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2008-01-11

On its Sixth Anniversary, Calls Resound Worldwide for Closure of Guantanamo Bay Prison

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Over 800 men and boys, so-called "enemy combatants," have been held without charge at Guantanamo since January 11, 2002. We speak to Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We’re also joined by London-based writer Mogib Hassan. His cousin, Fawaz Mahdi, was jailed in Guantanamo for over five years. He was released in June but has been suffering severe psychological problems and has tried committing suicide several times. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the sixth year that the United States has been illegally holding prisoners of the so-called “war on terror” in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Over 800 men and boys, so-called “enemy combatants,” have been held without charge at Guantanamo since January 11, 2002. Not one of these detainees has been put on trial. Hundreds have been released without charge after years in detention. Four prisoners have committed suicide, and many others have tried to do so. Today, 275 people are still imprisoned at Guantanamo.

The illegality of the detention center, as well as the counts of prisoner abuse, have been condemned around the world. But the Bush administration shows no sign of closing down Guantanamo.

Today, people are gathering across the country and around the world for an international day of action to shut down Guantanamo and release those who are still being held there.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Michael Ratner. Michael Ratner is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been challenging the presence of the prison camp at Guantanamo for this six years. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael.

Today, there are protests around the world. We’re going to be going to Yemen in a minute to hear about a conference that’s taking place there of family members and freed prisoners from Guantanamo. But talk about your first challenge to this prison. How did it get set up, and where are we today?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, you know, the Center, where I work, started with Guantanamo in the Haitian cases in the early ’90s. And even in that point, which was the first Bush administration —-

AMY GOODMAN: This was during the coup.

MICHAEL RATNER: During the coup. The first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration, sadly, looked at Guantanamo as a place where no law applied. Then you had the war in Afghanistan, and they picked up hundreds of people in Afghanistan, often through bribery and other means, and then, to our shock, they said they’re going to send them to Guantanamo. Now, we knew why they were going to send them to Guantanamo. It’s because their view is that no court or anybody can go to Guantanamo, has jurisdiction over it or can visit it. And that’s what they did.

And we picked up our first case, which was really the first Guantanamo case, was David Hicks, the Australian, who eventually got released on a guilty plea to nine months in jail -— he’s out now in Australia — but after they first wanted him to serve twenty or thirty years or more. So that’s how it began.

We’ve been in the Supreme Court now for the third time and awaiting a decision on whether there’s even the fundamental right to go to court for Guantanamo detainees. So think about that: six years, January 11, 2002, we have not yet had one federal court hearing for a Guantanamo detainee. Supreme Court twice has said you can have it. Twice, Congress, and many Democrats, sadly, going along with it, have said we’ll take away that right. And now we’re again waiting it.

So Guantanamo really stands for, in my view, everything — almost everything that’s wrong in this so-called war on terror: indefinite detentions without trial, torture, disappearances. And I say “stands for” because we understand it’s not the only institution that the protests are trying to close today. Bagram has 650 people, no lawyers visiting, torture going on. Secret sites all over the world.

And yet, this country continues on its way. The Bush administration does. And, yes, some of the candidates have called for closing, but are they really going to close it? I can’t say they are. I remember my experience with Clinton, when he said he would close Guantanamo Haitian camp in the ’90s, and he didn’t. We had to continue to litigate it. You cannot take the promises of these candidates for their word. They have to really be out there. This isn’t part of our public debate. It’s really very sad to me that it’s not.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about, to what degree the American people are aware, the enormous international outrage, virtually every country in the world, over the continuing existence of Guantanamo.

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, I think they’re not. I think the American people have their usual ostrich — or at least a lot of them — their ostrich-like mentality where what the rest of the world thinks does not affect them. But, of course, it should, and it does, because this has really painted America as iconic in the Muslim world, particularly, but in the whole world of human rights, as essentially a Pinochet-like dictatorship. Let’s remember, that’s what Pinochet did. He ran Operation Condor, picked up people all over the world, took them into penal sites, tortured them and killed them. What is the difference, I would ask the American people, between us and Pinochet on this?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Yemen for a moment. We’re going to turn now to a case of another man held in Guantanamo Bay. Fawaz Naman Hamoud Abdullah Mahdi was in Guantanamo for over five years. He was twenty years old when he was arrested. He was released in June 2007 to authorities in Yemen, where he spent another three months in prison. He’s now with his family, but has been suffering severe psychological problems and has tried committing suicide several times.

