With Right On Our Side: The Inspiring Guantánamo 10th Anniversary Protest In Washington D.C. – OpEd


Last week, I was in Washington D.C., attending events to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as part of a 12-day US tour organized by some of my great friends in the US — the activists of The World Can’t Wait, and their national director Debra Sweet, who is largely responsible for making sure that I don’t get lost, that I can find coffee when I need it, and that I don’t get too much sleep! — as well as being a tireless campaigner for justice.

In a progressively busier and busier schedule, Debra and I followed up on events in New York, which I wrote about here, with a bus trip to Washington D.C. on Monday, and a warm welcome at the house of Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, where we were very well looked after. On Tuesday lunchtime (January 10), we made our way to the first of two events that day, a panel discussion, filmed by C-SPAN, at the New America Foundation, moderated by my old college friend Peter Bergen, and featuring, as well as myself, Congressman Jim Moran, Col. Morris Davis and Tom Wilner, which I wrote about here (where there is also an embedded video of the event).

That was an excellent event, and afterwards Debra and I, and some other friends old and new, including Todd Peirce and Derek Poteet, military attorneys in the defense team for the Military Commissions at Guantánamo, whose lawyers I have met with, spoken with and occasionally briefed over the years, went for lunch, prior to Debra and I making our way to Busboys and Poets at 5th and K, for a screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film that I co-directed with Polly Nash. The film, it seems, never fails to convey to audiences the tragic human cost of Guantánamo, as is made particularly clear in the testimony of former prisoner and British resident Omar Deghayes, whose statements are at the heart of the film.

At Busboys and Poets, where the screening was hosted by The World Can’t Wait, many of those involved in the national rally and protest against Guantánamo on January 11 (the day after) turned up, which was wonderful. They included Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International, and Matt Daloisio and Jeremy Varon of Witness Against Torture, and I also had the opportunity to meet plenty of other great people from the many groups involved in the protests, as the room was completely full, and around a hundred people were in attendance.

Unfortunately, due to technical problems, we were unable to show a new, shorter cut of the film, as advertised, which focuses more on the US side of the story, and features new commentary by Tom Wilner on the importance of habeas corpus and the rule of law to Americans. However, we succeeded in showing the original version, which remains the definitive version, as the new cut is primarily for Tom to use in screenings for members of Congress. Afterwards, following presentations from myself and Tom, and our specially invited guests, Darold Killmer and Mari Newman, attorneys from Denver, Colorado, who represent five Yemenis still heldin Guantánamo, we had a lively Q&A session. I believe the event was filmed, and I hope to be able to make it available soon.

On Wednesday January 11, ten years to the day since the first plane of 20 hooded, shackled prisoners in orange jumpsuits arrived at Guantánamo, Debra and I first made our way to the National Press Club, and the unironically entitled, “First Amendment Lounge,” for a press conference put together by the Center for Constitutional Rights, at which a press pack was made available containing the final versions of three reports on the prisoners that I had been working on throughout December. I hope these reports – “The Faces of Resettlement,” “The Faces of Indefinite Detention” and “The Faces of Torture” — will soon be available on CCR’s website, as they provide the background to President Obama’s failure to close the prison, and present the stories of around two dozen of the men still held.

The CCR event, “Obama’s Prison: Guantánamo Turns 10,” featured CCR’s Executive Director Vincent Warren and Legal Director Baher Azmy, plus Stephen Oleskey, co-counsel in Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court case that led to the prisoners being granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights in June 2008. As CCR put it, he “argued that the men’s right to challenge the legality of their detentions has since been effectively eviscerated.” Also speaking was the irrepressible Morris Davis, and Retired Rear Adm. John Hutson, “who supported President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order promising to close Guantánamo within one year and stood behind him as he signed it.”  Short statements by participants in the press briefing are on CCR’s website here.

Afterwards, in the Q&A session with members of the press, I was so outraged by a suggestion from one reporter that President Obama had perhaps not closed Guantánamo because of confidential information revealing dark secrets about the prisoners that had not been disclosed to the public that I challenged it, explaining that the only dark secrets are that the prison is a house of cards built on torture and lies, and that those held there, who were largely rounded up randomly or for money, were tortured, coerced or bribed into providing false or dubious statements about themselves and/or their fellow prisoners to make them appear significant, even though it has long been clear, including reports from sources including intelligence officials, that no more than a few dozen of the 779 prisoners could be genuinely alleged to have had any connection to international terrorism. The dark secrets, I concluded, were more to do with arrogance and incompetence on the part of the administration than with anything emanating from the prisoners themselves.

