The British government has announced that the four remaining British citizens held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo will be released. The four Brits are: Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. We speak with Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]
The British government has announced that the four remaining British citizens held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo will be released. This follows months of negotiations between Washington and London and a direct appeal by Prime Minister Tony Blair to U.S. President George W. Bush, as well as multiple lawsuits filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The four Brits are: Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar. It is not clear when they will be released.
On Democracy Now!, we have covered these cases extensively, particularly that of Moazzam Begg. He was detained in Pakistan in 2001 and has been imprisoned without charge or trial in Guanatanmo after being transferred there from a base in Afghanistan. Last April, his father Azmat Begg joined us in our studio to talk about his son"s imprisonment. Here is some of what he had to say.
- Azmat Begg, speaking on Democracy Now, March 10, 2004.
Meanwhile, the Australian government says one of its citizens held at Guantanamo will also be released. Mamdouh Habib has been held at Guantanamo Bay for three years. He filed a lawsuit charging that in 2001 the U.S. transferred him to Egypt for 6 months, where he was electrocuted, beaten and nearly drowned. Habib alleges that while under Egyptian detention, he was hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned and brutally beaten. Habib’s case is only the second to describe a secret practice called "rendition," under which the CIA has sent suspected terrorists to be interrogated in countries where torture has been well documented. It is unclear which U.S. agency transferred him to Egypt. His was the first case to challenge the legality of the practice and could have implications for U.S. plans to send large numbers of Guantanamo Bay detainees to Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other countries with poor human rights records.
- Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of "Guantanamo: What the World Should Know."
AMY GOODMAN: On Democracy Now! we have covered these cases extensively, particularly the case of Moazzam Begg. He was detained in Pakistan in 2001, has been in prison without charge or trial in Guantanamo after being transferred there from a base in Afghanistan. Last April, Moazzam’s father, Azmat Begg, joined us in our studio to talk about his son’s imprisonment. This is an excerpt of what he had to say.
AZMAT BEGG: He was captured from Islamabad, which is the capital of Pakistan, where he was staying with his wife and children. Very small children, starting from the age of 1 to 4 or 5. He had three children at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: And where was he taken? When was this?
AZMAT BEGG: It was about two years now, over two years now. He was taken from his house in front of his daughter and his wife. Two American soldiers, assisted by two Pakistani soldiers, pulled him out, bundled him up, and put him into the trunk of the car, and took him away. And he rang me up from the trunk of the car, possibly he had a mobile, and he told me, in the middle of the night here in England, that, "Daddy, I have been arrested." I said, "What for?" It was a very [inaudible] sort of noise; I couldn’t believe. He said, "I’ve been arrested, Daddy." I said, "Why?" He said, "I don’t know. And they are taking me somewhere, which I do not know. Please take care of my wife and children who are" at so and so address in Islamabad.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you?
AZMAT BEGG: I was in England. I was in England, half asleep.
AMY GOODMAN: So he was taken to Guantanamo. Have you had contact?
AZMAT BEGG: No. They didn’t take him straight away to Guantanamo. They took him to Afghanistan and kept [him] in a provisional kind of house called a "Mantua cell." And then they transferred him to another place in Afghanistan, which is known as Bagram Air Base, where he was badly treated, very badly treated.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know?
AZMAT BEGG: Because I received letters. Through the Red Cross. The Red Cross people came down to me to deliver the letters. [I was] having correspondence with him through the Red Cross all the time. And then when a little bit of noise raised in the U.K., they transferred him to Guantanamo Bay. He was badly treated. He was deprived of proper food. He was deprived of natural light: sun, moon, or anything. He says, "I haven’t seen sun, moon, or sky for the last whole one year, except for two minutes. I’m being treated like an animal. They pull me and push me into cages, and that’s how I am here now. At times I don’t get food and my clothes are torn. They don’t care, and I don’t know whom to go to."
AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to him?
AZMAT BEGG: Never.
AMY GOODMAN: He writes you letters?
