When is a Cavity Search Not a Cavity Search? Rape at Guantánamo

Alexa Koenig
Jan 11, 2017 · 8 min read

Today — January 11, 2017 — marks the fifteenth anniversary of the use of the United States’ military facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to hold individuals who were detained during the war on terror. In recognition of that anniversary, over the next few months my colleagues and I will be posting a series of brief articles that highlight the experiences of several men who were held there. The timing seems appropriate, as both Guantánamo and torture are suddenly back in the news thanks to the 2016 Presidential campaign and the end of Obama’s presidency. President-elect Donald Trump’s claims that he would “probably fill [Guantánamo] up with more people” and that he would reinstate torture — alongside President Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo by the end of his presidency — make this a particularly important moment to evaluate the legal, ethical, financial, and security implications of indefinite detention.

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The information in this report — coauthored by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley, and the Center for Constitutional Rights — was based on interviews with 62 men who were released from Guantánamo.

“Of all the secrets of war, there is one that is so well kept that it exists mostly as a rumour. It is usually denied by the perpetrator and his victim. … Yet every now and then someone gathers the courage to tell of it.” — Will Storr, The rape of men

Where there is social unrest, there is sexual violence: sexual violence almost always accompanies those periods of history when people feel most powerless and crave control. Despite this prevalence, sexual violence has been called one of history’s “greatest silences” and the “least condemned war crime,” and is the form of violence least likely to be reported. In fact, society’s understanding of sexual violence as a crime — let alone as torture — is only very recent.

When, for my dissertation, I analyzed 78 interviews with men who had been released from Guantánamo, it was at first easy to overlook the sexual violence hinted at in their stories. Increasingly, though, practices that initially seemed legitimate — such as undressing detainees for showers or conducting cavity searches — began to seem unusual, and I paid more attention to asides that hinted at something else. Almost like optical illusions, the stories of sexual violence surfaced as I considered those comments. Soon, they became impossible to ignore.

Of the 78 interviews, approximately three quarters contained some reference to forced nudity, and more than half contained some reference to another form of sexualized violence, including sexualized harassment. In nearly a third of the interviews, nudity and/or another form of sexualized violence was described as — or as a component of — the respondent’s very worst detainment-related experience at Guantánamo, and before that at Kandahar Airfield and/or Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. This suggests that for a relatively significant portion of those who experienced such phenomena and were willing to talk about it, the experience was devastating.

Sexualized violence generally took one of three forms: forced nudity, sexualized harassment (such as sexual threats, forced sexual touching, unwanted exposure to pornographic images and practices), and rape. While nudity was seemingly ubiquitous, most of the other sexualized violence was reported as taking place in one of two contexts — intake and interrogation.

One former detainee, now living in western Europe, provides an example of the context in which such nudity frequently occurred and how it often served as an assertion of power. He reports that upon arriving at a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan, prisoners had their clothes ripped off, either “by hand or with scissors, and then there were two interrogators, two people there, taking notes and the other asking questions. And there were also two or three soldiers in the back who would sometimes hit us.” The questioning took place as he lay on the floor, naked, shackled, and hooded.

The sense of a deep violation is particularly vivid in the following excerpt, in which one man reports having been forced to remove his clothes at gunpoint as he was taken into custody. He explains,

It was winter and there was like half a meter height of snow. They took off our clothes and stored us in the snow, bare. They asked me to take off my shirt. I thought that they are suspecting me that I am having like bombs or explosives. Then I said, ‘That is fine, no problem for me.’ I took off my shirt. When I took off my shirt they told, ‘Now take off your trousers.’ I said no. They said, ‘We will shoot you if you don’t take off your trousers. We will shoot you to death.’ The Americans ordered an Afghan police to hit [me] and that Afghan police hit me with a gun butt. I had underwear under my trousers. I took off the trousers, but I never took off my underwear. They said, ‘Take off the underwear or we will rip it off with our bayonet.’ And then I took that off too.

Later, when he arrived at Bagram, “again they took off our clothes. And we were all standing naked and they were just inserting some stuff to ….” At this point, the translator pauses and asks the interviewer, “should I just tell you what?” When the interviewer answers affirmatively, the translator explains, “they were inserting, you know, some stuff to people’s anus, they were saying it is our checkup.” After that, he says he was taken to a secret room so that the Red Cross wouldn’t know that the military had him in custody.

