Announcing 2018 Fast for Justice, Jan. 7-14

In Focus - Front Page // Film

Dear Friends,

2018 Fast For Justice, Jan. 7 – 14
Mark your calendars!  Witness Against Torture will return to Washington January 7 – 14 for our 2018 Fast for Justice.  As a community we will again offer our public witness to close Guantanamo, end indefinite detention, and hold torturers accountable.

We hope you’ll join us as we gather at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Washington, DC beginning on the evening of Jan. 7.  We’ll start our fast after having a meal together Monday morning Jan. 8.  On Thursday, Jan. 11 we’ll hold a day of action to mark 16 long years since the first men were brought to Guantanamo.  We’ll conclude our Fast for Justice with a strategic planning weekend, inviting our partners to join us. Further details about the week’s activities will be provided later.  If you plan to come, please let us know at witnesstorture@gmail.com.

Welcome to Camp America:  Inside Guantanamo Bay, Oct. 19 in DC
Please join CCR for a conversation about Guantánamo, art, and activism to celebrate the launch of conceptual documentary artist Debi Cornwall’s new book, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay.   The event will be held Thursday, Oct. 19, 6:00 – 8:00 pm, at Busboys and Poets (14th & V St.) in DC.  Witness Against Torture and DC Justice for Muslims Coalition are cosponsors.  CCR advocacy program manager Aliya Hussain will moderate the conversation with Debi Cornwall, Major Raashid Williams, a defense lawyer with the Military Commissions Defense Organization, and Dr. Maha Hilal, the inaugural Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an organizer with Witness Against Torture.   To learn more about the event, visit CCR’s webpage.

Reflecting on accountability for torture
WAT organizing team member Dr. Maha Hilal recently published an article entitled “Abu Ghraib: The legacy of torture in the war on terror.”  Reflecting on the recent hearing about contractor accountability in the case Al-Shimari v CACI et al, Maha writes: “For the United States in the war on terror, accountability has meant little other than prosecuting the so-called ‘bad apples’ who conduct torture and/or murder in order to make the point that they are an aberration, not a product of a system-wide policy of sanctioned abuse in the war on terror.”

Donate to support our work
Please consider a donation to help fund our annual Fast for Justice this January.  We are completely volunteer driven and run. We have no paid staff; all of the money you donate goes to funding the work we do together. We are fiscally sponsored by the Washington Peace Center. The Washington Peace Center is a verified US-registered non profit. If you are able, click here to donate.

www.witnessagainsttorture.com

Witness Against Torture formed in 2005 when 25 Americans went to Guantánamo Bay and attempted to visit the detention facility. They began to organize more broadly to shut down Guantánamo, end indefinite detention and torture and call out Islamophobia. During our demonstrations, we lift up the words of the detainees themselves, bringing them to public spaces they are not permitted to access. Witness Against Torture will carry on in its activities until torture is decisively ended, its victims are fully acknowledged, Guantánamo and similar facilities are closed, and those who ordered and committed torture are held to account.

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering Guantánamo on Independence Day

In Focus - Front Page // Film

By Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantánamo Files” and co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign

Today, as a British citizen, I’m acutely aware that, 241 years ago, the United States of America issued a Declaration of Independence from the UK, noting that King George III had sought “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny.”

A system of checks and balances introduced by the Founding Fathers was supposed to prevent tyranny from arising in the liberated United States of America, and yet, at various times in its history, these safeguards have been discarded — during the Civil War, for example, and during the Second World War, in the shameful internment of Japanese Americans.

Another example is still taking place now — at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, where the U.S. runs a naval base, and where, since January 11, 2002, it has been holding prisoners seized in the “war on terror” that George W. Bush declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Under the laws and treaties we rely on to protect ourselves from executive tyranny, people can only be deprived of their liberty if they are accused of a crime, when they must speedily be put on trial in a court with a judge and a jury, or if they are seized on a battlefield during wartime, when they can be held until the end of hostilities, unmolested and with the protections of the Geneva Conventions.

However, in the “war on terror” declared after 9/11, George W. Bush came up with a third method of imprisonment that brought back into sharp focus the executive overreach of centuries past that was supposed to have been done away with once and for all.

Bush and his advisors decided that prisoners seized in their “war on terror” would have no rights whatsoever, and could be held forever if they so wished. They invented a term for them — “enemy combatants” — and, when they felt they were resistant to questioning, they introduced a torture program to get them to talk. This was repellant under any circumstances, but it was also an innovation based, often, on shockingly imprecise information.

Men were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan not because they were “on the battlefield,” as the US authorities claimed, but because, for the most part, they were sold to the US by their Afghan and Pakistani allies for generous bounty payments. Others, who were rounded up by the U.S., were often seized as a result of unreliable evidence, and these men, held in Guantánamo, in CIA “black sites” in Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, and even in proxy torture prisons run by other regimes — in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Morocco, for example — then ended up telling lies about their fellow prisoners, to such an extent that the publicly available files (leaked to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, and publicly released in 2011) are so full of unreliable information that they are, fundamentally, worthless.

And yet, Guantánamo continues to exist — with the Bush administration’s early claims that the men held there were “the worst of the worst” still resonating throughout American public life, and with most Americans unconcerned by the tyranny that is happening in their name at this wretched offshore prison.

