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As Gitmo Prisoners Revolt, Obama Admin Challenged on Indefinite Detention at OAS Hearing

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As more than 100 Guantánamo Bay prisoners enter the fifth week of their hunger strike, the Obama administration has defended their detention at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. A number of prisoners have been held without charge for more than 11 years, and more than half have been cleared for release. Attorneys for the prisoners told the hearing that the lack of hope for release among those who do not face charges has created a climate of despair. The senior adviser for Guantánamo policy countered that the Obama administration is working within restrictions imposed by Congress to transfer prisoners out of the prison as part of an effort to close the facility — one of President Obama’s original campaign promises. We speak to Kristine Huskey, director of the Anti-Torture Program for Physicians for Human Rights and one of the first attorneys to represent Guantánamo detainees. The author of “Justice at Guantánamo: One Woman’s Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights,” Huskey testified at Tuesday’s hearing. We’re also joined by Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue now with our look at detainees held indefinitely at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as we turn to a hearing that took place Tuesday before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Attorneys for the prisoners warned the lack of hope for release among those who do not face charges has created a climate of despair. This is Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Omar Farah speaking before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

OMAR FARAH: I represent Tariq Ba Odah, for example. He’s a young Yemeni man who’s been on an uninterrupted hunger strike since February 2007. He is force-fed daily by Guantánamo guard staff. In fact, as we speak, it’s likely that he’s being removed from his cell, strapped to a restraint chair, and a rubber tube is being inserted into his nose to pump a liquid dietary supplement into his stomach. Quite simply, Tariq says this is the only way that he has to communicate to those of us who have our freedom what it means to be unjustly detained, to be put in a cell for a decade without charge. It’s his only way to, in fact, communicate the barbarism of such conduct.

So I’d like to conclude by addressing the state directly. In light of the moral challenge that Tariq Ba Odah and the other prisoners at Guantánamo present; in light of the existential torment that indefinite detention creates for Guantánamo prisoners and the physical risks that it poses; in light of the fact that the state itself has conceded that more than half of the prisoners, the state no longer has an interest in detaining, through the clearances that my colleague just described; in light of the fact that nine prisoners have died at Guantánamo in U.S. custody—and after 11 years, when is enough enough?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Omar Farah speaking Tuesday at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Well, U.S. State Department official Michael Williams also testified at the hearing. The senior adviser for Guantánamo policy countered that the Obama administration is working within restrictions imposed by Congress to transfer prisoners out of the prison as part of an effort to close the facility, one of the president’s original campaign promises.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The U.S. government continues to stand by its decisions to designate certain detainees for transfer subject to appropriate security measures. We have transferred 71 of those individuals, including the resettlement of 40 detainees in third countries in cases where the U.S. government identified humane treatment or related concerns in the individual’s country of origin. There are 56 individuals designated for transfer who remain at Guantánamo. Each potential transfer is individually assessed, as was the practice of the administration prior to the legislative restrictions, to examine whether appropriate security measures can be taken in the receiving country to mitigate the potential security threat the transferred individual may pose.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Williams, State Department.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Kristine Huskey, director of the Anti-Torture Program for Physicians for Human Rights, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. She also testified. She was one of the first attorneys to represent Guantánamo detainees and is the author of Justice at Guantánamo: One Woman’s Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights.

Also still with us is Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Her client is one of the Guantánamo prisoners who’s on hunger strike at the moment.

Let’s talk—turn to Kristine. Tell us what you said yesterday.

KRISTINE HUSKEY: Well, I addressed—on behalf of my organization, Physicians for Human Rights, which uses medicine and science to advocate for human rights, I was addressing the psychological and physical consequences of indefinite detention at Guantánamo. So, for example, you know, as Pardiss said, I think the hunger strike and the intrusion into religious practices really is sort of a trigger point in the context of a much larger problem, which is the indefinite detention that’s going on at Guantánamo. And in this situation, you have a severe, severe and lasting psychological trauma. And this is caused by chronic states of stress, anxiety and dread, because, essentially, these people at Guantánamo don’t know if they’re going to be released, if ever. They don’t know if they’re going to be charged. They know some people will be charged, but yet not everyone who might be charged has been charged. They don’t know if they’re ever going to see their family again. Now it’s been over 10 years, and you have people who left their children who were, you know, young toddlers; they’re now young teenagers. And they have no way of knowing whether they should cut those ties and tell their family to forget about them or try to keep those ties. And they have extremely irregular contact with their families.

