As the hunger strike continues to rage at Guantánamo, with at least 130 of the remaining 166 prisoners involved, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to cross-post an interview with Carlos Warner, an attorney with the Office of the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Ohio, who represents ten prisoners at Guantánamo — including a number of Yemeni prisoners, a “high-value detainee,” one of the last five Tunisians in Guantánamo, the only Kenyan, and Fayiz al-Kandari, one of the last two Kuwaitis in the prison.
The interview was conducted by my friend The Talking Dog, a New-York based independent journalist who has conducted dozens of interviews with lawyers, journalists and former prisoners over the last eight years — which someone should publish as a book, at some point!
I am enormously grateful to The Talking Dog for putting me up on my generally annual visits to New York to campaign for the closure of Guantánamo, which began as a result of the friendship that we struck up after he interviewed me, back in September 2007, just as my book The Guantánamo Files was being published, and I hope you have time to read and publicize this interview. The hunger strike began because of aggression by the guards and the perceived abuse of the prisoners’ Korans, but as time has gone on, it has become a sustained protest against the men’s indefinite detention, and the fact that, having been abandoned by President Obama, they may die at the prison, even though 86 of them were cleared for release by the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established just after taking office in 2009.
TD Blog Interview with Carlos Warner
The Talking Dog, April 4, 2013
Carlos Warner is an attorney with the Office of the Federal Defender for the Northern District of Ohio, and represents approximately twelve men currently detained at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On April 1, 2013, I had the privilege of interviewing him by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected by Mr. Warner.
The Talking Dog: Where were you on September 11th, 2001?
Carlos Warner: I was in my office in Cleveland. I had a friend in the FBI visiting from New York. He commandeered my office and he set up a mini-command centre. There were 3 or 4 agents in my office during the hours after the attack. We watched in horror together on a small television we found in the office. The city was evacuated; rumors abounded that there was an attack planned or underway in just about every large American city, including Cleveland.
In our case, Flight 93 happened to fly right over Cleveland — so there was heightened fear. I looked outside my office and I remember seeing an endless string of planes lined up in the sky to land and I expected that one of these planes might crash into the City. Because of the panic, the areas around Cleveland were completely gridlocked — nothing moved for hours. Instead of fighting the gridlock, I went out for a run with two other public defenders Walter Camino and Jack Greene through an abandoned city; it was surreal on many levels.
The Talking Dog: Please identify your present GTMO-detained client or clients by name, nationality, and age, and anything else of interest about them, or about what you know about events at Guantánamo, particularly the hunger strike?
Carlos Warner: We represent eleven men still there, plus the Kuwaiti Fayiz al-Kandari, whose case is complete, although Fayiz has requested that I represent him.
The majority of our clients were assigned to us by the Court through “next friend petitions” dating from 2007 and 2008; almost all of those clients were Yemeni. Over the years we were assigned other clients as well, including a Kenyan, Abdulmalik and a Tunisian, Adel Hakeemy who was recently rumored to have attempted suicide. I also represent a “high value detainee” — Mohammed Rahim. Our present clients are as follows:
1. Abdul Al Rahman Al Ziahri AKA Abdurahman LNU v. Obama, et al.
09-cv-745 (formerly 05-cv-2386), ISN 441; Judge Richard J. Leon (RJL)
2. Monsoor Muhammed Ali Qattaa v. Obama, et al., 08-cv-1233, ISN 566
Judge Ellen Huvelle (ESH)
[cleared for release]
3. Abdulkhaliq Ahmed Al-Baidhani v. Obama, et. al., 04-cv-1194, ISN 553
Judge Thomas Hogan (TFH)
[cleared for release]
4. Muhammed Rahim v. Obama, et al, 09-cv-1385, ISN 10029, Judge Paul Friedman (PLF)
5. Mohammed Abdulmalik v. Obama, et al, 08-cv-1440, ISN 10025
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly
6. Nadir Omar Abdullah Bin Sa’adoun Alsa’ary aka Ahmed Omar v. Obama, et al
09-cv-745, ISN 30, Judge Richard J. Leon (RJL) as of 6/16/10
7. Jamil Ahmed Saeed v. Bush, et al, 05-cv-2386, ISN 728
Judge Royce Lamberth (RCL)
8. Abdulah Alhamiri v. Bush, et al. (dismissed), 08-cv-1231, ISN 48
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly
[released July 2008]
9. Khalid Saad Mohammed v. Obama, et al. (Released 6-15-09), 08-cv-1230
ISN 335, Judge Rosemary Collyer (RMC)
10. Idris Ahamed Abdu Qader Idris AKA Edress LNU v. Obama, et al. (dismissed)
09-cv-745 (formerly 05-cv-2386), ISN 35, Judge Royce Lamberth (RCL)
[cleared for release]
11. Muieen Adeen Jamal Adeen Abd Al Fusal Abd Al Sattar v. Obama, et al. (dismissed)
08-cv-1236, ISN 309, Judge John Bates (JDB)
[cleared for release]
12. Adel Al Hakeemy v. Obama, et al (dismissed), 05-cv-429, ISN 168
Judge Richard Leon (RJL)
[cleared for release]
The Talking Dog: Please tell me the status of the pending habeas cases.
