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Lawyer: Freed Gitmo Prisoner Binyam Mohamed Experienced “Nightmare We Can’t Imagine”

StoryFebruary 26, 2009
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A British resident held in US custody for seven years has accused US officials of torturing him and beating him dozens of times while he was held at a secret CIA prison and later at Guantanamo. The Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed returned to Britain on Monday after becoming the first prisoner to be released from Guantanamo since President Obama took office. We speak to Binyam Mohamed’s attorney, Clive Stafford Smith. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: A British resident held in US custody for seven years has accused US officials of torturing him and beating him dozens of times while he was held at a secret CIA prison and later at Guantanamo. The Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed returned to Britain on Monday after becoming the first prisoner to be released from Guantanamo since President Obama took office.

He was released on the same day the Pentagon issued an eighty-five-page report declaring Guantanamo to be in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. In a statement released to the media, Binyam Mohamed said, “It is still difficult for me to believe that I was abducted, hauled from one country to the next, and tortured in medieval ways — all orchestrated by the United States government.”

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 before being taken to Morocco and Afghanistan and then on to Guantanamo, where he spent more than four years. He also accused the British government of being complicit in his torture.

Clive Stafford Smith joins us right now on the phone from Britain. He is the legal director of the British charity Reprieve and Binyam Mohamed’s attorney.

Welcome to Democracy Now! This week, Clive, we played your reading of Binyam’s statement. What do you understand at this point? Have you met with him in Britain? What is he saying? What happened to him?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, he’s right near where I am right now. We’re in the countryside trying to hide from the British media, quite frankly, because they’re quite voracious. But he’s just trying to recover from seven years of a nightmare, the like of which I don’t think any of us could really imagine. And he just wants to get over that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what he says happened to him. And would you like to put him on the phone?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: No, no, he’s not willing to do that yet. But I tell you, he will be willing to at some point, because it’s such an important story. It’s a very long story. I’ll give you a brief Reader’s Digest version.

He was in Pakistan, where we have the first evidence of him being held in custody by the Pakistanis and the US and where the torture began. And he had always told me about that since I first met him in 2005 in Gitmo. But now there’s evidence that the British judges who have looked at some of these materials indicate that there is documentary proof from the United States, written by US personnel, admitting — you know, even sort of boasting, I’m afraid — that US personnel were responsible for torturing Binyam at that point.

There’s a long story that led to him being rendered then to Morocco, where the torture got far worse. And at that point, he has a razor blade taken to his genitals and all sorts of other horrendous things. Again, this was at the behest of the CIA. We have the flight logs that prove that what he said was happening was true. All along, you know, the British knew that some of this was going on. They did nothing to stop it. The US was responsible for the torture.

I mean, I speak as someone with both a British and American passport, and I must say I am ashamed. And we need to make sure this gets aired very, very publicly, not because Binyam wants revenge — he really doesn’t — but because his position is that you really can’t learn from history unless you know what that history is. And you’ve got to understand what it was that led these lunatics in the Bush administration to go down that path. It’s frightening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the US efforts to keep this information secret and to prevent it from getting out in British courts?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, that’s true, and get out in American courts. I mean, I have the benefit of a security clearance, so I get to see an awful lot of this information. And obviously, I have to respect that rule, and I can’t tell you what it is. But there are public indications already that give you a general sense that both judges in Britain and judges in America have been privy to evidence that shows that our governments were responsible for Binyam’s torture and were actively supervising it.

Now, I don’t know what it is that gives the government the right to suppress evidence of criminal offenses by government officials. I mean, we know the Mafia does that. We know the Medellin Cartel suppresses evidences of criminal offenses. But I don’t know what the law is that says that the US government and the British government can do that, and I think that’s part of the inquiry we need to go into.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised that the Obama administration upheld or continued the policy of President Bush’s administration on keeping these state secret?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, of course, that’s disappointing, but I do think we should give the poor guy a bit of a chance. I mean, he has inherited so many poison chalices from the Bush administration, and he’s been confronted by so many difficult decisions early on, that I like to think — and I may be naive here, but I like to think that these are preliminary decisions that can be reversed when they’ve had a chance to look into the facts and see what’s really going on out there.

If you state the question to President Obama, you know, “Mr. Obama, do you really want to continue the process of maintaining secret evidence that US officials have committed the criminal offense of torture?” then I don’t think his answer would be, “Yes, I do want to go down that path and follow George Bush.” And I think he needs a little time to figure out what his policies really are. And so, we need to keep pressing him and make sure that he gets the facts he needs to get in order to make the right decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that one of his first executive orders was the closing of Guantanamo — in his, well, almost State of the Union address the other night, he said we are against torture. But then, the latest news coming out from various lawyers, saying that the conditions at Guantanamo are getting worse since President Obama took office.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, you know, one man doth not a country make. And in this particular situation, you know, again, he has inherited a bit of a nightmare.

I’ve been to Guantanamo many, many times, and there is a mindset down there that’s just divorced from the reality of the world. And, you know, I don’t mean to imply in any sense that all of the officers in Guantanamo are sociopaths trying to beat prisoners up. Of course, that’s not true. But there is a mindset that somehow it’s OK to have a prison that is worse than any death row I’ve ever visited — and I’ve been to almost all of them in the Deep South — that it’s somehow OK to have that sort of a prison and to keep the prisoners from ever seeing their families or talk to their families, or what have you, and say that somehow that’s conducive to treating people consistent with the Geneva Conventions. I mean, that’s ludicrous. Of course, it’s not. You know, if you look at Colditz, for goodness’ sake, you know, in World War II they didn’t even treat the Allied prisoners that way in Germany. So it’s certainly not consistent with the Geneva Conventions, and we need to make sure that that place closes down quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Clive Stafford Smith, I want to thank you for being with us, Binyam Mohamed’s attorney. He’s with him in the British countryside right now, just released from Guantanamo.

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