So all of this uncertainty and uncontrollability causes extreme stress on the immune system, the cardiovascular system. It leads to asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, spread of cancer, viral infections, hypertension, depression, suicide, PTSD. So, you know, yesterday the state testified, the United States testified, as to the great care and hospital facilities and beds and primary care providers, but that all does not negate the psychological trauma caused by this indefinite detention, which in this case really is sort of the epitome of indefinite, because who knows when the war against terrorism will ever end?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Michael Williams, the State Department official who testified at the hearing yesterday, said during his testimony that Guantánamo detainees in fact do not face indefinite detention.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The United States only detains individuals when that detention is lawful and does not intend to hold any individual longer than necessary. For instance, in 2010, following the application of the suspension of transfers to Yemen, the U.S. government did transfer a Yemeni detainee from Guantánamo to Yemen after he was ordered released by a U.S. federal court pursuant to his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. government is acutely aware that the majority of detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni nationals, and recognizes the need to identify solutions for that population as part of our broader transfer efforts.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kristine, that was Michael Williams of the State Department testifying Tuesday. Could you comment on what he said about indefinite detention?

KRISTINE HUSKEY: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a bit of an outright lie to say that they’re not being held in indefinite detention. You know, as I just mentioned, they’re claiming the right to hold these men until the war on terrorism is over, until the hostilities have ended. The hostilities, they claim, are against al-Qaeda and associated forces. So, realistically, what does that mean? It could mean 10 years from now, 20 years from now. It could mean never. Maybe we’ll always have terrorism. I suspect we will. So that’s—I’m sorry, that’s just an unrealistic view of what that means. Guantánamo is the epitome of indefinite detention, as is this sort of war on terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Pardiss Kebriaei, I was wondering if you can weigh in here on that.

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: I’d like to know what he might say to the situation of our client, Djamel Ameziane, who’s an Algerian man who’s been cleared by the Obama administration, has been cleared for years and remains imprisoned at Guantánamo because he needs a third country to be resettled in. So, a statement that, you know, we don’t hold people unlawfully, and we’re holding people pursuant to the law, is just completely inconsistent with what we know of who’s being held right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you also explain, Pardiss, what is the problem with repatriating the Yemeni nationals, the majority of prisoners in Guantánamo, and also this client about whom you spoke from Algeria? Why can’t they return to their countries of origin?

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: Well, the men from Yemen, many of them want to return, and the problem is a moratorium imposed by President Obama, and then restrictions now set up by—enacted by Congress in 2011 and that have been extended until the present. Those restrictions have nothing to do with the individual circumstances of individual Yemeni people at Guantánamo. They have to do with a blanket ban on people on their return to their home countries because of their country of origin. It has nothing to do with individual circumstances. So the problem has really been set up by President Obama and now Congress.

That doesn’t mean those problems are insurmountable. President Obama—if there’s will, if there’s political will, there will be a way. The administration has said that it plans to—that it intends to close Guantánamo, that it is still committed to that, and it still can do that. I have a Yemeni client who was transferred days before the moratorium went into effect. He was cleared. There are 56 Yemenis like him who are cleared who are at Guantánamo. Their detention is absolutely arbitrary. They should be sent back, just like my client, except he was on the lucky side of the moratorium.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to something else Michael Williams said, again, the State Department senior adviser for Guantánamo policy, describing the medical facilities for prisoners during his testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights yesterday.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The detention facility’s joint medical group providers administer care to all detainees at Guantánamo. This includes psychological services and care specific to a detainee’s age group. Detainees are treated at dedicated medical facilities with expert medical staff. The medical facilities are equipped with 30 inpatient beds, a physical therapy area, an audiology booth, optometry exam room, dental treatment suites, and operating room, pharmacy, radiology and central sterilization. Navy hospital corpsmen visit each cell block daily. Upon the request of any detainee for care, these corpsmen can refer them to primary care providers in this joint medical group.

In addition to providing routine medical care, more serious medical conditions can be treated at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantánamo, which provides care to U.S. servicemembers at the base. Additional specialists are available from outside the base to provide care at Guantánamo for medical needs that exceed the capabilities of the U.S. Naval Hospital at Guantánamo. Medical services are available to detainees around the clock, seven days a week, and all detainees must provide informed consent for any procedures.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Williams, the State Department’s senior adviser for Guantánamo policy, describing medical facilities for the prisoners during his testimony at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Kristine Huskey, if you could respond to that, and also talk about one of the men that you represented named Obaidullah.

KRISTINE HUSKEY: Absolutely. Well, as Commissioner Robinson recognized yesterday during the hearing, all the beds in the world and the nice ophthalmologists and, you know, primary care providers does not negate the psychological toll that the men are enduring, and in particular the men who have been cleared for release. Imagine knowing that you have not been found to be dangerous, that you should go home, that you could go home, and it’s really just a matter of political will. So, that does not negate that.