Fawaz Mahdi is one of tens of men and boys from Yemen who have been held at Guantanamo. Of the 275 prisoners still at Guantanamo, a full third of them are from Yemen. Since 2002, only twelve Yemenis have been released.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mogib Hassan is a London-based writer and Fawaz Mahdi’s cousin. He came to Yemen to participate in a conference highlighting the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo. Mogib Hassan joins us now on the phone from Sanaa in Yemen. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MOGIB HASSAN: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you now. I am very glad to have the chance to speak about Fawaz Hamoud, who is my cousin.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your cousin.

MOGIB HASSAN: Sorry. Could you repeat the question, please?

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your cousin.

MOGIB HASSAN: How old?

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about him. Tell us about your cousin, who was held at Guantanamo for over five years.

MOGIB HASSAN: Oh, sure. Well, his name is Fawaz Naman Hamoud, as you mentioned, and he is twenty-six years old. He left — he was grown up for most of his life in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia. And then he came back to Yemen for his high school — final year of high school, and did not finish that, because he had psychological problems, and there are medical reports to prove that. And all of a sudden, he was kind of lost, and nobody knew where he was. And then, three weeks later, he called his mother, telling her that he was in Afghanistan, and the whole family was in shock. And later on, after the 9/11, they found out that he was one of the people who were captured by the United States, and he was sent to Guantanamo.

I have read in some reports by Amnesty International — and it is still posted in their website — saying that medical doctors have always said that he’s psychologically troubled and he’s absolutely abnormal and he’s not supposed to be in prison. And he spent in Guantanamo almost five years and half.

During the time that he was in prison in Guantanamo, he lost his father, who died when he was forty-nine years old in an accident in Saudi Arabia, and his grandfather, grandmother died, and my father, who is his uncle, died six months ago, in fact, just after he was released from Guantanamo, but he was still in prison in Yemen, where he spent six months — sorry, three months in the Yemeni prison in Sanaa. And when he came out of prison, then he really had to face the new reality.

Today, we have managed to meet his mother with a filmmaker, who’s an American. Her name is Laura, and she made a short interview with his mother, who is with Fawaz now. In fact, she’s living in Saudi Arabia with the rest of the family. But she is here in Sanaa now to be with Fawaz, because he needs some help. And I must say that he is in a very serious condition. He locked himself in his room, refused to eat anything that is homemade, because he doesn’t trust anyone anymore. And he has been trying to commit suicide at least two times. And that was mentioned by his mother. And he refused even to meet me, knowing that I am a human rights activist. He thinks that I am just one of those traitors and I’m going to harm him. And he lost absolutely trust, anything that has to do with trust in people.

And I must also mention the fact that he thinks that he is the son of God. And he certainly needs like — he needs help. And unfortunately, in Yemen here, people who were released from Guantanamo are really ignored and controlled very much. In one occasion, he — after being released from the Yemeni prison, he had to travel to Marib, which is another city maybe a few hours out of Sanaa, and then he was captured, and he was put in prison for at least twenty-four hours, and he was interrogated, because he’s not supposed to travel, even within Yemen, without [inaudible] permission.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Mogib Hassan, I’d like to ask you, you mentioned others from Yemen who have been held in Guantanamo. Fully, apparently, about a third of all the inmates there are — or the detainees there are from Yemen. What has been the attitude of the Yemeni government to so many of people from your country being held illegally by the United States?

MOGIB HASSAN: Well, in fact, that was the whole idea about having the conference in Yemen, because the Yemeni government is accused of doing absolutely nothing to try to free its people from Guantanamo, because until now, we are the largest community, if that’s the right word, in Guantanamo. Until now, we have 101 prisoners, when Saudi Arabia, which was the largest community in prison, has only thirteen people in prison. The Yemeni government has always been using that excuse that we are doing our best, but the Americans are not willing to do such-and-such. But after the effort done by volunteer lawyers, as well as human rights activists, it’s proven that the Yemeni government has not been doing enough to free the people, and therefore the conference was held in Yemen, and hopefully the Yemeni government will be encouraged to do more.

And some lawyers have been trying to — at least one of the lawyers — his name is David, I don’t remember his family name — and he was trying to arrange for a meeting with President Saleh yesterday. I’m not sure if he managed to do that. We have managed to get signatures of many MPs in the parliament in Yemen. And there is also a plan to have a demonstration in front of the parliament to try and put pressure on the government to do more to free the people from Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Mogib Hassan, we want to thank you for joining us from Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, where this conference is taking place, this gathering of hundreds of prisoners, of family members, of human rights activists, who, on this sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo, have gathered.

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