Arab world, it is also a serious insult to smack a person’s face, or worse, to show the sole of your shoe to a person. The worst insult is to do what so many Iraqis did to the tumbled statues of Saddam Hussein — hit the face with a shoe. One officer did this to Mustafa. It was “the worst thing,” he says. “This is something I can never forget.”

For the first time in our conversation, his eyes blurred with tears: “Nothing hurt me in these 14 days except being hit with the shoe.”

His body shook and he sobbed quietly. The interview ended.

Before I started researching torture last June, I would have been shocked by Mustafa’s suggestion that a slap with a shoe could hurt more than savage beatings, but by the time we spoke in Cairo last fall I had interviewed dozens of torture survivors in Canada and Egypt. I would speak with many more in Turkey and Uzbekistan. And what Mustafa told me was something that I had heard again and again: humiliation, degradation, confusion and helplessness. These are some of the most frightening tools of torture, and they sometimes hurt more, and torment longer, than even a whip or an electric shock.

We think we understand torture. It is about visceral torment. It is bones being pulled from sockets on the medieval rack. It is “electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills” — the crimes U.S. President George W. Bush has accused Saddam Hussein’s regime of having committed. Torture is the lashing of Maher Arar’s hands in a Syrian prison. Torture is brutal beatings, such as those suffered by William Sampson in a Saudi Arabian prison or the attack that ended in the death of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi.

We also know about what we call “psychological torture.” Isolation, sleep and food deprivation, extreme temperatures, forcing prisoners into awkward positions, constant noise, threats: These are the techniques sometimes called “stress and duress” or “torture lite.” No one denies this is tough on prisoners, but most of us see it as much less cruel than the bloodier methods.

Many commentators have even said it’s not “real” torture. In a recent cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, a prestigious American magazine, author Mark Bowden argued these supposedly gentler methods do no “lasting harm.” He prefers to call them “coercion,” reserving the word “torture” for the “more severe, traditional outrages.”

Unfortunately, most of what we think we know about torture is wrong. Science does not support it. Neither does law. As victims such as Mustafa understand only too well, torture involves something far more complex and insidious than the simple infliction of pain on the body.

“The basic goal of torture,” says Dr. Richard Mollica, a Harvard psychiatrist and a pioneer in the study of torture trauma, “is to destroy the person’s worldview, how they see the world, and their place in the world.”

Torture is an attempt to smash the self, to “break” the person. “It’s the same metaphor in every language,” says Judith Pilowsky, a Toronto psychologist who has treated hundreds of torture victims from around the world. “I’m broken. I’m destroyed, I’m nobody, I’m nothing.”

In reality, all torture is “psychological torture.” All torture targets the mind. Physical pain is simply one method of attacking the mind, and, as Mustafa’s breakdown showed, it is sometimes not even the most effective method.

Ugly as torture may be, we cannot look away. The cases of Maher Arar, William Sampson, and Zahra Kazemi show Canadians abroad are not immune. And there are tens of thousands of victims of torture living in Canada as refugees.

The war on terror has also pushed torture on to the public agenda. Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, influential voices have been insisting that in certain cases torture is morally justified. Many news reports suggest American officials, directly or through other governments, have interrogated terrorism suspects with chilling methods that may well amount to torture.

This series will examine who becomes a torturer and why, how victims are helped to overcome the lasting damage, and the international fight against torture.

It will also delve into one of the most troubling questions of our time: Is torture sometimes justified? Should we fight terror with torture?

We are at a critical moment, says Malcolm Evans, a professor of international law at the University of Bristol and an expert on torture. During the 19th century, torture declined rapidly across the western world, only to surge back to life after the First World War _ even in proudly civilized countries that had buried it in the past. In the last 40 years, torture has again been beaten steadily back. “We’ve rather got used to it moving in one direction. But we’ve got to bear in mind that it can move in the other direction,” says Evans. “It is at our peril that we ignore the ease of moving in this other direction, and the temptations to do so.”