There have been times in Guantánamo’s long and ignoble history when it has been off the radar more fundamentally than at other times. One such occasion was in the prison’s early years, under George W. Bush, when no one wanted to speak out. Then under Obama, there was widespread silence, after his promise to close the prison within a year expired, unfulfilled, and Congress cynically set up obstacles to try to prevent the release of prisoners, until the prisoners themselves brought Guantánamo and its ongoing injustice back onto the agenda through a prison-wide hunger strike in 2013.

And now, under Donald Trump, with so much going wrong under his inept leadership, Guantánamo has once more receded from view, after Trump’s early attempts to send new prisoners there, and to reintroduce torture, were widely criticized, not just outside his administration, but even by some of his own appointees, who are clearly not as unhinged as the president himself.

To be honest, though, Guantánamo has never been as prominent in the minds and the consciences of ordinary Americans as it should have been, and this is as true now as it was when the prison first opened, 15 and a half years ago.

Those of us who recognize Guantánamo for what it is — a legal, moral and ethical abomination, which shames America every day is it open — will continue to campaign to get it closed, and if you are not already with us, we hope you to will be moved to join us, to rid us of the tyranny that has been allowed to thrive in this U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba for far too long.

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Torture: The Law is Clear, But the President is Committed to Breaking It

In Focus - Front Page // Film

By Matt Hawthorne

President Trump has been called many things, but “principled” isn’t usually one of them. That being said, despite demonstrating an extreme ideological flexibility on most common political flashpoints, on the issue of torture, he might accurately be said to be “principled” – his “principle” being a deep personal commitment to torturing people he thinks deserve it – disregarding the law, morality, and whether or not it achieves anything.

During the campaign President Trump said that he would order suspected terrorists to be tortured, specifically saying “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”  He also said “If [torture] doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway”, and when told that the military would refused to carry out illegal orders to torture people, he responded “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.  That’s what leadership is all about.”  Since he took office, the President has again stated that he believes that torture works and that we should use torture.

The good news is that laws against torture are clear.  Both the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture (treaties the U.S. has both signed and ratified) explicitly prohibit torture.  In reporting to the UN Committee on Torture, the U.S. has claimed that “all acts of torture are offenses under criminal law in the United States. ”  And the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual treatment” – something that anyone with a sense of common decency understands includes torture.

Readers likely recall though that these laws were insufficient to prevent the Bush Administration from engaging in torture.  Instead, the Bush Administration hired unethical lawyers who re-interpreted the laws banning torture to allow a torture program that included acts like waterboarding to the point of inducing convulsions and vomiting, medically unnecessary rectal feedings, slapping and punching, ice water “baths” to the point of inducing hypothermia, cramped confinement boxes, and threats to sexually abuse civilian members of detainees’ families.  At one point those carrying out the Bush era torture program even imprisoned the intellectually challenged family member of a detainee and taped his crying so that they could use it in an attempt to force the detainee to provide information.  At another point during the Bush torture program, a detainee was left naked from the waist down, chained to a concrete floor in 36 degree temperatures until he died.

Fortunately, in a triumph for rule of law and American democracy, after the facts about the Bush Administration’s illegal, immoral, and ultimately ineffective  torture program were made public, Congress responded by passing a new law, specifically intended to prevent a return to a Bush era-like torture program.  This law, generally referred to as the McCain-Feinstein amendment, requires that government agencies follow the guidelines in the Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations while conducting national security-related interrogations (these guidelines clearly prohibit acts of torture such as those carried out during the Bush era torture program).  Additionally, the McCain-Feinstein amendment requires that the International Committee of the Red Cross be given access to all detainees.  When it was voted on in the Senate, this amendment received majority support from both parties – symbolizing a bipartisan rejection of Bush era torture policies.

Thanks to the 2016 election results, though, the situation today with respect to torture is extremely worrying.  Because of the McCain-Feinstein amendment, the laws against torture are stronger and clearer than they ever have been before.  Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan underlined this at a press conference when in response to a question about President Trump’s support for torture, they responded by saying that “ torture is not legal and we agree with it not being legal.”  At the same time though, our country’s President remains personally committed to torture.

So where does this leave us?  In a word, vigilant.  The law is clear, but we cannot underestimate a President’s ability to take advantage of a crisis to muster support for breaking the law.  Nor, frankly, should we overestimate the degree of this President’s respect for the law – even in the absence of a crisis.  We can (and should) be hopeful that the law will be sufficient to prevent a return to torture, but we cannot rely solely on that hope.  Instead we must be constantly watchful for signs that President Trump is authorizing a new torture program, and we must be ready to respond quickly with public protests, congressional advocacy, and educational campaigns if we learn that he has done so.  Also, we should take the opportunity now, before we confront the specter of a new torture program, to build additional congressional and public opposition to torture generally.  The more people who see torture as not just illegal and immoral but also un-American, the fewer yes men President Trump will have available to support torture.

Matt Hawthorne is the Policy Director at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a national interfaith non-profit committed to ending U.S. torture in policy and practice.

