Peter Jan Honigsberg’s A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantánamo

Peter Jan Honigsberg, Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, documents the experiences of the men who were unlawfully imprisoned for several years following the 9/11 attacks in A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantánamo (Beacon Press, 2019) as well as family members, lawyers, interrogators, prison guards, and others closely associated with the operations of the prison camp. This book also encapsulates Honigsberg’s larger project, Witness to Guantánamo ( which operates as an archive of stories told by the detainees and others about their experiences of Guantánamo. Starting in 2008, 158 people from twenty countries were interviewed by Honigsberg for historical and documentary purposes to ensure that their stories would not be lost. A Place Outside the Law also discusses how the US government created and justified the existence of Guantánamo and how the US legal system failed to protect those who were tortured for years at the prison camp without any hope of ever being released.

A major portion of the book discusses the detainees’ experiences of being captured and transported to Guantánamo and the years they were imprisoned there. Many of the detainees were previously imprisoned in places like Bagram and Kandahar (both located in Afghanistan) and were brutally tortured before being taken to Guantánamo. Additionally, many juveniles were held in the detention camp with the adult population and tried as adults. As opposed to international standards which consider adulthood to begin at the age of eighteen, the US government lowered the age to sixteen and subjected them to the same types of torture undergone by other detainees. However, the most important point the book emphasizes is the fact that

Of the 740 men once held at Guantánamo but now free, nearly all were never charged with a crime. Nevertheless, many spent a decade or longer suffering physical and psychological torture in the prison. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish psychological torture from physical torture, psychological torture includes such sufferings as prolonged sleep deprivation, hot and cold temperature manipulation, and long-term isolation. The detainees told us that psychological torture was more common at the prison than physical torture.

Even though most of the detainees were not considered to be a threat, they were kept in Guantánamo indefinitely. For example, a detainee named Sunnat was imprisoned for eight years because his home country of Uzbekistan would not take him back due to the stigma associated with being in the prison. He suffered a form of linguistic isolation; most of the detainees spoke either Arabic or English. As a result, he was unable to communicate with other detainees, prison guards, and medical personnel. Another example involves twenty-two Uighurs who were captured and held in Guantánamo for several years because of their oppressed relationship to the Chinese government:

The Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims whose native home is a country formerly known as East Turkistan. After the Chinese officially assumed control of East Turkistan in the mid-1900s, the Uighur nation was renamed Xinjiang Autonomous Region in Central Asia. The Uighurs still refer to the region as East Turkistan.

When the Chinese gained control of the region, they sought to destabilize and destroy the unique Uighur indigenous culture. The Beijing government encouraged and incentivized Han Chinese to settle in East Turkistan, start their own businesses and promote and expand the Chinese culture into the Uighur community. The schools taught Mandarin, while the Uighur language was rejected as an official language. Today, the eight million Uighurs are a minority population in Xinjiang.

In the past two decades, firefights and other violent protests against Chinese domination have erupted in the region. The Chinese have increased their surveillance and repression of the Uighurs and have responded with brutal force to any Uighur uprising. China labels the Uighur separatists as terrorists.

Honigsberg goes on to explain that “To the Chinese, the Uighurs were terrorists, and there were clear indications that if the men were repatriated, they would be tortured and executed as traitors.” The Uighurs who were captured had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks; they were fighting the Chinese government. In a sense, their plight demonstrates the ways in which authoritarian governments create resistance groups through the oppressive nature of their actions. In the US government’s attempt to seek out and punish the individuals responsible for 9/11, they became intertwined with other governments who have taken extreme measures to enforce their way of life on other groups of people. As Honigsberg states

Approximately one million Uighurs are now held in internment camps. The people in the camps have been subjected to reeducation and indoctrination programs by the Chinese authorities. The Uighur language is forbidden in the camps. Their Muslim religion is branded as divisive. Orphanages have been built to house children of people detained….Observers have said Xinjiang is becoming a massive internment camp. In addition, China has created a state-of-the-art surveillance and policing system to monitor every movement of the Uighurs.

The Uighurs could not be released to the Chinese government and they could not be released to several other countries because of pressure from the Chinese government. The US government would not release them into their own country because many influential politicians considered them to be terrorists. Additionally, in order to avoid Chinese involvement with their own war on terror, the US government allowed the Uighurs to be interrogated by Chinese officials and also gave them access to interviews the Uighurs had given under the assumption that the information would not be handed over to the Chinese government.

