Global Perspective

Witness to Torture

by Edward Carpenter

Determined to document alleged human rights abuses and rule-of-law violations by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor and director of legal research and writing at the University of San Francisco’s School of Law, has begun conducting video taped interviews of former detainees of the military detention center there.

Guantanamo Bay detainees
Military personnel supervise detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

Honigsberg has already completed multi-hour interviews with 16 former detainees, who ranged in ages from 16 to 50 years old when captured as part of the United State’s so-called war on terror. The interviews, some conducted in English, can be reviewed on the project's website. The detainees include Brits, Bosnians, Chinese Uyghurs, Frenchmen, a German, and an Uzbek.

Honigsberg, the author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, wants to interview about 200 of the more than 700 one-time Guantanamo detainees and is currently trying to raise funds for additional equipment and travel expenses.

Far from the hardened terrorists the U.S. military has portrayed them to be, many former detainees, as many as 90 percent, were simply ransomed to U.S. forces by neighbors who held a grudge against them or by a competing ethnic group in the region for as much as $20,000 a head, Honigsberg said.

“Before the invasion the military airdropped fliers throughout Afghanistan inviting citizens to bring in a Taliban or al Queda member for a cash reward,” Honigsberg said. “They were arrested purely for financial rewards.”

Initially interested in a Congressional truth commission to determine who was responsible for the rights abuses and law violations, Honigsberg now sees the project, which he calls Witness to Guantanamo, as an archival undertaking similar to the Shoah Foundation model, which is dedicated to documenting the Holocaust.

“Twenty years from now or 50 years from now, if people deny what happened at Guantanamo or deny it was a serious problem, we will have documented all of these human rights and rule-of-law violations,” Honigsberg said.

Whether the boys and men held at Guantanamo were terrorist or not, U.S interests lie in pursing the rule of law. “We have built our great nation on the rule of law and human rights and when we violate those we need to be held accountable,” Honigsberg said.

Accounts by the detainees he has interviewed so far confirm information found in recently released CIA documents and memos regarding intelligence strategies and techniques of torturing and otherwise mistreating detainees, Honigsberg said.

“It was very difficult to hear each man’s story,” he said. “The narratives were mesmerizing, powerful, compelling, unnerving, and heartbreaking."