 

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Communications Management Units: Prisons for Victims of the Domestic War on Terror

In Focus - Front Page // Film

by Helen Schietinger, organizer for Witness Against Torture

A Prison Just for Muslims

When the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) created the first Communications Management Unit (CMU) in 2006, nobody outside the prison bureaucracy — not the prisoners sent there, not their lawyers, not the public — knew of its existence.  It was a prison within a medium security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Muslim men, some convicted of “terrorism-related crimes,” were being quarantined from the general prison population and cut off from their families and their communities.  The CMU is housed in what had been a decrepit, abandoned building in the prison compound: the closed death row facility that formerly held Timothy McVeigh. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) began researching  its existence when prisoner after prisoner wrote letters to them desperately seeking help from behind bars to have contact with their loved ones.  CCR then mounted a legal challenge in 2010.

When other prisoners and the outside world noticed what was happening, both CMUs (a second opened in Marion, Ohio) quickly became labeled “terrorist units” by those in the general prison population. Thus the domestic myth was reinforced that the government is punishing and segregating Muslim terrorists.  In media coverage the CMUs were called Little Gitmo and Guantanamo North, given that they housed Muslim men, but this also mirrored the myth that the notorious, offshore prison is keeping “the worst of the worst” terrorists off the battlefield.

CMUs differ from Guantanamo in a very significant way, however.  All the prisoners in CMUs have been convicted of crimes (many on the basis of FBI-paid informants — more about that later), while almost all prisoners in Guantanamo have never been tried or convicted. The few convictions have been in “military tribunals” in which defendants are denied proper due process.

The BOP plays a cat and mouse game to avoid having to disclose information about or close the CMUs.  After being challenged on the basis of religious discrimination, the prison administration began admitting non-Muslim “balancers” to the prison: environmental activists, organizers for prisoner rights, others who might want to “recruit and radicalize others.” Thus the CMUs were expanded into prisons for political activists and dissidents.  However, even today 60% of the prisoners are Muslim, while only 6% of the overall prison population is Muslim.

The CMUs were established without the requisite public notification, and prisoners were transferred to the units without being told where or why they were sent there. They were given no process by which to be restored to the general prison population.  Their contact with the outside world was severely limited: they were allowed much less time than other prisoners to speak by phone or have visits from their immediate families and were denied all physical contact with their family members during visits. Communication with friends and relatives beyond their immediate families was severely limited.

As CCR began developing its legal challenges regarding due process and First Amendment rights violations, BOP made some changes, such as minimal increases in time allowed for visitation and documentation of the procedures for assignment to and discharge from CMUs.  Thus, with CCR and public scrutiny the situation of CMU inmates did improve.  However, implementation of these new procedures remain arbitrary or nonexistent according to prisoners’ attorneys.

CCR’s case against the CMUs returns to court this summer, having been remanded to the lower (district) court. The district court judge is currently considering whether CMU procedures violate due process, and a decision is expected any time.  According to CCR attorney Rachel Meeropol, “The [appellate] court’s decision makes clear that the BOP cannot simply send anyone they want to a CMU, for any reason, without explanation, for years on end.”

What is it like in a CMU?

Prisoners continue to suffer in extreme isolation in these unique U.S. prison units.  While the legal challenge drags along, several aspects of the prisoners’ situations make their lives miserable.

First, they are stigmatized as terrorists:

CMU prisoners, within the larger prison system, and their families, in the community, are stigmatized with the terrorist label, in broad brush strokes by the press and in vague but vivid innuendo by their prosecutors. The families bear the burden of the label terrorist in their neighborhoods, schools and mosques. Other prisoners and prison staff perceive the CMU prisoners as terrorists.  This has a chilling effect on personal relationships, cutting them off from society on multiple levels.

Media coverage of the CMUs has led the public to believe that the government is protecting them from Muslims who must be segregated because they might otherwise commit terrorist acts, even while incarcerated.  Meanwhile, non-Muslim home-grown terrorists go unnamed as terrorists on a routine basis: Dylan Roof, who slaughtered nine African Americans in their own church, or Craig Stephen Hicks, who executed three of his Muslim neighbors.  (In fact, Hicks is housed in a county jail and the investigation into whether it was even a hate crime is crawling into its third year.)  Jeremy Christian, who murdered two people and injured a third in Portland, Oregon while verbally assaulting a woman in a hijab, has been called a white supremacist, but major media has not labelled him a terrorist.

According to the FBI, domestic terrorism involves “activities dangerous to human life that violate state or federal law and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”.  Terrorist acts against people of color and people who are Muslim in the U.S. are blatant and in-your-face, and they are not conducted in a vacuum.  On June 10th there were nationwide “Marches  Against Sharia” sponsored by the anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America.

Second, their rights and privileges are drastically and unreasonably curtailed:

As has been described, the government is holding CMU prisoners under more restrictive conditions and environments than the general prison population without justification based on their behavior.  Their communication with the outside world is extremely restricted.  For example, CMU prisoners can be limited to 45 minutes of phone calls a month, compared to 300 minutes that are allowed inmates in the Florence ADX Supermax prison. Visits can be limited to 4 hours a month, compared to 35 hours a month for prisoners in Supermax prisons.   Visitors can be limited, and the visits are severely controlled and monitored.  These are non-contact visits, even with family: the men are not allowed to be in the same room with or to touch, much less hug, their loved ones. All family visits are conducted with a thick plate of glass between the person and his spouse and children.  All visits must be conducted in English unless permission is granted 10 days in advance.  Even outgoing mail can be restricted to six pages of per month.  Moreover, speech is regulated. CMU prisoners have been put in solitary confinement (called the SHU for Special Housing Unit) for complaining about their prison conditions.  Finally, there is continual video surveillance throughout the facilities.

