Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to “break” prisoners are finally being put on trial.
This was not supposed to happen. The Bush Administration’s plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla’s lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.
Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a 9-by-7-foot cell with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum,” a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.
According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defense. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr. Padilla has left him damaged,” his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the Navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent,” that his treatment is irrelevant.
US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. “It’s not like Mr. Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place.” The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify at the hearings on Padilla’s mental state, which begin February 22. They will be asked how a man alleged to have engaged in elaborate antigovernment plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, “like a piece of furniture.”
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guantánamo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of CIA “extraordinary rendition” as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.