*

Torture is a crime like few others. Like genocide and slavery, international law deems the repugnance of torture to be so universally held that the law considers torture to be criminal even in countries that have not signed international anti-torture conventions. Torture is also a crime of “universal jurisdiction,” so torture committed in one country can be tried and punished in any country.

The 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT), which Canada, the United States, Britain and most other countries have signed, also requires states to make torture a crime under domestic law. States are obliged to investigate allegations of torture and punish offenders. The CAT further declares that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

In effect, this means torture is a crime everywhere and always.

And yet torture flourishes. Between 1997 and 2000, Amnesty International received reports of torture in 150 countries. “That’s over three-quarters of the world’s states,” notes Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. “And in about half of those states, we weren’t just talking about the occasional report of torture here or there, we were talking about torture being systematic and pervasive throughout the country — that the ordinary course of affairs was that torture takes place.”

We often think the victims are political dissidents, and that is often the case in more than 70 countries, according to Amnesty International. But in more than 130 countries, victims include ordinary criminals, suspects and even witnesses. Ethnic minorities are often singled out. So are homosexuals and transvestites. “And, perhaps most shocking of all,” says Neve, “we discovered that in 50 states, that’s over one-quarter of the nations on this planet, children were being tortured. Children.”

Torture is sometimes used to force victims to divulge information or extract confessions. It’s commonly used to intimidate others into silence or submission. Often, it’s used because officials are lazy and torture is easy.

There is an endless variety of torture techniques. In India, torturers rub chili powder into the genitals. In Angola, torturers force prisoners to puff up their cheeks with air, then slap them hard to rupture their eardrums. In Bolivia, they force the heads of prisoners into a metal container that they beat like a drum. In the Middle East, a standard method known as “Palestinian hanging” involves tying the victim’s hands behind his back and suspending him by his wrists. In Myanmar, a technique called “the iron road” calls for the victim’s shinbones to be rubbed with an iron bar until the skin peels off.

But if brutal acts were all there is to torture, international law would simply list forbidden acts. There is no such list. In part, that’s because such a list would be “simply an invitation to invent another (act) that isn’t quite on the list,” says Malcolm Evans, a professor of international law at the University of Bristol in England and an expert on torture. But it’s also because international law recognizes that torture is about much more than physical brutality.

Instead of the torturer’s act, the law focuses on the victim’s pain. The Convention Against Torture says torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” It must also be committed by officials and be done with some purpose, such as forcing a confession or intimidating others.

This means the law makes no distinction between physical or psychological anguish and places no limits on what can be considered torture: Anything that produces “severe pain or suffering” is torture, no matter how benign it may appear to an observer. Being smacked in the face with a shoe may not sound as awful as being beaten or flogged but, as Mustafa, a gay 22-year-old engineering student in Cairo told me, in certain circumstances it can actually be more hurtful. The law recognizes this complex reality.

Torture methods and results vary from country to country, but Turkey’s experience offers insight of universal value. Turkish police and soldiers have a long, black history of torture, but in the past several years the Turkish government has introduced numerous reforms to suppress torture and punish offenders. Growing numbers of victims have come forward, often going to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, a non-governmental group that provides treatment to victims in five centres across the country. The foundation’s annual surveys of victims provide the clearest look behind the closed doors of the torture chambers.

In 2001, 894 victims applied for help. Three-quarters were male. Victims complained of 32 forms of torture and cruelty, the most common methods being beatings and verbal humiliation — with nine in 10 patients saying they had suffered both. The rarest was rape, at less than three per cent — a number experts know is understated because victims commonly cannot bring themselves to say they were raped.

Other methods included electric shock, strangulation, squeezed testicles, burns inflicted with cigarettes or lighters, death threats, threats against relatives, loud music, blindfolding, being stripped naked and sprayed with freezing water, restricting sleep or access to a toilet, and solitary confinement.

Most victims experienced an array of methods. Out of the 894 surveyed, only 26 suffered just one technique, while 118 experienced three methods or fewer. Almost half the victims were subjected to six or more. A majority of victims — 443 — experienced 11 methods or more.