Third, many prisoners didn’t DO anything harmful:

The CMU prisoners whom I’ve read about were victims of “preeemptive prosecutions.”  They were either enticed by paid informants into participating in the planning of what were described in court as future, never-enacted crimes, or they were convicted on bizarrely flimsy grounds for criminal offenses they were allegedly going to commit.  These convictions have led to long sentences in federal prison.  The stories of two men, highlighted in the next section, illustrate this new mechanism for prosecution.

Stories of Injustice

Yassin Aref

Let’s look at the story of Yassin Aref, a Muslim cleric who came to the U.S. with his wife Zuhur and their three children from Iraq as Kurdish refugees seeking asylum in 1999.  After 2003, the FBI began monitoring him but could not find any wrongdoing. They then assigned a Pakistani informant named Shahed Hussain, known as Malik, to get involved with a local businessman named Hossain who was also a supporter of Aref’s mosque.  The plan was to get Hossain to arrange for Malik to borrow $50,000 to buy a missile launcher, using a code word for the weapon, and in exchange he would receive $5,000 for his business.  Aref’s sole role in the transaction was to serve as witness, or notary, to the loan, a common role for him as imam.

And this is the chilling result :

To outside observers of the case, the details that emerged during the trial were troubling. The FBI testified that Aref knew the code word, linking him to the conspiracy, but according to recorded conversations, there was no evidence that either Malik or Hossain informed him of the term. And though Malik had shown a fake missile to Hossain, the FBI decided against showing it to Aref because they worried that he would be “spooked.”

The case, observers noted, ultimately lacked definitive evidence that Aref knew the true nature of the transaction, and the jury was directed to ignore the motives of the FBI’s investigation. As Judge Thomas J. McAvoy instructed them, “The FBI had certain suspicions, good and valid suspicions for looking into Mr. Aref, but why they did that is not to be any concern of yours.”

“I’m not only surprised that the jury convicted him, but I’m sure the judge was surprised too,” says Stephen Gottlieb, a professor at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. “They basically turned two decent men into criminals.”

His attorney Manley believes he lost on emotional grounds. “I think the fear got to [the jury]. They ended up convicting him out of fear that he might be some kind of shadowy bad guy.” Steve Downs, another member of Aref’s legal team, attributes it to what he calls “the Muslim exception.” The emotion and politics of 9/11 had, they argue, altered the threshold for what constituted reasonable doubt.

Aref was convicted of providing material support to a terrorist organization by helping finance the purchase of the missile. Currently serving a 15-year sentence, he was in a CMU for four years but is now in a low security prison in Pennsylvania.

Rafil Dhafir

And then there’s the story of Rafil Dhafir, MD, an oncologist in upper New York State who ran a Muslim charity called Help the Needy (HTN) for thirteen years.  It raised millions of dollars to send to Iraq’s vulnerable citizens during the time of economic sanctions leading up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  He was arrested and accused of terrorism related to his charity, but was ultimately convicted of violating the economic sanctions against Iraq, money laundering, and Medicare fraud. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison and served several years of that sentence in the Terre Haute CMU.  Although no terrorism charges were ever brought against Dhafir, he is on the government’s list of successful terrorism convictions.

A comprehensive Truth-out article describes the use of Dhafir as an example of the government’s success in apprehending terrorists.  The media hysteria was fanned by politicians and law enforcement alike:

At approximately 6:30 AM on February 26, 2003, upstate New York oncologist Dr. Rafil Dhafir pulled out of his driveway in Fayetteville, heading to his practice in the underserved area of Rome; he has never returned. Just moments later, he was pulled over and arrested by two federal investigators and a New York state trooper on charges that he had violated International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by sending food and medicine for 13 years through his charity Help the Needy (HTN) to sick and starving Iraqi civilians. Back at the house he had just left, Mrs. Dhafir was now standing in her entryway with five guns pointed at her head after government agents broke down the door because she had failed to answer quickly enough.

The arrests were accompanied by a media circus: helicopters hovering over Dhafir’s house and all day-reports of the comings and goings of 80 federal agents. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that “funders of terrorism have been arrested” and Gov. George Pataki claimed the arrests proved the existence of “… terrorists living here in New York state among us … who are supporting or aiding and abetting those who would destroy our way of life and kill our friends and neighbors.”

According to a recent statement by Katherine Hughes, who has closely followed his case:

Dr. Dhafir is currently in his 15th year of a 22-year prison sentence for a crime he was never charged with in a court of law: money laundering to help terrorist organizations. His real crime was sending food and medicine, for 13 years, to sick and starving Iraqi civilians during the brutal US and UK-sponsored UN embargo on that country.

Dr. Dhafir is yet another Muslim man who was imprisoned in the CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana, another victim of the “War on Terror.”

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No Separate Justice: No SAMs

#foreverhumanbeings Campaign // Film

By Jeremy Varon, a member of Witness Against Torture.

