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My Time In Guantanamo – Op-Ed by David Storobin

storobin gaunatamo“That certainly looks like a minimum security prison, not something I expected,” remarked an Arab-American professor who just the night before was screaming, “[Obscenity] America!” with the human rights activists stationed in Guantanamo Bay. She so genuinely believed that the Americans were abusing terrorists that the visit to the three GITMO prisons was a shock to her.

For just 120 inmates, there were 2,000 videos and 20,000 books. There was training for everything from English as a Second Language to resume writing. The jails were right next to the beach and the only thing separating the soccer field from the sand was a fence.

Inmates got to watch TV in English, Arabic, Persian and Russian. “Why Russian?” I wondered. “I think there are a couple Chechens,” answered our guide. “Not sure if they are still here, but we have Russian TV just in case. We couldn’t find any channels in the Chechen language, so we figured they can understand Russian.”

“Some human rights activists must be thinking, ‘poor terrorists, they can’t even watch TV in the Chechen language,'” I thought.

The chief prosecutor apologized for the fact that the basketball court was only half-sized. Another “horrific abuse” took place when I was there – an inmate put in a complaint that he doesn’t like cereal with dried strawberries. Is that the reason China, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela feel compelled to criticize GITMO? I can assure you that no prisoner in those nations gets cereal with dried fruit.

A journalist from Italy was one of the few non-liberals in our group. He was older than the rest of us and what he was saying was not based on an ideology meant to boost self-esteem with the idea that having the proper opinion, whether accurate or not, makes one superior to everyone who disagrees. “I was in the Russian jail for Chechen terrorists,” he said to me during one of our discussions out of the ear-shot of the liberals. If we were friendly and kept our thoughts to ourselves, we’d be presumed to have proper opinions because what friendly person can disagree with left-wing ideologues? “They keep the Chechens underground, in something that almost looks like a dungeon. They have a small window that comes barely above the ground. One of the Chechens waved to me. I waved back. We weren’t allowed to go inside.”

Guantanamo is a large American military base, a city onto itself, complete with restaurants and stores. The prisons take up only a tiny part of the area. I flew there on a chartered flight from the Andrews Air Base after being selected by the Department of Defense as an observer for a trial of one of the inmates there. When we landed, a soldier drove us to the tents where we were going to sleep. Sitting in front, I struck a conversation with him. He mentioned that he doesn’t feel that he’s doing all he can by staying on a Caribbean island, and will be volunteering for Afghanistan duty. A woman who flew in with us suddenly jumped into the conversation and began mocking him for being a boy who just wants to blow stuff up. The soldier stoically did not respond, continuing to do his job, provoking the woman to get louder and more aggressive, including fake laughing at him. The scene where the soldiers were abused by human rights defenders for serving their nation was repeated a few more times while I was there.

Before going to watch the trial, we were taken to the three facilities, sort of the minimum, medium and maximum security versions of GITMO. We were taken into the empty prison cells, showers, and the cafeteria rooms complete with a big-screen TV, which you can see above me in the picture. Special noise blockers were placed in the ceiling so that those inmates who want to make noise won’t prevent the rest from sleeping.

As an attorney, I’ve been to many facilities, from the local Central Booking and all the different jails on Rikers Island to federal camps and maximum security prisons. Nothing compared to GITMO. Somehow using graffiti in Brooklyn gets you into a worse-looking (and smelling) cell in Central Booking than being a terrorist. Even the so-called “Club Med prisons” looked worse than Guantanamo facilities.

We were also allowed to observe inmates go about their day through a one-way mirror. A real prison takes a toll on people. Guantanamo inmates did not look the way those in a maximum security prison usually look. It was reported a few years ago that GITMO inmates gained weight while they were in prison, hardly something that happens to inmates in all those nations that criticize the United States. Maybe it’s because the basketball court is only half-sized and they can’t run as much as they want to…

Faced with the evidence that Guantanamo isn’t the hell the media claims it to be, liberals say that terrorists cannot be held there because they have rights, but that is a way for them to change the conversation because the original argument has always been that GITMO is not humane, even for the worst of the world. After all, if terrorists deserve a trial, legal changes can be made to apply U.S. law to them in Guantanamo rather than moving them to a downtown Manhattan facility right across the Brooklyn Bridge or to a Brooklyn facility off the Belt Parkway, a few blocks from Borough Park. But whether terrorists should have the same right as American citizens is a topic for another day.

People can disagree on what legal rights terrorists should or should not have, but those who’ve visited Guantanamo know one thing: While it’s best to avoid jails, if you have to do time, nothing beats playing soccer on the beach.

(David Storobin – Former State Senator and candidate for City Council)

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