Theater of pain

UC Davis scholar leads effort to catalog civil-rights abuses at Guantánamo Bay

According to UC Davis professor Almerindo Ojeda, we must first acknowledge the abuses at Guantánamo Bay in order not to repeat them.

According to UC Davis professor Almerindo Ojeda, we must first acknowledge the abuses at Guantánamo Bay in order not to repeat them.

Photo By GAbor mereg

For more information about the work done by the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas and to access the center’s Guantánamo Testimonials Project, visit

From the very beginning of its use as a detention camp in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, legal and moral issues have surrounded the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Now that the U.S. government has announced its intention to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in federal court, the issue of torture is once again about to take center stage.

That suits UC Davis linguistics professor Almerindo Ojeda just fine.

Ojeda is director of the university’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas. Since 2005, the center has been documenting the testimonials of prisoners held at the U.S. Navy base. It’s the hope of the scholars involved with the center—a group that includes professors in a variety of disciplines—that the Guantánamo Testimonials Project will make continued ignorance of human-rights abuses that occurred at the U.S. military base in Cuba inexcusable.

“There’s nothing worse than willful ignorance,” Ojeda said, over coffee in a Davis cafe. “If you want to remain ignorant of what is going on, of what has happened at Guantánamo, it’s quite possible. But it shouldn’t be.”

Scholars affiliated with the project collect data from military records, legal briefs, news articles and live interviews. From this information, testimonies are culled from prisoners, defense attorneys, prosecutors and military personnel, then posted on the center’s public Web site. Recently, the group interviewed former detainees living in the Sudan via video conference, using a former UC Davis student from the Sudan as a translator.

“We document and research,” Ojeda said. “The question is, why aren’t we hearing these stories? Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a situation similar to that which occurred in Germany in the 1930s, where people say, ‘Oh, if we only knew what was going on, we’d have done something to stop it.’ But they didn’t want to know what was happening.”

Ojeda describes the project as “the type of work that journalists do, or should do.” He noted that many Americans want to avoid any information about U.S. actions that might put the nation in a bad light. His sense is that “the general view, among the public, is that Guantánamo needs to be closed—but because of the bad press, not because it was wrong to operate it this way.”

With the upcoming trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times and subsequently confessed to a multitude of terrorist acts, more bad news is certainly on the way. The extensive use of “interrogation techniques” such as sleep deprivation, loud music and waterboarding on Mohammed and other suspected terrorists could make it difficult to obtain convictions in open court.

It didn’t have to be this way.

“If we were following our own Constitution—forget about the Geneva Conventions—if we were just following our own Constitution, even in a war situation, there would have been very few detainees,” Ojeda said. “It would have been a much smaller population.”

As many as 775 detainees have been held without due process at the prison; 420 have been released without being charged. Some have been extradited to other countries. Currently, more than 200 detainees remain at Guantánamo.

Ojeda explained one factor that leads to the detention of so many innocent individuals is a result of the “mosaic” theory of intelligence gathering, in which suspects are considered individual pieces of a much larger puzzle.

“The idea is that there are little tiles of information that make no sense until the next tile or series of tiles shows up, and then gradually, as more and more tiles are gathered and put into place, the picture becomes clear,” he said. “So these human beings are perceived as tiles, and the intelligence gatherers want to hang on to them for a long time after they’re done with them, just in case the next tile comes up.”

The concept of “mining” intelligence is equally dehumanizing.

“[The intelligence community] also uses a metaphor of ‘mining’ for intelligence, data mining or information mining,” Ojeda said. “It is profoundly immoral to ‘mine,’ as they say, a human being for intelligence as if they were a deep, dark hole in the ground.”

The fact that such flagrant civil-rights abuses have occurred on U.S. soil should trouble all Americans, Ojeda insisted.

“There were some questions about who had the authority there—was it Cuba or the U.S.?—but all U.S. laws, consumer regulations, endangered-species laws, apply [at the U.S. naval base] there,” Ojeda said. “The Supreme Court decided it was U.S. territory. And regardless of who was in charge, there was no question about the location; geographically, it’s part of the Americas.”

Ojeda said the project has “a more intellectual enterprise, which is the work of exploring the depths of human depravity and the heights of human empathy and compassion. From the perspective of psychology and philosophy, it’s something we need to look at.”

The project is hoping to create a complete—and public—record of the abuses that have occurred at Guantánamo. That’s important, said Ojeda, “first, because it’s a record of history. Then, it’s also a moral tale about what can happen when the executive goes rogue, a cautionary tale about what can happen. Eventually, we hope that knowledge will free us of torture and crimes against humanity.”

There have been some bright spots. One of the interviewed guards reached out in a telephone call to a former prisoner and offered an apology for what the prisoner had endured. “Even in the most incredible circumstances,” Ojeda said, “we are able to recognize a human being there and respond with empathy.” In the long run, he believes Islam and the West might heal their wounds, and “move in the direction of reconciliation.”

“That’s a little premature, since we haven’t had a full accounting,” said Ojeda, “but reconciliation would certainly do us some good in the world.”

But the project’s foremost mission is to remove any ignorance the public might claim to have about the human-rights abuses Guantánamo. “Most immediately, the goal is to try and educate people so we can make it as hard as possible to say, ‘I just didn’t know,’” Ojeda said. “We want to remove that excuse.”