This underscores a critical fact: Far from being a single act, torture is typically a complex mix of methods. Purely physical torments are blended with the strictly psychological and some others that are both. Any line we imagine between the physical and the psychological dissolves and becomes meaningless for the victim.

“We don’t separate physical or psychological or sexual torture because they all go together,” says Dr. Sebnem Korur-Fincanci, president of the department of forensic medicine in Istanbul Medical University and a leading expert in the detection of torture.

Torturers, too, see a unity in their work. “One guy said it’s like being a psychologist because they have to probe,” says Phil Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, about a Brazilian torturer he interviewed for the book Violence Workers. The Brazilians used a wide range of methods, from the bloody to the cerebral. Which they chose depended on what they saw in the victim. “What is the weakness of this individual? What kind of torture do you use, how much do you use? If you use the wrong kind for a particular person, or not enough, you don’t get the information. If you use too much, you kill him. So it becomes an intellectual game.”

This “intellectual game” often begins with a blindfold or a hood — not for security, but to confuse and disorient. They are also useful during beatings: The victim doesn’t know when or where the next blow will land so he cringes and waits, an uncertainty that can torment more than the hit itself.

To add to the confusion, sleep is forbidden or interrupted. Food is restricted to exhaust the prisoner and meals arrive at odd intervals so he cannot judge time. Cells are windowless and kept in constant darkness or light, so prisoners can’t tell day from night. Often, victims are kept alone in cold cells with nothing but confusion and fear to occupy their minds — just as Canadian Maher Arar was kept in a tiny underground cell in Syria he called a “grave.”

Guards shout senseless orders that cannot be obeyed. Interrogators ask questions that cannot be answered — a technique the CIA calls “Alice in Wonderland.”

Victims are plucked from their cells and tortured at strange hours. Nothing is routine. “If you are tortured in a very organized manner, such as they beat you up at 3 o’clock every day, you are able to tolerate the stress of the torture better than if you don’t know when it’s going to happen,” says Judith Pilowsky, a Toronto psychologist who has treated hundreds of torture victims. “Many people say that worse than the torture is waiting and not knowing when you’re going to be tortured.”

Ahmet Pammer, a Turkish criminal lawyer, says that when he was arrested in 1994, he was “severely tortured.” His arms were tied behind his back and he was suspended by his wrists. His testicles were grabbed and twisted. He was savagely beaten. But worst than the pain, he says, was waiting for the pain. And the hideous relief he sometimes felt when guards walked by. “When I was in my cell, I would hear them coming and think they were coming for me. But when they opened the next door and took another man to torture, I felt better. It was not a human thing to feel.”

In the Turkish survey, almost two-thirds of victims had been blindfolded or hooded; half had been put in an isolated cell; 40 per cent had been deprived of sleep; one-third had been given nonsense orders.

So profound is the confusion that can be inflicted on torture victims that afterward they usually cannot say how long they were held. In dozens of interviews in four countries, every victim told me they had been held for “around” or “about” some time. Even those imprisoned for just a few days couldn’t be sure how long their suffering went on.

Helplessness is another feeling drilled into torture victims. You are alone, they are told. You are forgotten, powerless, nothing. No one will believe what you say. There is nothing you can do.

Torturers use arbitrary cruelty to demonstrate their absolute power. Attila, a 36-year-old Turk involved in leftist politics, was first arrested by security police in 1994. He was blindfolded and beaten. An officer sat down and gently told Attila to relax, it had ended, everything would be fine. “Then I was beaten again.”

Writing in the National Post, Canadian William Sampson, who was tortured in a Saudi prison, described how, “during the brief respites from the beatings, I could hear the screams of others, including the screams of women.” This was almost certainly not an accident. Torturers routinely work within earshot, or within sight, of other victims.

Dr. Korur-Financi says Turkish torturers sometimes make victims “listen to cries. They tell them, we are torturing your friends. We are torturing your family member. But there is no one that is tortured. It is only a tape recording.”

This isn’t done simply to terrify prisoners. Most people have a natural instinct to help others in distress and being unable to help someone in agony, especially a woman or a child, inflicts a debilitating sense of helplessness, says Dr. Vincent Iacopino, director of research with Physicians for Human Rights. “Sometimes the worst reactions are produced by the helplessness people feel witnessing other people’s torture.”