AZMAT BEGG: He wrote his letters when he was in Kandahar, in Bagram, and he also wrote letters from Guantanamo Bay when he was transferred.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Azmat Begg, the father of Moazzam Begg, speaking on Democracy Now! last March. Meanwhile, the Australian government says one of its citizens held at Guantanamo will also be released. Mamdouh Habib has been held at Guantanamo for three years. He filed a lawsuit charging that in 2001 the U.S. transferred him to Egypt for six months where he was electrocuted, beaten and nearly drowned. Habib alleges that while under Egypt detention he was hung by his arms from hooks, repeatedly shocked, nearly drowned, brutally beaten. Habib’s case is only the second to describe a secret practice known as rendition, under which the C.I.A. has sent suspected terrorists to be interrogated in countries where torture is well documented. It’s unclear which U.S. agency transferred him to Egypt. He was the first case to challenge the legality of the practice and could have implications for U.S. plans to send large numbers of Guantanamo detainees to Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other countries with poor human rights records. Michael Ratner joins us, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Welcome, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER: Thank you for having me, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is very big news that’s come out. Tell us more about it.
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, it’s huge news. My first reaction, I had heard something in the last day or so that there might be a bunch of people released. I got up this morning and I saw that it was going to be the four English people and Habib. I have to tell you, the first reaction was just big tears rolled down my eyes. You and I know Mr. Begg’s father Azmat, and we saw the cut where he just cried. He has been there for three years. When I was in England, I met with Richard Belmar’s wife, and she just cried and cried and cried. It reminded me of the time ten years ago or more when we freed Haitian refugees from Guantanamo. So my first reaction was just joy for these families of the people, as well as the people. My second reaction was "What an outrage! What an amazing outrage!" People called the worst of the worst, three of these people put before military tribunals for possible life sentences, those three people also being released of course, one of them being Begg, one Mr. Abbasi and one Mr. Habib. Just shocking.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about this. What does it mean to say they’ll be released? Have they ever been charged?
MICHAEL RATNER: No. They have never been charged, even though they were put before tribunals, three of them, they were never given any charges. They were just said to be the worst of the worst. Our hope is that this is the beginning of a huge number of releases. What I really think is going on is now that we won the Supreme Court case in June of this year, in June of 2004, we’re getting lawyers down there. The government soon will have to justify these detentions in an American Federal Court and I don’t think they can do it. I think this was a fraud from beginning to end. Unspeakable fraud, something that I hope will never, never happen again. Of course, going forward, we have our issues. One is these people, of course, will go back to their countries and hopefully be released very, very quickly, as the Tipton people in England were, but there will be many that remain in Guantanamo. The U.S. is already planning a permanent prison there to indefinitely detain people. So we’re going to have to still struggle for a number of people there. It is conceivable that not only was it the lawyers’ efforts here, and the fact that the government couldn’t justify these detentions, but also the fact that someone like Habib, who was charging the government with sending him to Egypt for six months of torture in what you accurately described as this rendition process. That’s still going to be able to be sued upon. We still want to end it. One of my fears is that they use Guantanamo for a permanent prison now, where are they going to do all of these extreme measures of interrogation. They’re going to be in C.I.A. holes around the world or in other countries around the world where they render people. So we’re only at the beginning of the end of what has been a nightmare, a real nightmare for these people, for law, for morality, for politics.
AMY GOODMAN: We go from what has happened to these people at Guantanamo. Again, now we have the four of them being released as well as the Australian government saying one of its citizens will be released, Mamdouh Habib, who was rend — would you say "rendered" to Egypt?
MICHAEL RATNER: It is the word we use, although it’s a word used for killing animals, usually.
AMY GOODMAN: At the same time, you have the latest news from the Charles Graner trial. This is the person who is considered the ringleader at Abu Ghraib involved in torture. The remarkable statements of his lawyer when showing the naked men piled up, the prisoners piled up on top of each other in the photographs of them, saying, "Isn’t this what you — isn’t this what cheerleaders do all the time in the United States? Right? They get into pyramids."
