RHR 2008: Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture
December 09, 2008
The conference's last formal session, Beyond Guantanamo: Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture, featured Gita Gutierrez of the Center for Constitutional Rights alongside attorney Tom Wilner (read his essay A Righteous Indignation in US News and World Report.) Both of them work to defend prisoners who are imprisoned at Guantanamo. It was an unbelievable presentation, and by the end of Gita's remarks I was weeping uncontrollably. I know I've been asking you to wade through a lot of text, but even if you don't read anything else I've posted from the conference, I hope you'll read this.
Tom Wilner talked about how when he speaks alongside Gita, he speaks "as an American about what it means to me to be American." Listening to us, he said, he realizes that he needs to study how his Jewishness has shaped his commitment to the cause.
"I believe passionately in America, which is one of the reasons I've fought so hard in Guantanamo. It is said in our family, my great-great-grandfather was a rabbi in Vilna, and in the 1870s he read the Gettysburg Address and said, if there is such a country in the world, I want my children to live there."
"My father used to tell a story, how my grandfather would take them to Gettysburg and recite the address and also the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. There would be tears in his eyes. My father would say, it was like a prayer."
"Growing up in America, beliefs of freedom and liberty and rule of law were our religion. My father was one of four boys; only two of them came home from World War II. I think that put a special obligation on us." Wilner spoke about the fight to get habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. "All these cases have ever been about has been the right to a fair hearing, the right for an incarcerated person to defend themselves," he said.
"I never thought in America we would have to fight so hard for people to have a fair hearing," he told us. "It's extraordinary to me that we have even debated in this country the issue of torture." Torture was something the bad guys did, something people did to John McCain which we would never do. "But there is no doubt that every one of our clients was tortured by Americans."
"Somehow it doesn't strike people how bad it is, but the worst torture down there isn't the physical abuse; it's being an innocent person, without a chance to defend yourself." Many studies, including one from Seton Hall and a CIA report from August 2002 which was buried by the White House, have shown that these people are not terrorists.
"Gita and I see the files on these people," he said. "We know there's nothing there. But they're classified; all we can say is, there's nothing there. The administration just says, these are all bad guys, the worst of the worst. We know people have been tortured; the administration says, we don't torture people, we're Americans! What do people believe?"
He encouraged us to read Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which was also recommended to us on the first day of the conference. (Note to self: add this book to Amazon wishlist. Even though it's probably painful to read.)
He told us about going to cocktail parties and asking, "How can you be drinking; don't you know we're running a concentration camp down there?" And the colleague admitting, "You're right, but we're all afraid." He compared our current situation to the growth of Nazism: there were a lot of good German people, but they were scared. "The ability to turn your back on justice is extraordinary, even in this country." He used to think that his family religion was centered on the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg address; but they had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, and even if the davening was brief, every Friday night his father would read something from the Jewish philosophers about justice, compassion, and mercy.
"I don't know what it is in Judaism that makes us feel this way," he said, but Abraham argued with God in the Torah. "There's no concept of human rights in the Old Testament, but there's a concept of obligations; we have obligations to one another." Whether or not someone has Constitutional rights, we have an obligation to them as human beings.
Jews have always been at the forefront of fighting for human rights. This time, he said, we have let ourselves and our country down a bit. He cited Jews who wouldn't criticize Bush because Bush was a "friend to Israel," and argued that this has hurt us. "Whenever anyone denies justice, we as Jews are jeopardized," he said. And this isn't just self-interest; this is what we stand for, as Jews and as Americans, and it's what we must continue fighting for.
Gita Gutierrez began by telling us that this is her first invitation to speak to a Jewish community, and she feels honored and humbled to be here. "The issues you're dealing with go far beyond what we've been dealing with in Guantanamo," she said.
She is an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who'se been working on Guantanamo legal issues since 2003 and who has been going there since 2004 to meet with men at the prison there. The Center is a human and civil rights organization founded forty years ago. When the prison opened, they and some death penalty lawyers realized that the legal issues posed by the place were so profound that they began to pay attention.
Gutierrez offered a few brief facts about Guantanamo: it has housed men and boys from 40 different countries. All of the Europeans were released by 2005. The age range of the men and boys is from 10-80. The impression that people may have had, that it is full of hardened terrorists, is hard to reconcile with the men she has met there.
"The habeas lawyers who go down and meet with the men in Guantanamo can only meet with them privately," she told us. The Red Cross can't report publicly about what they say. "We're the only ones who can meet with them, talk with them, and then come back to a federal court or a community and tell people what's happening."
"We often think of torture as the extreme violence that's occurred in Guantanamo or in CIA detention facilities. But the psychological stress of indefinite detention and the uncertainty of not knowing one's fate has been identified by the Red Cross as a form of psychological torture by itself...we're seeing real psychological deterioration in the human beings who have been experiencing the detention."
