Sunday, January 15, 2006

A peek into the Gitmo gulag


Defense Department photo

Brad Wizner, an ACLU lawyer, has been blogging from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo where he has been observing Bush's "military tribunals" as a human rights monitor. His writing gives a very immediate sense of this strange place, full of the trappings of law but containing no sign of any actual justice.

Here's a sample about the appearance of Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al Bahlul who refused to cooperate with the proceedings:

Al Bahlul ... declared: "With these nine causes, I am boycotting all sessions, even if I am forced to be present." He lifted the paper that he had been scribbling on. "I will raise this paper, and this word is 'boycott.' I am boycotting every session. This boycott is the result of circumstances that I believe, and it doesn't matter if you believe them." Then, in English, he repeated the word "boycott" three times.

[Presiding Officer Peter] Brownback asked al Bahlul if he could make a copy of the "boycott" sign for the record. Al Bahlul said yes, but first he signed and dated it, and wrote "boycott" in English beneath the Arabic. (Later, when a Canadian journalist asked Commission staff if the press could obtain a copy of the sheet, he was told that it might be possible only after security personnel had reviewed it to ensure the absence of "subliminal messages.") "Please, before you boycott," said Brownback, "can I ask you one more thing?" Al Bahlul put his hands in front of his face, then removed his headset.

Despite his refusal, al Bahlul was assigned a military lawyer. That lawyer immediately attempted to have himself removed for the case on the grounds that his client did not want him as counsel. Legal ethics forbade him to play that role against his client's instructions. The court did not allow him to withdraw.

This episode points to one of Wizner's core observations on these bizarre proceedings. He writes:

Even in a terribly flawed legal system like this one, a skilled and dedicated defense lawyer can transform the nature of the proceeding. That's why the Administration attempted for so long to keep any lawyers from coming here. All of the defense lawyers who participated this week, military and civilian, are fighters, and they won't just throw up their hands at the injustice of the rules. The Administration may yet get the outcomes it wants -- after all, it selects the Commission members and makes the rules -- but it won't get the trials that it wants. The defense lawyers will make sure of that.

Since we seem to be living through a slow motion coup by the authoritarians in the executive, this sort of resistance based on professional tradition is important. It is not enough to break their power, but any friction in the system improves our chances of living to fight another day.

Wizner is also quite fascinating on what Gitmo is like as an environment for the U.S. forces stationed there. Like many prisons, but even more so because it is intentionally walled off from the mainland, it is also a controlled, brainwashing environment for its working class. Like any other military post, it is well supplied with McDonalds and Subways, as well as some better class restaurants and bars, much frequented. The troops have been given a reinforcing mantra:

The motto of the Joint Task Force Guantanamo -- the troops responsible for detention and interrogation operations here -- is "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom." When JTF members salute each other on the base, it's common for one to say "Honor Bound," and the second to reply "To Defend Freedom." This is jarring at first, then routine; one senses that the recitation has become rote even for the some of the troops, who occasionally mumble the words as they walk past each other. To much of the world, hearing "Guantanamo" and "freedom" so closely associated must sound ironic, but I got the sense that most troops here believe in the mission, even though they're not responsible for the policy decisions that brought them here.

Arbeit Macht Frei had already used up its punch, I guess -- besides, there is no indication that anything will ever set either inmates or jailers free.

Do read all about it at the ACLU blog. Thanks to Just World News for pointing me to Wizner.

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