Forty per cent of Turkish victims were forced to watch or listen as others were tortured.

Sometimes the goal of what appears to be physical torture is not pain, but helplessness. The Israeli technique of tiltulim, for example, which involves seizing the prisoner by the shoulders and shaking him hard, was designed not to cause physical harm but to dominate the prisoner. (Only after a prisoner died following this treatment was it determined that tiltulim causes the brain to slam into skull and bleed, as it does in shaken-baby syndrome.)

Threats are a staple of torture. Threats to inflict worse pain; threats to hurt another prisoner; threats to torture friends or family. The most terrifying threat is mock execution, in which prisoners are told they are to be executed and taken right to the point where a trigger is pulled but only a thin click is heard. Experts who treat victims agree that even though there is no physical pain involved, mock executions are among the most psychologically devastating tortures.

Among the Turkish victims, three-quarters had been personally threatened. One-third had been threatened with the torture of relatives. Almost one in seven had been subjected to mock executions.

Attila has experienced the extremes of both physical pain and helplessness and has no doubt as to which hurt more.

When he was arrested a second time, in 1995, the police did everything from burning him with cigarettes to binding his hands behind his back and suspending him by his wrists. At one point, while Attila was naked and blindfolded, his head was shoved into a barrel of filthy water and, as his lungs burned for air, he was sodomized with a nightstick.

It was a nightmare, Attila says, and yet it wasn’t the worst torture he would experience. That happened in 1996, when Attila was safe at home.

Attila’s sister took her three-year-old daughter to a demonstration, was arrested and beaten in front of the little girl. The police also threatened to beat the toddler. Being told this and knowing he could do nothing, Attila says, “was much worse” than anything the police had ever done to his body. “I always knew I could be arrested and tortured. I wasn’t surprised. But a child being harmed is a different thing. I was affected very, very badly. I was hurt.”

Common as confusion and helplessness are, the weapon of choice among torturers is humiliation. Torture without physical pain happens; torture without humiliation is unthinkable.

“All of our clients discuss humiliation,” says Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, a Minnesota-based organization that has treated more than 1,000 patients. “One of the key factors within torture, in terms of trying to destroy the personality of the victim, is very intense, thought-out forms of humiliation. And those things stay in people’s nightmares. They destroy their self-esteem. That’s what bothers people more than anything else. The shame, the humiliation.”

Just how deeply humiliation cuts depends on the person, says Dr. Onder Ozkalipci, a Turkish physician and a co-author of the United Nations guidelines for the detection and treatment of torture. But victims like Mustafa, who are hurt far more by humiliation than pain, are fairly common. “Sometimes a person can be beaten for several days but at one point a policeman swears at him and he never forgets that. He forgets the physical torture but not that. We’ve heard hundreds of stories like this.”

Judith Pilowsky often asks victims to select the worst thing that was done to them. They often point to a degrading act. “I recall a woman who was with her husband. They were Roma (Gypsy). They were beaten by a group of skinheads. They were beaten quite badly. Then, she was raped by about 10 guys. Then, they urinated on them, after all this. And as strange as it sounds, (being urinated on) was the worst part.”

Insults are ubiquitous. Victims are peppered with petty slurs and torments — such as being forced to crawl on hands and knees, make animal noises or lick boots. In the mid-1970s in Northern Ireland, writes John Conroy in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, police “humiliated suspects by forcing them to eat mucus from an interrogator’s nose, by riding them as if they were horses, by covering their heads with soiled underwear.”

Sex is a standard tool of degradation. Men are routinely called faggot, their genitals fondled, and they are penetrated in the anus with a variety of objects. Sexual degradation is even more common among female victims. “When women are tortured, the first thing that torturers do is to call them whores and hookers and every variation on derogatory terms that have to do with sexuality,” says Pilowsky.

What people find humiliating varies by culture and personal belief, and torturers tailor their degradation accordingly. Prisoners are more likely to be stripped naked in places nudity is particularly shameful, for example. Turkey is one such country: Two in five victims reported being stripped.