Carlos Warner: We have a mix of men cleared for transfer or release and some who are not. In my view, there is no meaningful habeas corpus review. It’s an empty vessel for the men. “Habeas Corpus” only allows for me to visit them. The District Court is not to blame, it’s the Circuit Court that has actively dismantled meaningful habeas corpus review. The Supreme Court has passively watched meaningful review disappear. I view my charge as to obtain the release of my clients from Guantánamo — even though I am technically assigned as habeas counsel.
The Talking Dog: Can you please tell me the last time you visited your clients at Guantánamo, and can you describe the circumstances of your visit. If you could, can you contrast that visit with what you found at earlier visits, including the condition of your clients, the restrictions on you as counsel and on your clients during your visit, the condition in which you found your clients, and anything else you believe relevant.
Carlos Warner: I believe I’ve been to Guantánamo more than thirty times. And I’ve been there twice since the hunger strike began on February 6th, I’ve had notes cleared discussing the strike on both occasions. I was last down the week of March 18th. I’ve stated this many times — seeing him (Fayiz) was a stark and incredible sight; I can only describe him as near death. He lost between a quarter and a third of his body weight. He couldn’t stand, his cheeks were sunken. He had labored breathing. Fayiz appeared to be nearing death when I saw him. I made the focus of my meeting pleading with him to take honey. I told him I could not help him if he was dead. He was polite and kind in refusing nourishment.
The Talking Dog: Can you tell me if your clients are participating in the present hunger strike, and whether they have participated in prior hunger strikes?
Carlos Warner: Besides Fayiz, we believe that all, or almost all, of our clients are on hunger strike. This estimate is based upon the various reports we are getting from the camps.
The reports we received as of yesterday (March 31, 2013) are that 130 out of the 166 or so total prisoners are on hunger strike. We believe that the 16 “high value detainees” are not on hunger strike. We believe that two prisoners in Camp 6 are not striking. Then, there are a number of individuals either in the hospital or in different camps who are unknown, plus a few in the psychiatric ward.
All of the reports we are getting out of Camps 5 and 6 explain that the entire population is on strike, which takes us to approximately 130 men.
The Talking Dog: What’s the source of these reports — attorneys? Journalists?
Carlos Warner: Our reports are from attorneys although I pay close attention to reports in the media. Every attorney has made a concerted effort to talk to their clients, and the reports we have been getting from counsel have been uniform in their accuracy. The big open question was Camp 5. We have now had a number of reports out of Camp 5. Clive Stafford Smith spoke to Shaker Aamer recently [and also see here], and that conversation confirmed again that all of Camp 5 is on strike. 130 is our count, and it could be more, up to 135, 136.
This strike is unprecedented in scale and duration. Guantánamo has never experienced anything like this. I no longer pay attention to the military numbers. We have a huge problem in Guantánamo and I am focused on getting the clients to eat again.
The Talking Dog: Can you give me the “Cliff Notes” version of what triggered this hunger strike and how it has progressed?
Carlos Warner: What I’m telling you is all declassified by the Department of Defense. It seems to have been triggered on February 6, 2013, by a particularly aggressive shakedown search. At GTMO, the Army took over management from the Navy some time last year, in terms of day to day management of the prison. The Army appointed a Colonel who had served in Iraq, who decided to “lay down the law” at the camp. One thing he chose to do is use more aggressive searches of the men and their belongings. Another example of the aggressive stance of the new command was the shooting in early January. This sort of aggressive interaction was previously unheard of at GTMO; but apparently it’s the new normal for the new regime. It sparked the fire that is fueled by the desperation of indefinite detention.
