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The Guantanamo Trap 2011


Distributed by Films Media Group, 132 West 31st St., 17th Floor, New York, NY 10001; 800-257-5126
Produced by Thomas Kufus, Amit Breuer, Marcel Hoehn, and Christoph Jörg
Directed by Thomas Selim Wallner
DVD, color, 56 min., English and German with English subtitles

Sr. High-General Adult
Criminal Justice, Ethics, Human Rights, International Relations, Law, and Political Science

Date Entered: 07/13/2012

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

The detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was established by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks on the United States in order to house detainees from the global war on terror. The Guantanamo Trap begins with 2009 footage of United States President Barack Obama promising to close the detention center at Guantanamo Naval Base within one year. That pledge, the narrator notes, remains unfulfilled several years later. The narrator rhetorically asks, “could shutting the door on the detention center really end the trauma of Guantanamo?” Director Thomas Selim Wallner’s answer seems to be in the negative, as his well-edited film proceeds to document the Guantanamo-related experiences of three people: a wrongfully-detained ex-inmate suffering from post-traumatic stress; a legal advisor and author of the infamous “torture memo” who feels her reputation is besmirched; and a convicted whistle-blower facing financial ruin.

Murat Kurnaz, a native of Germany and citizen of Turkey, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a nineteen year old, he was visiting Pakistan to learn more about Islam when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Kurnaz was detained, transported to Kandahar air base for interrogation, and then transferred to Guantanamo where he remained for five years. Kurnaz describes the torture he endured during the five-year imprisonment: being caged and subjected to perpetual light and noise, year-long solitary confinement, death threats, withholding of food and water, and hanging from his wrists for five days.

Ironically, Kurnaz’ descriptions are intercut with clips from interviews with the attorney whose memo was used to justify the torture of Guantanamo inmates. Now in retirement, Diane Beaver was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and served as Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo from 2002 to 2004, providing legal advice to the detention camp’s commanders. She was tasked with drafting a document to provide interrogators with guidelines so they could meet their superiors’ demands for improved interrogation results. Beaver is saddened that her military service is judged as dishonorable by many, that she is known as the “torture lady.” She claims a lack of knowledge about the legalities of torture: “I certainly wasn’t an expert; I had called around asking for help and no one would help me and I saw right away . . . no one wants to touch it.” Seemingly oblivious to the Geneva Conventions, Beaver concluded in an October 2002 classified memo that the proposed enhanced interrogation methods complied with U.S. and international law. In 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, interrogation methods at Guantanamo were subjected to greater scrutiny and came under criticism. Beaver’s memorandum was strategically released by the Bush administration in order to give the impression that the impetus for aggressive interrogation techniques came from the bottom up, not from the White House.

The film’s third subject, Matt Diaz, is also an attorney, but has a different take on human rights than Diane Beaver. Lieutenant Commander Diaz arrived in Guantanamo to serve as Judge Advocate for the U.S. Navy. He was appointed to investigate allegations of abuse and to ensure the U.S. complied with the law of war. He soon discovered non-compliance, particularly noting Beaver’s memorandum. He describes his ethical stance: “no matter how they characterized the conflict, we’re to treat detainees, or those we detain, humanely.” When Diaz realized that his discoveries of abuse would be covered up, that they were not going to go “up the chain” of command, he decided to subvert the military hierarchy and anonymously blow the whistle. Diaz was convicted for his leak of the list of Guantanamo detainees, given a sentence of 6 months of confinement, and dismissed from the military without retirement pay.

The film’s few narrated segments set the greater political context and complement the extensive interviews with Kurnaz, Beaver, and Diaz. The contrasting perspectives of the three interviewees result in a documentary that is ethically complex and fascinating to watch. This film has the potential to inspire lively classroom debate about topics such as unlawful detention, right to due process, obedience to authority, wartime ethics, rights of enemy combatants, and culpability of leaders, to name just a few.

This 56-minute version of the film, distributed by Films Media Group, is shorter than the original full-length documentary of circa 92 minutes. The film’s fourth character, Spanish human rights lawyer Gonzalo Boye, an attorney who seeks to try the Bush administration for war crimes, is edited out of this abbreviated version. As of July 18, 2012, Films Media Group is in the process of acquiring the longer version.


  • Special Jury Prize, Hot Docs Film Fest