The similarity between forced nudity and an exercise of power that several men experienced as a rape is especially visceral in the following exchange. When asked to describe any treatment that was experienced as particularly humiliating, one interviewee answered as follows:

Former Detainee: Yes, they took all of our clothes.

Interviewer: When?

Former Detainee: When we arrived in Bagram.

Interviewer: How did they take them?

Former Detainee: By force. Because we don’t let them.

Interviewer: So when you say by force, did they rip them off, or?

Former Detainee: Yes, force, eight person, ten person around you and you are in the middle.

The dynamic — fear and vulnerability exacerbated by being in the control of an enemy and thus one who plausibly seeks to do harm — is equivalent to that found in sexual violence. As Susan Brownmiller and others first observed in the 1970s, rape is a crime of power, not desire; here, the group-instigated nudity seems a deliberate show of inescapable force on the part of the institution.

In several interviews, forced nudity is described as worse than death. As one man explains: “The worst experience, before I was taken to Guantánamo, was taking off my clothes. … I [told my guard this was against Islam] but they still asked. That was the worst experience for me.” In an attempt to illustrate just how bad this experience was, he adds, “I would not mind if the entire members of my family had died, but this action should not have been done to me.” His experience plunged him into such a deep depression that since then “sometimes I cannot control my mind. I get angry very soon. And sometimes when I’m talking to people, I can’t open my mouth. And I got this from that time.”

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In The Guantánamo Effect, the authors share the experiences of approximately sixty men who were detained at and ultimately released from Guantánamo, highlighting the challenges that continue post-release.

The degree to which nudity was experienced as an extreme violation — much more so than many non-detainees might imagine it, as the experience was exacerbated by both culture and context — is particularly evident in the following response to a query regarding an Afghan man’s worst experience in Bagram and Kandahar: “The greatest violence and experience I have suffered is just nudity. Ever since, if they have killed us, it wouldn’t have been any sorrow to me.” To help put this quote in perspective, this man rated his nudity as worse than having too little water to drink and having been forced to kneel in hot sand for so long that his knees became infected. These relative valuations whereby many described dignitary and religious harms as less bearable than physical brutality is especially important to note, and critical for making sure that diverse interpretations — particularly non-Western and/or non-Christian interpretations — of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are considered when evaluating whether prison-based treatment and conditions are potentially criminal.

In addition to forced nudity, cavity searches and medical exams were frequently experienced as rape. One of the most disturbing aspects of sexualized violence at Guantánamo was just how easily and plausibly the U.S. government could refute that any kind of sexualized violence (and thus that anything illegal) had occurred by claiming that practices that men experienced as rape were legitimate detention-related practices.

How and why, if these practices were cavity searches or medical exams, were they sometimes experienced as rape? Three factors contributed: the withholding of information — including any explanation as to what was being done and why, language differences and the lack of translators — which further impeded understanding, and the probable exploitation of cultural practices and norms. At its most basic, the show of force in which exams were conducted, the dynamic of military officers who are dressed handling and mocking men who are not, the roughness with which searches were conducted, the lack of translation and/or any explanation as to the purpose behind the invasion, the exploitation of gender norms (specifically, having women present during periods of nudity, which heightened the sense of humiliation), and an overall environment that was deliberately constructed to humiliate and to humble enabled plausible deniability, while simultaneously fostering the sense of degradation and humiliation that almost always accompanies rape.

So what could be done to lessen the chance that a cavity search or a prostate exam is experienced as rape? A lot. At a minimum, the military and civil society organizations could have provided translators who explain to detainees what was going on. They could also conduct gender-appropriate searches, which would better accord with American Bar Association and World Health Organization guidelines. They could have reduced the number of individuals present during the stripping and searching of detainees. Most importantly, perhaps, cavity searches or medical exams should not be conducted in contexts in which the primary objective of the interaction is to establish dominance over individuals in custody.

Although the population at Guantánamo has shrunk considerably under President Obama, we have indications — at least rhetorical ones — that the facility could be refilled during the next administration. Given this possibility, we need to understand the treatment that was fostered there and how those practices were experienced by those who were detained — and not just from the perspective of those who furthered the abuse. And we need to stop such abuse from happening again.

From 2008 to 2013, Alexa Koenig was involved in two projects that focused on the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo. The first was a study led by Eric Stover and Laurel Fletcher at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, the second an oral history project directed by Peter Jan Honigsberg at the University of San Francisco. She is also the author of Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror. This is the first of several posts that will highlight the stories of approximately ten percent of the men who were held in the U.S. military detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.

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