By Stephen Grey (author of Ghost Plane) in the New Statesman
More than 7,000 prisoners have been captured in America’s war on terror. Just 700 ended up in Guantanamo Bay. Between extraordinary rendition to foreign jails and disappearance into the CIA’s “black sites”, what happened to the rest?
Sana’a, Yemen. By the gates of the Old City, Muhammad Bashmilah was walking, talking, and laughing in the crowd – behaving like a man without a care in the world. Bargaining with the spice traders and joking with passers-by; at last he was free.
A 33-year-old businessman, Bashmilah has an impish sense of humour; his eyes sparkled as he chatted about his country and the khat leaves that all the young men were chewing. But when I began my interview by asking for the story of his past three years, his mood shifted. His face narrowed, his eyes calmed, and he stared beyond me – as if looking directly into the nether world from which he had so recently emerged.
For 11 months, Bashmilah was held in one of the CIA’s most secret prisons – its so-called “black sites” – so secret that he had no idea in which country, or even on which continent, he was being held. He was flown there, in chains and wearing a blindfold, from another jail in Afghanistan; his guards wore masks; and he was held in a 10ft by 13ft cell with two video cameras that watched his every move. He was shackled to the floor with a chain of 110 links.
From the times of evening prayer given to him by the guards, the cold winter temperatures, and the number of hours spent flying to this secret jail, he suspected that he was held somewhere in eastern Europe – but he could not be sure.
When he arrived at the prison, said Bashmilah, he was greeted by an interrogator with the words: “Welcome to your new home.” He implied that Bashmilah would never be released. “I had gone there without any reason, without any proof, without any accusation,” he said. His mental state collapsed and he went on hunger strike for ten days – until he was force-fed food through his nostrils. Finally released after months in detention without being charged with any crime, Bashmilah was one of the first prisoners to provide an inside account of the most secret part of the CIA’s detention system.
On 6 September, President George W Bush finally confirmed the existence of secret CIA jails such as the one that held Bashmilah. He added something chilling – a declaration that there were now “no terrorists in the CIA programme”, that the many prisoners held with Bashmilah were all gone. It was a statement that hinted at something very dark – that the United States has “disappeared” hundreds of prisoners to an uncertain fate.