There's a tendency, she said, to want to blame the Bush administration for our torture policies and for our kidnapping and disappearing of men and women. And many of us shed tears of joy on November 4 when we elected a new leader who we hope will restore our nation's integrity. "But I ask you to consider this: that our nation did not torture because of the Bush administration. Our nation tortured because of the American people. I allowed it to happen. You allowed it to happen."
We do not need a Truth Commission, though we need to clarify a few details. We knew it was happening, certainly by 2004 when the Abu Ghraib photos came out. It was out there, she said; "we knew. And yet I still went grocery shopping and watched movies and became obsessed with LOST." We're very comfortable in this country, she noted, and we did not do anything. Not eight years ago, not six, not four, not two years ago, and the men are still imprisoned there.
"Since my first meeting sitting across the table from two young men who grew up in Britain, who had been held in isolation for 18 months, really brought home to me: what am I doing, as a lawyer, filing nice legal papers about this, when I'm witnessing what's happening to them?" And that was after only two years of imprisonment. They have now been imprisoned for seven years.
The young man she's working with, Mohammad al-Qahtani, was brought to Guantanamo from Afghanistan and was subject of the "first special interrogation plan." He became someone of interest in Guantanamo; his detention triggered some of the more egregious torture practices. Numerous Congressional and agency inquiries have investigated what happened to him.
"I am going to tell you about Mohammad with the expectation that you will do something," Gutierrez said. Donate five bucks, write a letter to Congress, whatever you can do. The intention here is not to let us listen to this voyeuristically. This young man is not now home with his family. "Mohammad is still in Guantanamo, suffering this very moment."
The Center came to represent him through his father. His father traveled to Bahrain from Saudi Arabia to meet human rights lawyers who held meetings in the Middle East in 2003 and 2004 asking, "do you have relatives in Guantanamo?" They took this young man's case in summer of 2005, and there was a lawyer who was prepared to take the case; but before they could file the case, an article came out in TIME, containing information that had been leaked, and it detailed his torture. He was alleged to have been the 20th hijacker during 9/11. And the lawyer in that law firm stepped away, and declined to represent him.
"As a lawyer who is supposed to serve your clients, to step away in that time of need -- I thought that was pretty bad," she said. It became difficult to find private lawyers to represent him, and the issues of torture were so clear and profound and well-documented that the Center decided to take the case themselves. A few months later she went down to meet with him for the first time.
"The first meeting drove home for me the psychological damage that happens when someone is tortured. Mohammad was subjected to isolation, threatened by working dogs (this information comes from the government's own records, not from him), subjected to sleep deprivation for 48 days and forced to endure 20-hour long interrogations every day. They used loud noise. Male interrogators pinned him to the ground and female interrogators straddled him. He was forcibly given an enema in front of many MPs; his entire interrogation was medically supervised. He was forced to hold stress positions for long times. And then he was placed in a maximum security facility. That is the person who I came to meet."
Gutierrez went to meet him not veiled, but wearing long skirts and long sleeves, out of respect for his religious and cultural beliefs. His culture had been severely exploited by female interrogators. For the first full week that they met, he crouched in the corner and held his hands in front of his face, and the interpreter had to ask him to move his hands so he could be heard at all. Gutierrez sat with her back to him, and her male interpreter would speak to him on her behalf, because he was so uncomfortable with her presence. It has taken three years for them to be able to sit at a table and share a meal together.
"I cannot fully convey what his experience has been and what justice will need to be done in order to restore him as a whole human being."
She is not interested in speaking for him; all of the men in Guantanamo can speak for themselves, or should be able to, but we're not yet able to hear them. She urged us to read the books and stories of those who have been released and who are telling their stories. "We should struggle to hear the voices, themselves."
"Our work as lawyers in Guantanamo was destined to fail our clients. We have restored the Constitution of the United States; we have restored the integrity of this country, we are on that road. But as a lawyer, I cannot replace the years that have been lost for my clients, for their families, or for their children."
She described, too, the difficult situation of working in that system, when appointments with clients can take months to schedule. "What are we doing? What are lawyers doing? We can't restore the life that has been lost; and many lawyers, like many doctors and medics, have been part of the injustice in Guantanamo." Lawyers have skillfully redefined torture, so that the things we have considered torture when they were done to us in the Korean war are now called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
"My hope," she said, "rests with you." Justice is not something we simply enshrine in our Constitution, but something we "live and breathe and act to accomplish," together. She closed by saying:
Let us reach out and grab a hand, in this darkness, and pull our country through this night. And in the darkness, we may touch the hand of a Muslim who is detained in Guantanamo. And in this darkness, we may touch one another's hands. We may also touch the hands of a torturer, who is reaching out with a tormented soul. But we will touch the hand of God together in doing this work.
Technorati tags: religion, Judaism, Guantanamo, RHR2008.