Under murky skies at dusk, a small but determined group held vigil on June 5 at the foot of what is perhaps Manhattan’s most monstrous building: the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC).  The ugly, imposing structure — strangely hidden amidst a thicket of government facilities — is a federal prison.  It continues to house “war on terror” suspects under what are among the most inhumane conditions in the United States’s entire penal system.

The vigil was held by No Separate Justice (NSJ), a coalition that includes the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, Amnesty International, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, and Witness Against Torture (WAT).  The focus of the vigil was the use in federal prisons of Special Administrative Measures, or “SAMs.” Shrouded in great secrecy and overwhelmingly used against Muslim inmates, SAMs impose staggering restrictions on inmates’ access to human contact within the prison, to knowledge of the outside world, and to family members.  The vigil’s speakers provided both information and a picture of the suffering caused by SAMS.  Legal researchers conveyed what little is publicly known of SAMs.  Advocates from CCR read heartrending letters from the siblings of Abu Ahmed Ali, incarcerated for years at the ADX “supemax” prison in Florence, Colorado under SAMs restrictions.

The attention to SAMs brought No Separate Justice full circle.  The vigils got their start in 2009 to protest the treatment of MCC inmate Fahad Hashmi.  A US citizen of Pakistani origin, Hashmi was arrested in England in 2003 on suspicion of material support for terrorism. Extradited to the United States, he faced heavy charges based on an achingly tangential connection to an Al Qaeda operative turned state’s witness.  Hashmi was subject to more than two years of SAMs when in pre-trial detention.  With his physical and metal health failing from the extreme isolation, he accepted in 2010 a plea deal carrying a 15-year sentence.  No Separate Justice started a new round of vigils in 2015.  The group continues to highlight his case, as well as other abuses with federal “war on terror” investigations, prosecutions, and imprisonment.

* * *

The June 4 vigil began with chilling reflections from its MC, Abi Hassan.  Hassan is a civil rights lawyer working with the Black Movement Law Project.  Hassan contended that the United States’ legal and civic infrastructure, much like its physical infrastructure, is collapsing.  “Different classes of people” such as the poor, African Americans, and many immigrants, “have different systems of law.” The country has reached a point, Hassan contended, where even upholding the “ideal” of the rule of law appears “antiquated.”  SAMs, with their Kafkaesque administration and draconian measures, represent the further chipping away at a proper system of law.

Following Hassan, four recent Yale Law School Graduates (Andrew Walchuck, Tasnim Motala, Andy Udelsman, and Allison Frankel) glossed summarized the major findings from their years of research on SAMs.  Created in 1996 to deter the potential criminal plots of prisoners, SAMs metastasized after 9/11.  These measures prohibit nearly any direct human contact whatsoever with the prisoner, while greatly censoring trickles of reading material (Barack Obama’s Tales of My Father was in one case banned, for fear that it would disrupt order within the prison).  Infrequent phone calls are permitted, only to immediate family. Crucially, SAMs impose gag orders on the inmates, their attorneys, and family members.  As a result, little is known about SAMs themselves and any public advocacy for the inmates is severely hampered.  Last, SAMs are often applied in pre-trial detention and may therefore be used coercively.  A prisoner may well accept a plea deal in hopes that the SAMs will then be lifted.

To obtain critical documents for their research, the legal team had to sue the US government for violation of its obligation to properly release material in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.  After four years the researchers were finally handed nearly 1,000 pages of documents.  At the vigil, the Yale team enumerated constitutional objections to SAMS.  The measures potentially violate: equal protection, given their discriminatory application against Muslim prisoners; the First Amendment, in both their restrictions on the speech of inmates and attorneys and limits on religious liberty (Muslims prisoners, eg, are denied group worship); and prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, in light of the devastating effects of this severe form of solitary confinement.  The law school grads concluded their presentation with the key recommendations of their report; prepared in conjunction with CCR, it will be released in a month of so.  It calls for an end to SAMs and, failing that, greater government transparency about their use and the lifting of SAMs gag orders.

The greatest emotion of the vigil came when letters from the siblings of Abu Ahmed Ali were read.  He was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2003.  Age 22, he was studying at university.  After torture and 47 straight days of interrogation, Ali signed a “confession” to criminal activity.  This “confession” played the key role in his conviction in the United States for material support for terrorism and related charges.  He was initially sentenced to 30 years, though the judge conceded that no person was harmed by his alleged actions.  On government appeal, his sentence was then extended to life in prison. He has been under SAMs for 11 years.

Abu Ahmed Ali’s brother and sister testify in their letters to the terrible effects of SAMs.  Their mother keeps permanent vigil by the phone in anticipation of his short, unscheduled, and infrequent phone calls.  His remote detention in Florence Colorado makes visits extremely difficult.  He can never hear the voice of extended family, such as in-laws.

No Separate Justice speaks out for true equality under the law.  Sadly, the SAMs are but one example of the separate standard of justice now being applied in domestic “war on terror” prosecutions and detentions.  The collapse of the rule of law, Abi Hassan stressed at the vigil’s start, is not due to neglect but is instead an act of will.  Only with our persistent courage and defiance can the ideal of equality under the law — always badly compromised in the United State’s checkered history— be given new life.

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#foreverhumanbeings: A Campaign to Close Guantánamo

In Focus - Front Page // Film

Are we going to pretend they’re less than men and walk away?

