All eyes on Guantanamo

Movie, court ruling intensify focus on military prisons

He says he was a drug-using, politically unaware teenager from a small, racially divided town in the middle of England — someone who used to watch “Baywatch” and dream of flying to America and chatting with beautiful women on a beach. Terrorism? Against the United States? In the fall of 2001, when he went with boyhood friends to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan, it was mostly for fun and adventure, Ruhel Ahmed says.

“Before 9/11, I was just like a normal dude who used to care about himself — do things like chill out, smoke dope and (go) clubbing,” Ahmed said in a phone interview from Tipton, England. “Just a regular guy. The only world that interested me was Tipton. Obviously, Guantanamo has changed my perspective.”

For two years — from February 2002 until March 2004 — Ahmed was a prisoner at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he joined some 500 other “enemy combatants” who were rounded up by the U.S. government in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For both supporters and critics of U.S. military actions abroad, Guantanamo has become a potent symbol — either as a crucial element in the struggle to protect the civilized world from future terrorist attacks or as a prominent example of the degradation of American values, humane treatment and respect for international law.

Ahmed’s capture and incarceration are depicted in “The Road to Guantanamo,” a feature film now showing in theaters across the United States, including the Bay Area. Ahmed said his imprisonment was a tragic mistake — that he and two friends from Tipton, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, were trying to leave Afghanistan in November 2001 when they were wrongly seized by the soldiers of the Northern Alliance, which handed them over to American forces.

After two years of intense interrogations that Ahmed says included torture, all three men — without being charged with a crime — were released from Guantanamo to the custody of British authorities, who immediately let them go. The U.S. government says it was within its rights to detain Ahmed, Rasul and Iqbal for so long — and that the remaining detainees at Guantanamo are also subject to prolonged detention and legal prosecution before special military tribunals.

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration, at least on the matter of the tribunals. The case, formally known as Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, was brought by lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who argued that Hamdan — a Yemeni driver for Osama bin Laden — is entitled to a legal proceeding in federal court, not a special military tribunal in which evidence can be presented in secret and where appeals are not allowed.

The Supreme Court ruled that the tribunals set up for Hamdan and other Guantanamo prisoners violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs American military proceedings. Dismissing the Bush administration’s contention that al Qaeda is not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, and therefore not eligible for normal legal hearings, the court ruled that minimum legal standards must still be applied to alleged al Qaeda members who are imprisoned.

The court’s decision puts pressure on the Bush administration to end Guantanamo’s use as a storage facility for accused terrorists.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens called the U.S. government’s rules for Hamdan’s military tribunal “illegal” and said President Bush’s rationale for avoiding traditional courts-martial proceedings is “insufficient,” noting that, “It is not evident why the danger posed by international terrorism, considerable though it is, should require, in the case of Hamdan’s trial, any variance from the court-martial rules.”

Only 10 prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay in the past four years have been charged with crimes. The Center for Constitutional Rights and others (including Michael Winterbottom, co-director of “The Road to Guantanamo”) have urged the Bush administration to shut down a facility that has come to symbolize America’s “war on terror.”

Like Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison before it, Guantanamo has become a focal point for critics of U.S. military action. Images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib circled the globe. Winterbottom’s film is the first time that Americans are seeing — recreated on the big screen — depictions of the treatment of Guantanamo’s accused terrorists, who are hog-tied, roughed up, put in isolation and forced to sit in agonizing positions for hours. The fact these shackled, orange-clad prisoners are English-speaking Westerners is one thing that gives “The Road to Guantanamo” a disturbing power, which was Winterbottom’s intent.

Gita Gutierrez, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who has visited Guantanamo Bay and met with prisoners there, says Ahmed, Rasul and Iqbal — known as “The Tipton Three” — are characteristic Guantanamo prisoners.

“Their experience, and their bewilderment, and their fear and lack of culpability is pretty typical,” Gutierrez said in a phone interview from the center’s New York offices. Like the Tipton Three, many of Guantanamo’s detainees never received adequate field hearings to determine their culpability, she contends.

“The Geneva Conventions and our own military regulations,” she said, “provide for this little procedure that’s a check on making sure that things like Guantanamo don’t happen. This administration has departed from that for the first time in over 50 years. In any of our (prior) armed conflicts, we’ve always complied with the Geneva Conventions no matter who we were fighting. That led to a lot of people being put in Guantanamo who no one had ever screened.”

Richard Samp, chief counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, which filed amicus briefs in the Hamdan case supporting the U.S. government’s position, criticized the court ruling, saying the United States doesn’t need to follow conventional rules of war because the people fighting the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are not traditional uniformed military but shadowy, transient terrorists with no allegiance themselves to the Geneva Conventions.

“It’s defensible to hold them indefinitely without charges,” Samp said in a phone interview from Washington. “But right now, we do have review commissions for everyone being held at Guantanamo Bay to see if they are really an enemy combatant. For people who were captured on the Afghanistan battlefield, those (review hearings) are clearly sufficient. … I have little doubt that the vast majority being held at Guantanamo are (terrorists).

“In this country, when we have a criminal trial, we only convict people if we can establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I would say a lesser standard of guilt is more appropriate in a setting such as a detention of alleged enemy combatants. People who think that people at Guantanamo are just a bunch of missionaries who were caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t think the people who make that argument seriously believe it. Ninety-nine percent of (the detainees in Guantanamo) are where they belong. Logic suggests to me that most young men of military age who decided to go to Afghanistan in a time of war when they would not otherwise have a particularly strong reason to go there probably went there to fight.”

Ahmed said he went to Pakistan to be the best man at Iqbal’s wedding. When he, Iqbal and Rasul were in Karachi, he said, they decided to visit Afghanistan to see for themselves what the country was like, and the bus ride to Kabul was cheap — just a few dollars. “I wasn’t paying attention to the news, or that a war was about to kick off,” says Ahmed, who’s now 24. “For us to go to Afghanistan, it wasn’t a danger. We’re brown-skinned. We’re Muslims. The Taliban were Muslims. We blend.”

With his long beard and his tenure at Guantanamo, Ahmed doesn’t blend in back in England. He’s turned down for every job for which he applies, he said. His road from Guantanamo has been a hardship. Whether one believes his story or not, it puts a human face on the previously anonymous prisoners who’ve been sent to Guantanamo, most of whom are still waiting for their day in court.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
July 2, 2006
Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 2, 2006.
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