Case dismissed! On Monday morning eight bewildered-looking ex-defendants filed out of Courtroom 116 at DC Superior Court after the prosecution stated the government was “not ready,” and the case was immediately dismissed. I was one of the eight, and I felt a sort of comedic relief that overcame my letdown. After working for months on trial prep conference calls, we’d had a grueling mock trial the night before in front of our mock judge, attorney Mark Goldstone. “Fantastic performance,” according to Mark, who knows how to bring out the best in us, but we defendants were not so sure. It was a restless night for each of us. And so hearing “case dismissed” after only 30 seconds in front of the judge felt like a balloon popping! Maybe that “balloon” was our collective ego. We had so much to tell the court, so much that was so, so important. And now our “statement” came down to the simple act of standing before the judge. Well, we showed up ready to roll, right? Unlike the government! We lamented it was too early to go out for a beer, so we debriefed over coffee in the courthouse coffee shop instead. And by the time we emerged from the courthouse for our post-dismissal group photo, we were all smiles!
We offer a heart full of thanks to both our attorney advisors, Mark Goldstone and Matt Daloisio. Matt told us after the mock trial the previous evening to trust in ourselves and just keep the message simple. He reminded us that what we chanted in the Senate on January 12th was indeed a simple and powerful message: “US Torture: It’s official. Prosecute now!” Let this message guide our words at trial.
And Mark guided us with a marvelous, if nerve-wracking, pedagogical method: he just kept throwing us into the water and telling us to swim. He would plunge us into mock trials without much in the way of preliminary advice, and then after asking many probing questions of us as “judge,” he would affirm all that had emerged from us as we found our way through the practice. In this way, he taught us that the truth is within us. We know what matters. Let it emerge from our hearts and souls.
Matt reminded us that none of this preparation is lost. Not only have we learned a great deal, but we have been strengthened by the experience. And so we parted with these simple words: “Til next time!”
Torture in the spotlight during Torture Awareness Week: by Josie Setzler
Legalized Torture: From Guantanamo Bay to Rikers Even in the wake of two WAT trial dismissals this week, many WAT activists stayed in town for events commemorating Torture Awareness Week. Tuesday evening, many of us attended a panel entitled Legalized Torture: From Guantanamo Bay to Rikers, held by Amnesty International at the Friends Meeting of Washington. Dr. Maha Hilal, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, emphasized the role of dehumanization in producing torture. At Guantanamo, she told us, dehumanization took three forms: first, a cultural erasure, then a legal erasure, leading finally to the physical erasure that is torture. She emphasized that torture is part of a continuum, not a discrete act. Prior to torture, people are dehumanized to get the public conditioned to accept it and that becomes part of the torture itself. According to Maha, the word “moral” is not part of the current conversation about torture, citing a 2014 poll showing that 59% of Americans think that CIA torture was justified.
Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, also emphasized that Americans have been conditioned to accept torture in recent years. Mendez was tortured in Argentina before moving to the US in 1977. He found there was more consistent moral condemnation of torture when he arrived in the US than there is today. He pointed to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture as evidence that the analysis has shifted away from a moral framework. Much of the report is given over to showing that torture was not effective. The UN Convention Against Torture unconditionally condemns torture, however, without any consideration of its effectiveness. Mendez asked the audience, “What kind of price do we pay if we engage in torture?”
El-Hajj Mauri Saalakhan, a DC-based human rights advocate and representative of the Jericho Movement, said that lowering standards regarding torture affects not only us but generations to come. He quoted Frederick Douglass: “A man is worked on by what he works on. He may carve out his circumstance, but his circumstances will carve him out as well.” Mauri believes the same can be said for nations: Our nation will surely be damaged by the torture it inflicts.
We left the event with the sure conviction that the real torture debate needs to happen among American citizens in our own communities, churches, and schools. Can we recover a communal sense of torture as a moral issue? If not, we will wait in vain for legislators, judges, and civic leaders to hold torturers and torture architects accountable.
TASSC Conference on Torture Wednesday we joined hundreds of people for a day-long conference sponsored by TASSC, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, held at Catholic University of America. Juan Mendez during his keynote address told us that 30-40 countries will not allow his request to visit their facilities, and the US is one of them. The US tells Mendez that federal prisons are “unavailable” to him. He is told that he is allowed to visit the base at Guantanamo but not its prisoners. Mendez will not agree to any such condition. Mendez appealed to the many torture victims from around the world who were in the audience: “We need the support of those of you who can bear witness to your experience and tell that there is life after torture.” Two panels followed the keynote: 1) Human Rights in Africa and the Middle East and 2) Immigration Detention and Torture. The second panel detailed the horrendous conditions facing many torture victims from other countries who seek asylum in the US. Although immigration detention is meant to be “civil” rather than “criminal” detention, the conditions of detention are often far worse than those experienced by criminals in this country. We were urged to advocate with our legislators for humane treatment of torture survivors and other immigrants detained in the US, supporting the efforts of many TASSC torture survivors who visited congressional offices the following day.
Community Prayer Vigil: “Called by God, Sustained by Faith, We Are Not Afraid” WAT members gathered at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, an African-American congregation in NE Washington, Wednesday evening to attend a Community Prayer Vigil to commemorate the victims of the Charleston church shooting. Many people came forward during the period for witness. As each person spoke of his or her personal response to the slayings, a woman in the crowd kept answering “Tell it. Tell it!” We couldn’t help thinking that such advice was meant for each one of us. Tell it, tell it! A minister named Alethia, meaning ‘truth,’ told us that unless there is “a blackness that includes everyone,” the future will be bleak. The moving music, prayer of resistance, candle commitment ceremony, and powerful words by Rev. Graylan S. Hagler all reminded us of the connections “from Ferguson to Guantanamo” that we are gradually learning to make. We spoke afterwards with several members of the congregation and hope to stay in touch for future work.
White House Vigil On Friday we joined the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker at their weekly vigil in front of the White House. Now it was again time to make the story personal. We held a huge canvas portrait of Guantanamo detainee Tariq Ba Odah, while Aliya Hussain of the Center for Constitutional Rights told his story. In 2006 CCR filed a habeas petition on Tariq’s behalf. Last week CCR filed a motion for his immediate release, because his weight has declined to a life-endangering 75 pounds after having been on hunger strike since 2007 and force-fed daily. According to CCR, “Tariq says that protesting by hunger striking is the only way to communicate to those of us who have our freedom what it means to be unjustly detained, to be put in a cell for over a decade without charge.” We recalled that torture continues at Guantanamo through the widely condemned practices of force-feeding and prolonged solitary confinement.
After reading a closing prayer composed by Sr. Diana Ortiz, torture survivor and founder of TASSC, Art Laffin circled us up to sing about each one sitting under her own “vine and fig tree” where we all shall “study war no more.” Passers-by paused to film us and join our circle. Earlier in the vigil a Muslim woman stepped up and hugged each and every person holding the long Close Guantanamo banner. I was reminded of the words of encouragement we heard earlier in the week: “Tell it. Tell it!” To bear witness contains a power we do not direct or control. We simply consent to “tell it,” and the rest is grace.