And so on February 6, 2013, during the complete prison shakedown, the guards took everything away from the prisoners, all “comfort items” — the iso-mats (yoga mats that the prisoners sleep on), family pictures and family and legal mail, supposedly “just to check it out.” And the guards, or specifically Muslim interpreters, with soldiers looking on, went through the prisoners’ Korans supposedly searching for contraband.
I met with Fayiz on February 13th, and he told me about the situation at that time. At that time, prisoners told the military that they would prefer not to have the Korans at all rather than have the military engage in this behavior, which the prisoners perceived as an affront. The men indicated they would not eat again in response to these recent events.
The last hunger strike took place in ’06/’07, and was in response to similar shakedowns and also the purported suicide of several detainees. The men were allowed to surrender their Korans during that time. The demand has remained consistent: if the prisoners are permitted to surrender their Korans, the hunger strike would end. Period. The military has now refused to allow the men to voluntarily surrender the Koran. I cannot imagine the logic behind this decision. I have come to realize logic is a precious commodity in GTMO.
As I see it, and as I’ve tried to convey to my own clients, they don’t need the hunger strike for attention; after all, if they kill themselves what’s the point? I and my colleagues can win this fight because we’re motivated and correct — and we don’t need or want our clients to die in the process. However, the men are committed to this and their solidarity is growing. If the conflict stays in the current direction, it’s going to end in men dying.
The Talking Dog: Does the Department of Defense know this, and if the answer is yes, what has the response been?
Carlos Warner: All of what I have told you has been conveyed to the Department of Defense; they are aware of this. We have received no response, at all. In the press they have called the surrender of the Koran an “unacceptable solution.” Again, logic is a precious commodity and it is wholly lacking in the DoD’s position on this conflict.
The Talking Dog: Can you comment on media coverage, in particular, of events at Guantánamo in calendar year 2013, and previously, and in particular, with respect to your own clients and representation?
Carlos Warner: The media is a fickle animal. I get that. I think about the 86 innocent men (so found by a unanimous inter-agency task force) every day. Our problem is that GTMO has slipped to the distant background. One reason is that the Administration has no pressure on it is that the Left is satisfied with President Obama’s pat answer of “it’s Congress’s fault” and the Right is satisfied with the idea of holding innocent men at GTMO under the auspices of the war on terror. Neither the Left or Right fully comprehend that the majority of men in Guantánamo are innocent and should be released. The public still believes GTMO holds the worst of the worst. This falsehood must be attacked at every opportunity for those of us who have the ability to do so.
We as legal representatives are at best a loosely associated bunch … and so there has been no organized coverage. We have a difficult time agreeing on the format of an agenda let alone the agenda itself. I am willing to accept responsibility for this. GTMO has always been a political and diplomatic problem and we as counsel should attack the problem in a selfless and unified manner.
The bottom line is no one leaves GTMO until pressure is applied to the President. The status quo will result in all of the men remaining there at least until this President leaves office. The public, of course, has absolutely no conception that we are holding so many innocent men because it doesn’t help the President or the Right to publicize that fact of innocent people being wrongfully detained. The general public simply views GTMO as something that it is not.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else I should have asked you, or anything else the public needs to know about GTMO, indefinite detention and related issues and what’s going on there?
Carlos Warner: Indefinite detention applies to everyone at GTMO now. That’s what’s driving the hunger strike. Now, is this a problem without a solution? Certainly not. With the President’s support, we could have many innocent men repatriated in 6 to 7 months. There is already $40 million rehabilitation center in Kuwait built specifically for returning GTMO detainees. This center was built under the supervision of the United States for this specific purpose. There is a similar facility in Saudi Arabia. Both are ready and available. Indeed, today (April 1, 2013) the government of Yemen said that it wants its own detainees returned.
Our President must reaffirm what he said he would do in 2009. My President is the philosophical and moral opposite to Dick Cheney and his Neocon Clan. President Obama once announced that Guantánamo “set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world.”
President Obama spoke in front of a copy of the Constitution when he said: ”I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo,” Obama said. “As president, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won’t permit it. Our courts won’t allow it. And neither should our conscience.” He must reaffirm this pledge now.
This is his choice — there is no legal or political impediment to closing Guantánamo. It’s not a question of politics, its a question of morals, values and the will to do what’s right. I choose to believe my President will do what is right.
The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Warner for that eye-opening interview.