Saturday, May 3, 2008

Bad Scene at Gitmo

Of all the misdeeds committed by the Bush Administration, incarcerating people for years without charges at Guantanamo Bay — and torturing them — has got to be the worst.

Slowly, some of those wrongfully held are being let go. As Democracy Now! reported yesterday, Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was released after spending nearly six-and-a-half years at Gitmo with no charged filed. He was tortured and subject to more than 200 interrogation sessions.

Conditions in Guantanamo are very, very bad, and they get worse by the day, he said.

The New Yorker also had a good piece, “Camp Justice,” recently on the military trials that are planned at Gitmo, and the uncertain future of so many detainees.

This seems a good time to share an interview I did for the “Honolulu Weekly” with Honolulu attorney Edmund Burke, who has a client at Gitmo. At the end, he tells what we can do to try and halt this injustice.

Following the Bush Adminstration’s 2001 declaration of “War on Terror,” an unknown number of mostly Arab men were rounded up and imprisoned, some of them at the U.S. Navy prison at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay. They’re incarcerated under a “void in the rule of law” that allows men designated by the U.S. government as enemy combatants to be held without charge or trial.

Burke is among more than 300 lawyers — and the only one from Hawaii — offering pro bono legal services to “Gitmo” inmates. Their work is currently delayed as they await a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of a provision in the Military Commission Act that strips American courts of all jurisdiction over the detainees.

Still, Burke continues to visit his client — he’s been to Gitmo five times since October 2005, most recently in early March — and work toward the man’s release. He finds Guantanamo Bay a far different place today than when he first visited some 50 years ago as a midshipman in the U.S. Naval Academy.

What is the situation at Guantanamo now?
Initially there were perhaps as many as 700 men there, but about half were transferred to their own countries. Approximately 275 are left.

What’s it like to practice law there?
I have a co-counsel now but it’s very difficult. We use an interpreter. Any notes made with your client have to be turned over to your [military] escort, and if they don’t contain classified information, they’re returned. The concept of attorney-client privilege doesn’t exist. You have to petition months in advance to see your client. Much of what I’ve gleaned about the case has been released through a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) prosecuted by the Associated Press.

Who is your client?
He’s approximately 35 years old, originally from Libya, and he’ll have been in there six years in August. He’s never been charged with anything but being an “enemy combatant.” He is accused of taking part in a training camp of other Arabs in Afghanistan and leading combat troops in 2001 against the Northern Alliance.

The facts he’s related is that in 1998 he was working in Afghanistan clearing land mines and one blew up, resulting his leg being amputated. His left leg was damaged earlier in an industrial accident. He hobbles about using either crutches or a walker. It just blows my mind as far as any kind of logic that he could be involved in any kind of combat operation in 2001.

Was he tortured at Gitmo?
He spent a whole afternoon telling us that the Americans are the master torturers of the 21st Century. His description never included getting beaten or physically harmed, except sometimes they would take his prothesis away so he had no ability to move about. There was sleep deprivation. There were never more than a couple of hours they could sleep at a time. The isolation was and still is a big factor. They have nothing to read, no one to talk to, nothing to occupy your mind. And the government keeps the AC turned up so they’re cold all the time — teeth chattering cold. And there were other things, too, that I don’t feel at liberty to discuss. The interrogations have slacked off, but he still goes through them once a week.

How does he spend his time?
Just thinking. They let them exercise two or three times a week, where they can go outdoors into things that look like a cage and are about 50 feet long. They’re all fed in their cells.

What prompted you to get involved in this situation?
I was greatly offended at the concept of my government locking people away. People who are POWs have very well-defined rights under the Geneva Convention, but we haven’t done that. Just the idea of incarcerating someone without a charge or conviction — maybe even forever — doesn’t seem to be the American way of doing things. The Center for Constitutional Rights coordinates this.

What concerns you about the situation there?
Just the whole concept. Even our own government admits they had no plans to give trials to the vast majority of the people there. One study shows a good 70 to 80 percent confined were not taken into custody on any battlefield. My client was living in Pakistan in a religious school and was arrested with boys as young as 13 and the majority ended up in Guantanamo. Our government was paying $5,000 a head for people accused of being either members of the Taliban or Al Quaida. I think most were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why have you been going public about this at programs sponsored by the ACLU?
If Americans know what is going on at Guantanamo, that our government doesn’t seem bound by any rules at all — they make their rules as they go along — hopefully we can generate some public support for closing it down. It’s a void in the rule of law to confine people and say they’re enemy combatants and we’re just going to hang on to them until the War on Terror ends. I’ve never seen any indication that these people are linked to terrorism.

What can you do for your client?
My big hope is that the Supreme Court, when they make their decision, will put us back in business. The legal tool is a writ of habeus corpus, which is basically saying to the government, either charge these people and convict them, or let them go. I’m very optimistic that at some stage my client will be released. We’re trying also to gain refugee status for him, maybe a European country. He can’t go back to Libya because he was a member of an organization that was attempting to overthrow Kaddafi. His parents, under threat of being killed, had to disown him.

Does he think he’ll be released?
We’ve sort of watched his mental status deteriorate. He’s a very discouraged individual. His moral is pretty low. The reason I and my co-counsel and the interpreter try to see him every few months is to keep some hope alive for him. We’re trying to let him know someone cares about his case.

How has this affected you personally?
I’m a guy who was raised to think my government was my friend and to be respected. I had a higher level of respect for the government than I do now. You come back very depressed. There’s nothing uplifting about it.

What can people do?
Write their Congressmen. Congress has the power to change the Military Commissions Act. We all sort of live a hope. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but something like this can’t go on forever.

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