And certainly, I don’t undermine the medical care or the facilities or the level of care. Certainly, there’s psychological care there. But we’re talking about a group of men who, for the first several years, were tortured and abused, in many cases. And that is not in dispute. Neither is in dispute the complicity of many of the healthcare professionals who were down at Guantánamo in the early years. There’s clear records of doctors withholding medication to make prisoners cooperative in interrogations. There’s evidence of doctors being there during interrogations, waterboarding and all that. So, we’re talking—again, this is all in a history and a context of what has gone on at Guantánamo in the last decade. So, you know, the standard of care requires a trusting, therapeutic relationship with your—between the individual and the therapist in order to overcome some of those psychological traumas. And at Guantánamo, that’s just not going to happen. There’s clear evidence that the detainees there don’t trust their doctors, don’t trust the psychologists. So, again, you have this ongoing situation of severe trauma, psychological trauma, that in some cases rises to the level of torture and inhumane treatment.

On the other hand, you don’t have a downright—a restriction on transferring detainees out of Guantánamo. You have difficulties. You have hurdles. You have obstacles. So, you know, I want to say to President Obama, you know, buckle down and do the work. I know it’s going to be hard, but it was done before. In transferring prisoners out of Guantánamo before 2011, there were negotiations with countries. You got assurances that the detainee would not create a threat. That was all done before the National Defense Authorization Act, and it can be done now. I think that Congress is being used as a cover, and the administration needs to step up and do the hard work.

AMY GOODMAN: And Obaidullah?

KRISTINE HUSKEY: Oh, yes, sorry. This is a terrible—this is a terrible situation. Mr. Obaidullah was—you know, is an Afghan citizen. He was taken when he was 18 or 19. His daughter was just a week old. She’s now 10. He really—you know, he was never even accused of being—of targeting U.S. forces or, you know, committing any hostilities. He is accused of having land mines in his—buried in his home, which evidence later showed, you know, there is over 10 million land mines in Afghanistan due to the previous civil war there.

So, even if you believe the allegations against him, there’s no evidence that he has a present threat or a present danger against the United States. In his case, the court even said there’s no evidence of that; it’s just that we think he’s al-Qaeda, or I believe that he’s al-Qaeda. So, his case now is: If you can find that I’m a present threat against the United States, then maybe—maybe—you have some reason to hold me. But now they’re holding men, like my current—or, former client, Mr. Obaidullah, that there’s not even a determination that they constitute a present threat, like the Yemenis.

Mr. Obaidullah is now on hunger strike. And in the first three weeks of his hunger strike, he lost 15 pounds. And he—you know, again, he’s protesting the intrusion to his religious practices and his—you know, the desecration of his Qur’an, but that’s really just a trigger point for the entire situation, which is ongoing indefinite detention and the hopelessness that the detainees feel there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Kristine Huskey, very quickly, before we conclude, one of the arguments made by the State Department official and other government representatives here in the U.S. is that the National Defense Authorization Act has made it—NDAA, has made it more difficult for Guantánamo detainees to be released. Could you comment on that?

KRISTINE HUSKEY: Yeah, you know, as I referenced earlier, it’s a—maybe it’s made it a bit more difficult, but really all it means is that the Obama—the executive branch has to do a little bit of work: They have to get a national security waiver. But as I mentioned, the truth is, the transfers that occurred before, those negotiations with other countries, the administration obtained assurances, the same kind of assurances that are required in the NDAA, that the detainee who is being transferred would not, you know, present a threat. And I have a former client in Portugal who, for the first several years of his being there after his transfer, the Portuguese government surveilled him, they kept tabs on him, he had to check in. He was transferred before the National Defense Authorization Act was passed. That’s the same sort of thing that the act requires. So, it’s not that much more of a burden now, and I think it really is just a political cover.

AMY GOODMAN: Pardiss Kebriaei, last question. That is, you say if they had a will, there would be a way. What is exactly the way that you see President Obama can move forward? He said one of the first—one of his first acts when he became president in 2009 was he would close Guantánamo. He says he’s stopped by Congress. How do you see it happening?

PARDISS KEBRIAEI: I think it starts with starting targeted repatriations and resettlements of the people who, everyone agrees, do not belong at Guantánamo. As Kristine said, there are congressional restrictions in place; they’re not insurmountable. There can be certifications that waive those restrictions. So those resettlements and repatriations are possible. They can happen in a targeted way. And we’re talking about a group of people who the administration and we and everyone agrees do not belong at Guantánamo. So start there.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, and of course we’ll continue to cover this issue. Pardiss Kebriaei is senior staff attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights. Her client, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, is one of the Guantánamo prisoners on hunger strike. We believe more than a hundred of the 166 prisoners, perhaps close to all, are striking right now. Kristine Huskey is with us from Washington, director of the Anti-Torture Program for Physicians for Human Rights, adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, one of the first attorneys to represent Guantánamo prisoners, author of Justice at Guantánamo: One Woman’s Odyssey and Her Crusade for Human Rights. She testified yesterday at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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