Transsexuals are persecuted in Turkey and the police often torment them by forcibly shaving their heads: Long hair is a symbol of femininity and cutting it off is a potent assault on the victim’s sense of identity.

For the same reason, Egyptian officials shave the beards of Islamists because they know Islamists consider beards to be a religious obligation and therefore a core statement of identity. Turkish officers do the same, says Dr. Ozkalipci. The police claim it’s done for hygienic reasons but Dr. Ozkalipci is sure “they just want to humiliate them. They just want to show their power.”

Islamists also follow a strict code of masculinity, so Egyptian guards make sexual comments about them and give them women’s names. These acts look trivial to an outsider, but that’s not how they are experienced. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, was among hundreds of Islamists tortured in Egypt after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. He later told a newspaper that the “despicable methods” used on the Islamists included electrocution, bone-breaking, the stripping of skin and “call(ing) men with women’s names.” (Many who knew al-Zawahiri feel this experience radicalized him; after his release, he joined the jihad in Afghanistan, where he met bin Laden.)

Wretched prison conditions are another means of humiliation. Omar, a 33-year-old Egyptian, recalls being locked up in the holding cell of a Cairo police station so crowded “people were standing pressed up against each other. You could not even sit down. I stayed in there for a long time. I don’t know how long, about 10 or 15 days. No food. No water. And there was no toilet. The bathroom was a hole outside the cell, a filthy shit hole that makes you feel like you want to throw up. You wouldn’t send cattle to such a bathroom.” Even worse, Omar says, access to the toilet was restricted. “You had to beg to go.” Prisoners struggled to contain themselves; some failed and urinated and defecated where they stood, unable even to clean themselves.

Refusing to let prisoners go to the toilet is standard practice among torturers; half the victims in the Turkish survey suffered this way. Not only is it physically painful, it allows the torturer to become the all-powerful parent and reduces the prisoner to a pleading toddler, while those who soil themselves are degraded by living in their own filth.

Many courts and commissions around the world have dealt with allegations of torture, a task that requires them to understand the complex realities of torture and enforce the law’s blanket prohibition of anything that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” In doing so, they have often come to conclusions that upend popular assumptions about torture.

Perhaps most importantly, it is now clear that there does not have to be a bloody act to be torture. Indeed, there doesn’t have to be any physical contact at all. A landmark case from more than two decades ago involved the concert pianist Miguel Estrella. Kidnapped by Uruguayan officers in Montevideo, Estrella was repeatedly shown a saw and told he would have his hands cut off. The threat that was never carried out but the UN Human Rights Committee still declared it to be torture.

Sleep deprivation can also be a component of torture. But more than that, sleep deprivation alone “may in some cases constitute torture,” according to the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Prison conditions, too, can contribute to a finding of torture, or, in extreme cases, can by themselves amount to torture — as UN bodies concluded after inspecting squalid prisons in Russia and Peru.

Isolation has also contributed to findings of torture. And in the case of a Peruvian prison where prisoners were kept in severe isolation with almost no chance to communicate with the outside world, isolation alone was deemed to have caused “persistent and unjustified suffering which amounts to torture,” according to the UN Committee Against Torture.

In every case, context is critical. If a police officer threatens to brutalize someone, for example, it won’t qualify as torture if the threat is made on a busy street in a society where the police are closely supervised and torture is rare; but the same threat may well be torture if it is made to a naked, handcuffed prisoner held incommunicado in a society where police brutality is common. All the surrounding facts — not just isolated acts — have to be considered.

This approach to spotting torture can change things dramatically. Consider the allegations Maher Arar has made about his mistreatment while held by the Syrian government. Few would dispute that the physical assaults he endured — including a beating while being driven to prison and repeated lashings on the palms of his hands — amount to torture.

But what if those assaults had not happened? In the popular view, that would mean there was no torture. But Maher says that during the early part of his imprisonment he was held between interrogations alone in a tiny underground cell. He was also held incommunicado and given no idea when, or if, he would ever be released. If these circumstances were designed by Syrian officials to pressure Arar to confess, as seems likely, there is little doubt they alone would constitute torture under international law.