The most challenging aspect of Guantánamo is that it is an institution that exists outside the law. Honigsberg gives an appropriate description of the prison:

Guantánamo, situated on a forty-five-mile spit of land on the southeastern coast of Cuba, has become more than a detention center for alleged terrorists, in reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001. It is more than a naval base housing nearly ten thousand soldiers and personnel, complete with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Jamaican jerk chicken, a movie theater, and Navy Exchange, or NEX, shops. Guantánamo is a metaphor for much that has gone wrong after 9/11.

Government officials saw Guantánamo as an ideal location to house detainees because it is close to American soil and far enough away from the detainees’ home countries to discourage them from attempting to escape. In general, the detainees were told that “…they would be in the prison until the war on terror ended. If it did not end, the men would never see their families again.” Even with Rasul vs. Bush in place (which stated “that the detainees had the right to challenge their detentions in federal court”) government officials “[substituted] administrative proceedings for federal court hearings” and “[adopted] new legislation to block all habeas hearings;” they also made it nearly impossible for the detainees to have productive meetings with their lawyers.

The most common form of torture used at Guantánamo was isolation. However, other forms of torture were used such as sleep deprivation, force feeding hunger strikers, “ERFing”: “a brutal cell-extraction procedure in which six guards storm a cell, mace the detainee, and severely beat him” and something called “frequent flyer”: “A prisoner is taken to his cell and locked up. Two hours later, the prison guards arrive to say that it is time to transfer to another cell. After the detainee is settled into his new cell and falls asleep, prison guards arrive to move him again.” The process is repeated every two to three hours for two to four weeks at a time. There was also a form of torture called “going home” where detainees were told that they were being released:

Detainee Mourad Benchellali described the process: “So, they would make them believe that they were going home. They would send them to Camp Four [which provides a communal-living and exercise space for compliant prisoners] and were given civilian clothes. They were told, ‘It’s okay, you are going back home.’ And they stayed a few days, and then they would be sent straight to isolation. So there they would go crazy, completely, because they had thought they would go home, and then—only to start again from scratch.”

The “going home” tactic was also used in an attempt to forcibly obtain information from detainees. In one situation, a detainee who was told that he was going home was blindfolded, driven around a boat for a few hours, and brought ashore where he was physically tortured.

When detainees were released, it was an especially complicated process that often took several years because many of their home countries would not take them back. As a result, the US government had to find host countries for the detainees. Honigsberg explains the process for resettling detainees:

Aside from expecting host nations to provide assurances on security issues, the US relied on the host nations to care for the men. All transferred detainees were usually provided substandard housing for two to three years and often received no more than fifteen dollars per day for food, clothing, and necessities. Counseling, as well as job and language training, were left to the host country.

He goes on to explain that

Consequently, men transferred to countries with limited resources were trapped in foreign cultures with language barriers. They faced stigmatization and discrimination, lack of community, cultural and religious isolation, scarce economic opportunities, limited healthcare, and inadequate social and psychological services. The men had limited funds, struggled to find jobs, and lacked travel documents. Many also continued to suffer from PTSD.

In terms of reparations, the detainees are even less fortunate. Under the influence of the Bush administration in 2006, Congress rewrote parts of the 1996 War Crimes Act and made it retroactive to 1996. As a result, “it has become nearly impossible to successfully prosecute and punish government officials for certain war crimes articulated in the Geneva Conventions, because they are no longer identified as war crimes under American law.” Reparations outside of the legal system are also possible, but even less likely to happen. Honigsberg explains that

Many of the men have asked for an apology from the US government. An apology would be the best “reparations” for many. An apology would be an important signal that America understands the wrongs we have committed. The men also hope that through an apology the US would become more mindful of its deeds and prevent another Guantánamo from happening in the future.

Interestingly enough, other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Sweden have offered monetary reparations and apologies to detainees for their involvement with the US government’s torture campaign. The European Court of Human Rights has also ordered countries to offer reparations to detainees.

A Place Outside the Law gives a clear explanation of how most of the detainees came to be imprisoned in Guantánamo and how “enemy combatant” was used as an alternative term to justify the imprisonment and torture of the detainees. To start, Honigsberg explains

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, America dropped leaflets over Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan offering bounties for “Taliban and al Qaeda fighters [to] rid Afghanistan of murderers and terrorists.” One leaflet read “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams.” Another said “This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life—pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