After this, I made my way, in the rain, to the White House with Debra, and Jen Nessel and Kevi Branelly of CCR, and another friend, The Talking Dog, who I first met online and on the phone when he interviewed me, as part of his excellent series of Guantánamo-related interviews, nearly five years ago. I also met other old friends — Julia Hall of Amnesty International, for example — and spoke to many members of the crowd – many of whom knew me, it was gratifying to note — as I passed among them, handing out postcards promoting the new campaign and website, “Close Guantánamo,” which I have been working on with attorneys Tom Wilner and Gary A. Isaac. I will be spending this year encouraging everyone opposed to the continued existence of Guantánamo to sign up to the campaign (as well as signing the petition on the White House website here), to show to President Obama, to lawmakers and judges, and to newspaper proprietors and TV network operators that people do care about justice, fairness and accountability, and that they also believe in standing up for principles over short-term political expediency.

At the rally, led by a broad coalition of human rights organizations and activists including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Witness Against Torture, Amnesty International-USA, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and The World Can’t Wait, Martha Rayner, an attorney for some of the men still held at Guantánamo “read a statement signed by over a hundred habeas counsel denouncing the unjust detention of their clients and President Obama’s failure to close the prison,” as CCR described it in a news release. Ramzi Kassem, another Guantánamo attorney and law professor, who also represents prisoners at Bagram, “spoke of the injustices within terrorism detentions and prosecutions that occur domestically in the US and abroad,” and the crowd also heard, movingly, from Talat Hamdani, the mother of Salman Hamdani, an emergency medical technician who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks while helping people at the World Trade Center, who called not for undying vengeance, as those seduced by Dick Cheney’s “dark side” still seek, but for the closure of Guantánamo, that most grimly iconic reminder of the excesses of the “war on terror.”

As CCR also reported, and as I explained in an article just before the anniversary, “the men at Guantánamo were heartened by the planned protests marking the anniversary in cities across the US and planned their own peaceful protests to coincide with the rally in D.C. and to demand the end to their continued indefinite detention without charge or a fair trial. They planned to protest by staging sit-ins and participating in a three-day hunger strike.”

While the speeches outside the White House were excellent, what impressed me even more was the atmosphere amongst those attending. When I initially approached the gathering, I admit that I was disappointed that there were not more people (there were probably no more than a thousand people altogether), and disappointed also that it was raining, but the rain served to bond us (as well as, somehow, reflecting appropriately on the somberness of the occasion), while those in attendance were not only energetically fired up, but were also a hugely inspiring mix of traditional activists and crowds of young people, attending a Guantánamo protest for the first time. These young people, many of whom were with Amnesty International, had also clearly been inspired by the great awakening of young people last year, in the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, and by Occupy Wall Street and the wider Occupy movement, and I cannot convey adequately how impressed I was to see so many young people marching and chanting and taking the full and bitter resonances of Guantánamo on board, although I hope someone with a camera captured me trying to express my admiration outside the Supreme Court.

As CCR described it, “Following the rally, the demonstrators marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, led by 171 people dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods representing the number of men still detained at Guantánamo,” who “continued all the way to the US Supreme Court.” This was a first for me, as I had never before been on the Hill, and it was impressive to be outside the Supreme Court, and opposite the Capitol, where, of course, so many decisions about Guantánamo – the good, the bad and the ugly – have been taken.

In my brief speech to an astonishingly motivated crowd outside the Supreme Court, I spoke briefly about how the Supreme Court needs to intervene once more on behalf of the Guantánamo  prisoners, to overturn the increasingly repressive and ideologically motivated rulings in the D.C. Circuit Court, where judges are determined not to allow a single prisoner to leave Guantánamo, and, to do so, have gutted habeas corpus of all meaning as a bulwark against arbitrary and indefinite detention by the US government.

Other speakers, at locations which also included the Justice Department, were Naim Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights, Bishop Michael Seneco of North America Old Catholic Church, Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Terry Rockefeller of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and Tamer Mehanna, whose brother Tarek Mehanna was, in CCR’s words, “held under prolonged pre-trial solitary confinement in the US and was convicted last month under charges that included broad material support allegations based on protected First Amendment activity.” Vince Warren and Stephen Oleskey also spoke again at the Supreme Court, as did Tom Wilner, Debra Sweet and others.

A particularly powerful statement was made by Daniel Lakemacher, a US Marine who became a conscientious objector after serving at Guantánamo. Daniel spoke movingly about his revulsion at the system, still in place in Guantánamo, which dehumanizes the men, and he was delighted to discover that there were protestors who shared his revulsion. That was a high point for me, although I was also impressed when Leili Kashani of CCR read out a poem written during his detention by a former Guantánamo prisoner, Usama Abu Kabir, which the crowd echoed using the “call and response” method of transmitting information, which has been a hallmark of the Occupy movement, and, in echoing the words of a prisoner, was immensely powerful.

I felt very privileged to have taken part in the event outside the Supreme Court, and can only repeat that I hope the justices will once more take up the cases of the men held at Guantánamo, to overturn the manipulation of justice by the D.C. Circuit Court, but I am under no illusions that this will be easy, as the Supreme Court has shown no willingness to revisit the prisoners’ cases.

It remains up to us, the people, to remind the President, Congress, judges and the American public that the continued existence of Guantánamo is unacceptable, and that every day it remains open brings shame upon the United States.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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