– Luke Nephew (Peace Poet), “There is a Man Under the Hood”

Forty-one human beings remain incarcerated in the prison at Guantánamo.  All potentially face lifetimes of detention.  Five have been cleared for release by the US government itself.  But they were still in Guantánamo when Trump took office, and Trump has halted all transfers from the prison.

Many more are “forever prisoners,” who have not been charged with crimes, and never will be.  A small handful of men are facing charges in the illegitimate and unworkable Military Commissions.  If convicted, they could receive lengthy sentences, likely served at Guantánamo, or even the death penalty.

Guantánamo has always been a place of torture and the violation of human rights.  It must close, no matter who is president.  President Obama failed in his pledge to shutter the prison. Trump has threatened to bring new captives there. The thought of Trump — whose reckless disregard for the US Constitution is every day revealed — having Guantánamo as his private, offshore gulag is terrifying. Any day, we could learn that the Trump administration has sent a new captive to Guantánamo.

The continued existence of Guantánamo also feeds a resurgent Islamophobia and politics of fear and hate, typified by Trump’s unconstitutional “Muslim travel ban.”  Guantánamo never housed simply the “worst of the worst” terrorists, as the Bush administration claimed.  The vast majority of men held there never engaged in hostilities against the United States.  By staying open, Guantánamo reinforces the terrible lie that all Muslims are dangerous, to be feared or even cut out of American life. To work to close Guantánamo is to support tolerance, pluralism, and respect for the rule of law.

Witness Against Torture is launching on Friday May 26: #foreverhumanbeings – A Campaign to Close Guantánamo. For a period of 41 days, spanning the holy month of Ramadan and beyond, the campaign will bring awareness to the fate of each of the 41 men detained in Guantanamo Bay Prison, coordinate public action aimed at closing Guantánamo, and draw links between Guantánamo, institutionalized Islamophobia, all forms of racism, and abuses in the US criminal justice and prison systems

The Witness Against Torture campaign will include:

~ an international and interfaith “rolling fast” throughout the campaign’s 41 days. Fasters are encouraged to incorporate concern for the abuse of men in Guantánamo during their day. If you are observing Ramadan, you may leave an empty seat at the dinner table in remembrance of the men who are in Guantánamo rather than at home with their families, during Iftar. Sign up for the Rolling Fast here. More details to come

~ phone calls, emails, and letter to relevant governmental and military offices

~ scheduled blogposts on such topics as Islamophobia, the current situation at Guantánamo, religious objections to torture, and the use of Communication Management Units (CMU) in “war on terror” detentions

~ daily profiles on social media of each of the 41 detained men

~ participation on June 23 in the Annual Vigil at the White House organized by the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), in Lafayette Square from 1-2PM (more information here)

~ the creation and distribution of art addressing Guantánamo, torture, and the US prisons

Please join us in remembering the men locked away, now forever, at Guantánamo and working to close the prison!

www.witnessagainsttorture.com

#foreverhumanbeings

#41menatGitmo

Witness Against Torture formed in 2005 when 25 Americans went to Guantánamo Bay and attempted to visit the detention facility. They began to organize more broadly to shut down Guantánamo, end indefinite detention and torture and call out Islamophobia. During our demonstrations, we lift up the words of the detainees themselves, bringing them to public spaces they are not permitted to access. Witness Against Torture will carry on in its activities until torture is decisively ended, its victims are fully acknowledged, Guantánamo and similar facilities are closed, and those who ordered and committed torture are held to account.

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Request to Join in Solidarity with Fasting for Yemen April 10 – 16

Campaigns // Film

Witness Against Torture (WAT), which has long condemned US crimes in its “war on terror,” is both appalled and saddened by the escalating conflict in Yemen and its attending, humanitarian crisis. Recent US airstrikes in Yemen, recklessly ordered by the Trump administration, have claimed dozens of civilian lives.  The United States continues to back Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, adding to the devastation of the impoverished, war-torn country.  A sea-blockade of rebel areas by the US backed, Saudi-led coalition threatens famine for millions of Yemenis.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration appears to be weakening measures to avoid civilian deaths in various wars the United States is fighting, with the predictable result that more civilians are dying.

Witness Against Torture joins Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the New York Catholic Worker community, Code Pink, the Upstate NY Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, and other groups in participating in a week-long fast from April 10-16 at the United Nations in New York City.  WAT members will have a presence at the Isaiah Wall at the UN, where daily vigils and demonstrations will take place. WAT will also be active in parallel efforts in Washington, D.C. We urge our friends and supporters to participate in these actions, to learn about the crisis in Yemen, to educate their communities, and to demand from US political leaders that US aggression in Yemen end.

If you are interested in supporting this effort by fasting in solidarity, please contact Beth at brockman.beth@gmail.com with details of how and when you plan to fast. You can join the fast in any way you like and for any length of time you like, from one day to all seven days. Even if you are regularly part of WAT’s Fasting for Justice, please email and let Beth know you are fasting and how.

For more information about the fast and vigil in NYC, and the situation in Yemen, click here.

Join Fasting for Yemen on Twitter and Facebook.

