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Protesters outside the White House, USA. AP/Press Association Images

Opinion What my years as a military defence lawyer in Guantánamo forced me to see

Guantánamo Bay has just marked its thirteen anniversary; its legacy is as shameful as it is horrifying.

THE OPENING PRINCIPLES of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have stood strong as the human race has faced evolving challenges: “Recognition of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” These words are beyond an aspiration, they are foundation of a just world – and indeed, have been etched in binding treaties such as Convention against Torture, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.

We cannot celebrate all anniversaries. On 11 January, 2015, the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay completed its thirteenth year of operation. Through my experiences as a US military officer and lawyer, I learned first-hand that Guantánamo Bay was not built on a foundation of justice – but on the sin of torture.

Seven hundred and seventy-nine Muslim men and boys have, at one point, been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. Many of them were wrong place, wrong time detainees who were captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere based on false intelligence and cash payments to secret informants. Realising that innocent men had been caught up in this bounty system, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have released nearly 650 prisoners – yet 127 men remain imprisoned on this remote penal colony.

There are 59 current prisoners who have been cleared for release for years – yet they remain. Another 36 have been designated for indefinite detention. While there is not enough information to try them, the US believes they are too dangerous to release. The remaining prisoners are subject to trial by a crumbling military commissions process.

Life as a military lawyer 

On 11 September, 2001, I was a first-year law student at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia, just a short distance from the Pentagon. We could see the smoke rising in the distance from the Pentagon after the plane crash. In 2005, after graduating from law school, I was commissioned into the US Army as a lawyer or JAG (judge advocate) to serve my country.

As a military lawyer, I served two tours in Germany and one tour in northern Iraq during the surge as part of the ‘war on terror’. During these years, I performed several roles – from advising commanders and their units on the laws of war to representing soldiers facing criminal charges before military courts. In 2011, the Pentagon assigned me to serve as a court-appointed lawyer for Guantánamo Bay prisoners before the military commissions as the military’s version of a public defender.

For three years, my assigned duty was to help two of these prisoners should they ever be brought to trial. This included the investigation and pursuit of any and all facts that could mitigate the death penalty, should there be a conviction in a capital case. Even though I served as a military officer and received a paycheque from the US government, court-appointed defence attorneys in the US legal system represent their clients, not the prosecuting government. This was my duty – not only as a defence lawyer, but also as a military officer who had taken an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, be they foreign or domestic.

Multiple violations of human rights

I learned that both men I represented suffered from extreme abuse at the hands of the US government. One, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, is being tried in Guantánamo for complicity in the 9/11 attacks, and is facing the death penalty. Under current policy, anything about his treatment at so-called black sites is to be treated as Top Secret with the exception of those facts that have been officially declassified to date, these include the 183 sessions of waterboarding, 180 hours of sleep deprivation, and the threats to kill his family. Most recently, the world learned in the Senate Torture Report that Mr Mohammad and some other high value detainees had also been sodomised – or sexually assaulted – through a technique called “rectal hydration.”

Another detainee, Obaidullah, a young Afghan villager, arrested in 2002 by coalition forces on a paid informant’s tip, was beaten and forced to confess at knifepoint that some buried land mines (from the Soviet era) near his family’s home were his. This “confession” landed him in Guantánamo Bay. Amnesty International has issued a report into his case and noted that “Obaidullah’s experience exemplifies the multiple violations of human rights perpetrated by the US.”

He has now spent his 12th year in prison without charges, without trial, without any hope of returning to his wife and 12-year-old daughter. Obaidullah has never held his daughter; she was born just days before he was arrested. Like her father, she is smart, witty, and compassionate. She can read his poems and look at his picture – but she too has lost hope of ever meeting him.

Every word that passed from their lips was “presumptively classified”

With this sin of torture, symbolised at Guantánamo Bay, we are witnessing an assault on our universal values and the rule of law. At the start of my assignment, I learned that the US government had silenced its torture victims through a simple means: by making everything they say classified. To my knowledge, there is no country in the world, aside from the United States, where a government has declared that every word, every utterance, and every breath of a prisoner is classified. For Obaidullah, the US government requires his defense counsel to hold “secret” level security clearances. But for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the other “high value detainees,” every word that passed from their lips was “presumptively classified” at the Top Secret level.

Beyond silencing torture victims, this torture has also poisoned the Guantánamo military commissions, which have become internationally decried as unfair, unjust, and illegitimate. Take the ongoing 9/11 death penalty case, which has been in active litigation since May 2012. There have been public reports and legal challenges to several due process violations: listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in the attorney-client meeting rooms; an FBI attempt to recruit a confidential informant on a defense trial team; the prison warden’s seizure and review of privileged defence attorney-client communications; missing defense team computer files and emails; the discovery of the CIA’s ability unilaterally to interrupt the audio and video feed to public observers of the proceedings; and the discovery of the CIA’s ability to monitor confidential communications in the Commission hearing room by use of microphones on counsel’s table.

These attempts to conceal torture have corroded the entire process, and have resulted in unprecedented invasions on the attorney-client privilege, due process, and the right to a fair trial – and these are just for those prisoners who actually have trials. Many others, like Obaidullah, have remained indefinitely detained with no charges and no court date in sight for 13 years.

We, the citizens of the world, must not commit the sin of silence. A great American leader and humanitarian, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” On this 13th anniversary of Guantánamo, celebrate your voice, challenge injustice.

Jason D. Wright, Esq, a US Army veteran and human rights advocate.

In August 2014, the US Army placed then-Major Wright into an ethical dilemma that forced his resignation from the US Army and the case. For more information, please see the New York Times short-film documentary, “A Case Against Torture.”
The Sin of Torture & Guantánamo Bay

‘I’m not a doctor but…’: Ex-CIA chief defends rectal rehydration of inmates

UN official calls for Bush and Cheney to be charged with torture

Tortured: ‘They called a doctor to check if they could continue without killing me’

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