As a result, “Those kinds of rewards encouraged Afghan and Pakistani soldiers to pick up Arabs who were not from the local community, as well as tribal enemies, and sell them for bounty to the US. They were generally paid $3,000 to $5,000.” After purchasing these men, the US government brought them to places like Bagram and Guantánamo, and interrogated and tortured them. In most cases, the men had no information. However, “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the men in Guantánamo ‘the worst of the worst.’” In truth, “US forces captured no more than 5 percent of Guantánamo detainees. In addition, only 8 percent of men captured were considered al Qaeda fighters. Fifty-five percent of the captives never committed any hostile act against the US. They were not ‘on the battlefield.’” Additionally, “enemy combatant” was a fabricated term coined by the Bush administration and became synonymous with the detainees, who had little to offer the US government in terms of intelligence. As Honigsberg explains

Under the Geneva Conventions, the universe of combatants is two: “lawful combatant” and “unlawful combatant.” “Enemy combatant” was nothing more than a generic term. In fact, many scholars of international law believed that the US deliberately created the term in order to circumvent the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

Even more importantly, “Without these protections, the men could not assert the lawful rights guaranteed them by international and domestic law. If the detainees were not protected by the law, the US believed it could mistreat and torture them with impunity.” The tortures were performed by interrogators, many of whom were young, inexperienced, and had no knowledge of Arabic culture. One such interrogator, Damien Corsetti, who only received two weeks of training, was given the responsibility of handling “high-value detainees,” but in truth, the term held little meaning because the US government had almost no information about the detainees. Corsetti received numerous honors for his military service, but as soon as he returned home, he was arrested and tried for the mistreatment of detainees at Bagram:

Factually, he was accused of sitting on top of a detainee, throwing garbage on him, and putting cigarette ash on him; walking across a detainee’s handcuffed hands and pulling hairs out of his chest; pulling the head and beard of a detainee; removing a detainee’s pants to expose his genitalia to a female interrogator, and bending him over a table and waving a bottle in close proximity of his buttocks; striking the detainee in the leg, groin, and chest with his hands and knees; and showing a detainee a condom and his penis saying, “This is special for you. This is your god,” and “I’m going to fuck you,” and placing his penis near the detainee’s face and placing his groin against the detainee’s buttocks.

Corsetti and other interrogators openly questioned whether or not they were violating the Geneva Conventions through the use of their interrogation techniques which consisted mostly of torture, but were assured by US government officials that what they were doing was completely ethical. While being interviewed by Honigsberg, Corsetti explained “‘I felt like, you bastards made me go do things that completely violated my conscience and changed forever who I am as a human being, but I went along with it. [Now you will] charge me for the very same things you gave me awards for.’”

A Place Outside the Law is especially noteworthy because it shows the actual results of the US government’s use of torture after 9/11. From a historical standpoint, it serves as physical evidence that torture accomplishes the opposite of what it is intended to do: it fosters an environment of tyranny, violence, and trauma—not just for the detainees, but for those impacted through their relationships with them, both personally and professionally. It serves as an example of why torture is unacceptable under any circumstances and sheds new light on how torture is applied to other aspects of society (namely the US prison system). It also shows how the US legal system is subservient to the US government. Laws are not a fixed thing; they can be rewritten to suit the needs of any administration that comes into power and implemented by the courts at every level. Honigsberg gives an account of the Obama administration’s reaction to his Witness to Guantánamo project:

After Obama was elected in November 2008, a member of the Obama transition team informed me that Obama would create a truth commission and that I did not need to undertake my proposed Witness to Guantánamo project. I replied that I hoped the president would establish the commission, because he had the resources and the connections. I added that I was not convinced he would do it. But if he did, I would discontinue my work immediately. I was still interviewing people for Witness to Guantánamo after President Obama left office.

Peter Honigsberg’s work is commendable. If not for Witness to Guantánamo and A Place Outside the Law, there would be no official record of what happened to the detainees. It is important to note that Guantánamo was never officially closed, as promised by Obama. In 2018, President Trump signed an executive order to keep the detention camp open indefinitely, and forty detainees still remain there. As Honigsberg notes, “No American official has been held accountable for the damage done to our Constitution, the rule of law, and human rights after 9/11.” One step toward remedying this issue would be for the US government to acknowledge the egregious wrongs it committed in the years after 9/11 at the national and international levels, and to the detainees as well as those whose lives were permanently impacted by Bagram, Kandahar, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, The Dark Prison, and the various black sites under CIA operation. This can be done by openly supporting Honigsberg’s Witness to Guantánamo project:

We would like to create a permanent home and museum that tells the story of Guantánamo. Ideally, it would be in Washington, DC. We are actively working on creating an exhibit for Duke University in summer 2020. We hope to transform that show into a traveling exhibit. Our goal is for the US government to recognize the need to house the work in a permanent location in our nation’s capital.

February 17, 2020