#FastingForYemen #YemenIsStarving #RememberYemen

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All in a day: John Yoo, Shame on You! by Helen Schietinger

In Focus - Front Page // Film

When John Yoo was to speak on the George Washington University campus in a debate hosted by the student chapter of the Federalist Society, Anagha Bharadwaj, a GWU law student who joined WAT at the inauguration, needed support from WAT to protest his presence.  We immediately put out the call and two days later a trusty band of local activists showed up for the noon debate at the law school, including folks from Code Pink, TASSC, Vets for Peace and the South Korean peace movement. Campus police arrived to inform us that we weren’t allowed to protest on campus: no signs, no picketing, no chanting on their hallowed grounds.  But our showing on the public sidewalk in front of the building was articulate.

The Jacob Burns Moot Court Room was crowded — GWU Law is apparently teeming with Federalists — but Maha saved a couple of seats in the front row.  She wasn’t allowed to bring her rolled up banner into the room, but David Barrows and I walked in wearing orange jump suits with no problem.  The panelists — the liberal faculty member Jonathan Turley and Yoo — made collegial jokes about the protesters outside, but there was no mention of the theatrical orange in the room.  Not even when I donned my hood for Yoo’s presentation.  As Yoo defended presidential war powers, the outside protesters moved from the street to the windows behind him and began chanting.  Their signs were visible to the audience and the chants provided a chorus that Yoo made light of in his remarks.  During Turley’s talk, defending Congress’s rightful responsibility for war powers, he also emphasized the fact that torture is illegal and a war crime, but without implicating Yoo or the Bush administration.  That gave me the opportunity to disrupt twice, identifying Yoo as the author of the torture memos and the architect of Bush’s torture regime.  I told Yoo he should be prosecuted for war crimes.  As I left the room, he said, “See you next time” and I responded, “See you in court.”
Student activism is alive and well in the hallowed halls of GWU!
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Shutting down Sessions’ hearing by Erica Ewing

In Focus - Front Page // Film

I am finding it difficult to write this brief reflection from my J11 experience at the Fast for Justice in DC. Not because I have nothing to say, I usually have too many thoughts to keep up with. I struggle with the idea of sharing my perspective. This information isn’t new or special especially to a community who has been witnessing for years. I don’t know nearly enough and am aware that I never will but I am grateful for the chance to continue learning and growing with you all. I want to say my ability to be arrested was a privilege and isn’t deserving of praise. I knew my body would be safe and I would make it out of January 11 alive and essentially unscathed. Emotionally different but nonetheless safe. I am not comfortable with the idea of praise for these actions mainly because our resistance is necessary and urgent. I am grateful to honor what we are doing and our intentions but we must remember there is always much more to be done.

“Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth and we should never give it up regardless of how expensive the price must be.” -Tariq Ba Odah

I won’t go into detail of why the confirmation of Jeff Sessions’ for the position of essentially the  “people’s lawyer” was greatly contested. I am grateful our community at Witness Against Torture was part of that resistance. At that time we knew Sessions was an exemplary “Tough on Crime” candidate with a reprehensible record, including his support of the use of torture. His two day hearing was interrupted by many activists protesting and bringing to light his trail of racist, sexist, and xenophobic sentiments. WAT headed to the hearings on January 11 with a clear message; NO TORTURE SESSIONS.  

I woke up on January 11 heavy. I felt grateful to wake up surrounded by community and ready to act but still vigilant in the need to slow down and reflect on what this day meant. 15 years of destruction of human dignity.

I drank my tea from the porcelain cup belonging to Musab Omar Ali. A Yemeni man, captured on September 11, 2002, held without charge for 14 years. (I now know he was transferred to Oman on January 16.) I felt heavy for many reasons but mostly because I knew our fast was an act of solidarity with hunger strikers, but when we are free to eat again they continue to languish and wait in uncertainty.

After breaking our fast and spending time reflecting together the handful of us planning to interrupt congressional hearings headed out. I was given strength knowing there were other actions my WAT family would participate in, simultaneous to our own. They would be taking over the streets and eventually the Hart Senate Building to publicly mourn the 9 men who died while imprisoned at Guantánamo and continue to demand its closure.

We made our way to the building and stand in the rotunda area waiting in line until a group of police lead us up the marble staircase to the hearing room. One police officer almost amusingly asks “you’re not gonna make any trouble are you?” to which our small group gently chuckles and brushes the comment off, and I simply shake my head. Similarly to what people must feel when they see a dozen orange jumpsuits in the streets of DC, my thoughts are jarred by the mundane “business as usual” approach of those who traverse these halls of congress. Their complete disconnect to the consequences their actions have on real live people.

We are led into the hearing room through a pair of massive wooden doors and I immediately hear the voice of Civil Rights Champion John Lewis. I quietly find one of the few open seats scattered throughout the room keeping my eyes on where my friends are able to find seats.

I am nervous and trying to remember my words, the words of the men, and why I am here. I am brought back to the where I am by Lewis, and his words as they ring throughout the room “But we need someone who is gonna stand up, speak up and speak out for the people…” Although this felt like as good of time as any to stand up, I looked around at my fellow WAT members and their eyes didn’t meet mine. I sat patiently.