Then there’s the urgent issue of the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

-ot long after the camps opened, pictures of Guantanamo inmates shackled, hooded and deafened by earmuffs led many around the world to accuse the United States of torture. But the American military insisted the pictures were of prisoners being transported from Afghanistan to the camp and that the measures were for security purposes only. If that’s true — and it seems these measures are not ordinarily used inside the camps — this wasn’t torture under international law.

Malcolm Evans and other critics think there’s reason to worry about torture at Guantanamo, but on very different grounds. “Although it doesn’t equate in many people’s minds with what you would call an act of torture, purposive, long, solitary confinement can be of a torturous nature when it is designed in order to extract information. On that basis, one could say that the entire setup around Guantanamo Bay is a form of torture in itself.”

Guantanamo is a “legal black hole,” Lord Johan Steyn, one of Britain’s top judges, said in a recent speech. The United States has declared that the prisoners are not prisoners of war and thus are not entitled to prisoner-of-war protections. And the camps were placed in Guantanamo precisely because the Cuban enclave is outside the jurisdiction of American courts. “The purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law, beyond the protection of any courts, and at the mercy of victors,” Lord Steyn said.

Although an American court recently ruled that American judges do have jurisdiction over Guantanamo, that decision was a surprise and it is being appealed to the Supreme Court where many observers expect it will be overturned.

Lord Steyn also noted that the procedural rules in the Presidential Order empowering military trials of the Guantanamo prisoners “do not prohibit the use of force to coerce prisoners to confess. On the contrary, the rules expressly provide that statements made by a prisoner under physical and mental duress are admissible ‘if the evidence would have value to a reasonable person,’ that is, military officers trying enemy soldiers.”

When critics like Evans look at the conditions of Guantanamo, they see a whole apparatus designed to create “mental duress.” According to Ted Conover, a journalist who has visited the Guantanamo camps, the cells are made out of steel shipping containers with the sides cut out and replaced by wire mesh. Each cell measures six feet, eight inches wide by eight feet long. Prisoners are released from these cells two or three times a week for 15 minutes of exercise in a large cage where they can play soccer. They are also removed for interrogations. Beyond that, they spend every hour of every day alone in their cells.

Prisoners’ beards are shaved, contrary to the tenets of their faith. They are also shocked to see they are guarded by female soldiers.

Detainees often cannot communicate with prisoners in the cells next to them because they do not speak the same language and they have only rare opportunities to communicate with those outside the camp. Some have been at Guantanamo for more than two years.

Prisoners have no idea if the physical and legal limbo in which they are suspended will ever end. They have not been charged with crimes, but they have been told that at some unspecified time in the future, they may be charged and tried in a military trial that could end in conviction and execution. In the meantime, they sit in their cages and wait.

In a rare public statement in January, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only non-governmental organization permitted to inspect the Guantanamo prisoners, “lamented the fact that two years after the first detainees arrived at Guantanamo, and despite repeated pleas, they are still facing seemingly indefinite detention beyond the rule of the law.”

In an August statement, the Red Cross said it had found “a worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number” of detainees. At the time, there had been 32 suicide attempts.

In its defence, the American military has pointed to the good medical care and food the detainees receive, as well as the fact that they are permitted to practise their religion. A definitive conclusion would clearly require a forum capable of demanding and considering all available evidence. But with the United States having put Guantanamo beyond the bounds of any legal authority, there is no such forum.

This has angered many observers the world over. “At present we are not meant to know what is happening at Guantanamo Bay,” Lord Steyn said. “But history will not be neutered. What takes place there today in the name of the United States will assuredly, in due course, be judged at the bar of informed international opinion.”

Judge Richard Goldstone, a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, was even more scathing in an interview with the BBC. “Certainly the democratic world regards (Guantanamo) now as a great injustice and I’ve no doubt that history will judge it to be that. I do indeed believe that a future American president will have to apologize for Guantanamo Bay.”