MICHAEL RATNER: What an utterly foolish and ridiculous statement when I read it, and what a misstatement of what we all know was torture and abuse on the worst level. Foolish, foolish defense. He did have and he does have a better defense than that. It’s the defense that’s what I would call the Alberto Gonzales-Pinochet defense. As we recall, Gonzales approved essentially a memo that said that torture is only organ failure or possible — close to — being close to death. So, his better defense would be, "Look at, there’s orders out there. There’s a memo out there that defines torture in such a narrow way, and that was the U.S. definition for the last two-and-a-half years that what you see in these photographs, it is not torture. According to Alberto Gonzales and the Department of Justice, it is not torture. My client was thinking it was a lawful order or had the understanding it was a lawful order. He heard from military intelligence to soften these people up." The defense here is chain of command. It’s not that those pictures out there are some high school cheerleading team.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, Graner’s lawyer saying using a leash on the prisoners is a valid method of controlling detainees, especially those who might be soiled with feces. He said, "You’re keeping control of them. A tether is a valid control to be used in corrections in Texas. We’d lasso them and drag them out of there."
MICHAEL RATNER: Well, unfortunately, that’s probably correct, and as we know what our prison scandals reflect in Guantanamo and in Abu Ghraib and in Bagram are really a reflection of our own prisons in the United States where this kind of conduct is not infrequent and where some of the very people involved in the tortures in Guantanamo were people who had at one point been in American prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: Now that these men are being released from Guantanamo, and there are still hundreds there, is that right?
MICHAEL RATNER: Yes, there were 550. These are a half dozen being released. But I expect, I hope, I pray, that we get another couple hundred out in the next few weeks. I cannot say that. There was an article that said that might happen. But it does seem that to the extent this government, this Bush administration, has to justify these detentions in court, it cannot do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Do they sue afterwards?
MICHAEL RATNER: I think a lot of them have. We have one suit on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees already for damages against the Tipton people, the three English against Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and others. And yes, I think Habib will continue to sue. Others can, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: You have recently returned, Michael Ratner, from Berlin, where you’re involved with a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld. It’s hardly gotten any attention here. What’s it about?
MICHAEL RATNER: In Europe it got huge attention. It’s a case to try and bring ten high officials starting with Rumsfeld on down into the criminal court in Berlin to say they have to face charges for war crimes which are the tortures of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram. As I said, it’s a big issue in Europe which understands the nature of torture, indefinite detentions and disappearances. Unfortunately our country apparently doesn’t. Right now, this government still, the Bush administration still, is trying to say it’s Graner and no one else involved in these tortures. We know when you listen to the travesty of that Gonzales hearing we know this is all the way at the top.
AMY GOODMAN: He is expected, Alberto Gonzales, to be confirmed, and that’s according to the democratic senators, people like Charles Schumer, the New York senator, the democrats joining with the republicans. Your comment.
MICHAEL RATNER: Anyone in their right mind could vote to confirm Alberto Gonzales is basically saying I approve torture. I approve those pictures at Abu Ghraib. I approve what happened in Guantanamo. I approve what happened in Bagram. That’s what they’re saying. It’s just a moral, legal and political outrage.
AMY GOODMAN: Most interestingly, the letter from the retired generals and admirals. It seems to be lawyers within the military who are most protesting his appointment to be Attorney General.
MICHAEL RATNER: The lawyers in the military have been outstanding. First they did that, then the lawyers we work with on military commissions, of course, one of them, Habib’s lawyer, basically said these commissions are nothing but a kangaroo court. On and on like that. It’s the military lawyers. Even Powell objected to the original Gonzales memo saying don’t use Geneva here.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in this new year, Time magazine for 2004 named President Bush as "Man of the Year," but Time magazine Canada named Maher Arar, a name hardly known in this country.
MICHAEL RATNER: Maher Arar is our client at the Center, someone who was transiting Kennedy to go back to his Canadian home, Canadian citizen. They pick him up, interrogate him here for ten days, send him to Syria. He is put in an underground torture chamber, is tortured for a number of weeks. Finally released because the Canadian government or some part of the Canadian government that had not cooperated with the United States in this effort got him out. He’s back in Canada. There’s a public inquiry started. He was the first guy we surfaced ever in one of these outrageous, extraordinary rendition cases. Tortured very badly. As you and I speak, the numbers are probably in the hundreds of people in C.I.A. holes around the world being tortured right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, I want to thank you for being with us. President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. His latest book is called Guantanamo: What the World Should Know.