Next up to speak was former U.S. Marshal Jesse Seroyer, he begins by speaking in support of Sessions and I once again feel the anger boiling. “He’s a good and decent man,” he said, “He believes in law and order for all people.” Again here is this narrative of “good”, the false belief that our country has somehow ever operated under “equal justice for all”. The idea that decency comes from your ability to sign policies of destruction and discrimination, all with a smile on your face. The man finishes speaking and I am at the edge of my seat. I wait for my friend Don to stand up,“Close Gitmo, Stop Torture”, he is calling out as he is removed swiftly from the room. My mind constantly wondering ‘Who are the real troublemakers here?’

As soon as the door closes I stand up shaking, with my anger outweighing my nervousness. Our point is to disrupt as much as possible and not let business continue. I pull out my sign which reads “We The People Must Do More To End War” and start speaking. I am trying to collapse the worlds between people sitting in this room and the human beings I have spent my week focusing on. Human beings sitting in cages.  I  make sure I am making eye contact with as many people as possible. I couldn’t tell you what I said, the words came out of my mouth and just as soon evaporated from my mind. I know it was about the men and their families, the humanity we refuse to acknowledge.

I am quickly and forcefully pulled through the large wooden doors. My sign is taken from me and the only words my brain catches, as my hands are tightly bound behind my back, are “I thought you told me you weren’t gonna cause any trouble?” My brain is reeling, as it always is when I spend time in places where “Justice” happens.

I am mostly infuriated by the toothless words used to defend evil systems. The banal way people sit behind desks and walls writing policies that will deny dignity and still feel able to claim that they are operating under the values of “liberty and freedom”.

I am taken downstairs where I find Don and we give each other warm glances. I speak freely with my arresting officer, occasionally she responds or nods as she continues to remove all my belongings and pats me down. It is both my first arrest and the first time she has arrested someone. I can tell she is nervous, as she makes comments looking for ways to demonize us and justify her work.

We were put into the back of a van and we waited. My anxiety ebbed and flowed as I am not a fan of tight spaces. I try to collapse the worlds again and refocus on liberation and the men. There is no comparison to my time confined and the suffering these men and so many others have been subjected to. I gently sing some of the songs we have shared throughout the week and they bring me comfort.  We sit and wait. Eventually making it to the police station where we are brought inside. I find great comfort in the large group of familiar and loving faces, the festival of resistance. We spend many hours together discussing the actions and passing the time as we are individually processed and booked. Experiences there are ones I hold close and reflect on as I continue to look at the system in both an institutional and interpersonal lens, (there is too much to share on these thoughts for this ‘brief’ reflection.)

I end my day heading back to First Trinity Lutheran Church where I am greeted with love and community. I have similar feelings now to how I began the day: grateful but still vigilant. The real troublemakers continue unscathed while so many under the control of this unmerciful system feel hopeless.

Looking back at Sessions, one of many in the long line of creeps that were confirmed. Our fears about him were sadly, but not surprisingly, true. Most recently, he advised Trump on increasing the population at Guantanamo stating “it’s just a very fine place for holding these kind of dangerous criminals.” The deception and outright lies continue.

The canyons seem to be widening. And the destruction of dignity is raging unabated. It can be hard to get through a day. I am given strength when I think about my time with Witness Against Torture. The necessity of being rooted in the stories, words, and art from the men in Guantanamo are the things which continue to guide me and keep me going. I hold onto the responsibility we each have in creating the world we all deserve. It will take courage to continue but because of all the beautiful resistance I have witnessed I will continue to hope and resist.

Peace,

Erica

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WAT Denounces Trump Administration’s Draft Executive Order on Detention

In Focus - Front Page // Film

Witness Against Torture Calls for the Rejection of Executive Order Measures, Warns of Broad Dangers of Trump Agenda

The draft of an Executive Order on US detention and interrogations threatens a nightmarish return to the illegal, immoral, and un-American torture policies of the Bush administration.  Its proposed measures — from the re-establishment of CIA “black sites,” to the review of interrogation practices as detailed in Army Field Manual, to the denial of International Committee of the Red Cross access to US detention centers — point to one thing: the resumption of the cruel, inhuman, degrading, and torturous abuse of Muslims.   

The draft’s proposal to halt all transfers from Guantánamo and bring new captives to the prison is also outrageous.  Guantánamo has never been, as the draft claims, a “critical tool” in the fight against global threats.  It has been a place of rampant torture; a detention center for hundreds of innocent men making up the prison’s great majority; a cause of radicalization worldwide; and a stain on America’s reputation. 

The executive order is based in two fictions: that US torture “worked” in securing critical intelligence, and that nearly one-third of men released from Guantánamo then engaged in anti-American violence.  The US Senate Torture Report refutes the claim of torture’s efficacy.  The figure on post-release violence is grossly inflated and obscures that only a tiny fraction of the men released under President Obama are even suspected of engaging in anti-US hostilities.

“Torture has weakened American security and brought misery to its Muslim victims and their families,” says Jerica Arents, a Witness Against Torture organizer from Chicago. “It is frightening that we are even discussing its return.”  “Tough talk on Guantánamo,” says Maha Hilal, the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, “only reinforces Islamophobic fears that threaten the civil and human rights of Muslims, at home and abroad.  The demonization of Muslims must end.”

“That the Trump administration would consider the executive order,” says history professor and Witness Against Torture member Jeremy Varon, “speaks to our worst fears: that Trump is an authoritarian strongman willing to use lies and criminal violence in service of a dangerous, nationalist agenda.  History warns us where that leads.”

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