The American military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba – shelter for nearly 600 detainees – is still in the news, but the real story has not emerged, according to part-time West Shokan resident Michael Ratner, one of the principal attorneys representing the prisoners at the Supreme Court.
To make their case better known, Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, wrote “Guantanamo: What Every American Should Know.” It is printed by Chelsea Green Publishing. The book is a paperback, written in the style of a question-and-answer interview with Ellen Ray, president of the Institute for Media Analysis.
Pertinent documents, Web sites and suggested readings are also included.
Ratner has previous experience with Guantanamo. He was a principal attorney in the successful effort to close the U.S. HIV camp for Haitians there in 1993.
In addition, he lectures regularly on international human rights law at leading law schools, including Yale and Columbia.
Ratner’s main residence is Greenwich Village, where he lives with his wife Karen Ranucci, a journalist, and their two teenage children. But when he is not busy in New York City with his work involving Guantanamo, he likes to fly-fish in the Mid-Hudson area. Upstate is his “favorite place in the world,” he said. “The Catskill environment is simply stunning.”
Q: You have fought hard and long to establish the right to fair trials for the prisoners at Guantanamo. Please comment about a seeming step toward that, the first permitted visit (Aug. 29) between a civilian lawyer and a detainee at the U.S. base.
A: Finally, two months after winning the right to go into court on behalf of our clients, the first attorney visited Guantanamo. Until this visit, all the prisoners were held incommunicado and did not even know that we were representing them. We were representing their families, and the administration refused to even tell the prisoners that they had attorneys. The administration resisted even this attorney visiting her two clients and is continuing to argue that such visits must be restricted. While this visit is a first step, it is only that. We need to get scores of attorneys to Guantanamo. Even then, there will not be real trials. What we hope to get are hearings in federal court in Washington, D.C., in which the administration must legally justify the detentions. I do not think the administration will be able to do so in many of the cases.
Q: On June 28, shortly after your book was published, the Supreme Court ruled that the detainees at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their detentions in court. How did you react to that ruling? Did you ever think it would come?
A: I was thrilled by the Supreme Court decision that allowed those detained at Guantanamo to go to court and challenge their imprisonments. When the Center for Constitutional Rights and I took the case, we thought it was almost hopeless. Yet, we understood that we were asserting the most fundamental of all constitutional rights: the right to require the government to produce in court its legal justification for each of the prisoners’ detentions. That right goes back all the way to 1215 when King John at Runnymede was forced to sign the Magna Carta guaranteeing that no person could be imprisoned solely because the king wanted him imprisoned. My view was that for the Bush administration, it was 1214 – the year before the Magna Carta. The Supreme Court saw it the same way and relied upon the Magna Carta in its ruling. The court was obviously deeply concerned by the idea of executive detentions or imprisonment without court review – one of the very reasons we had the American Revolution. Until the ruling, the administration claimed the courthouse doors were closed to those imprisoned at Guantanamo; the court decision was a real affirmation that our country is based upon law and not executive whim.
Q: What moved you to go beyond the advocacy you’ve already done to write a book about the plight of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay?
A: Although the Supreme Court decision has been described as the most important civil rights case in 50 years, many people are unaware of Guantanamo and the serious civil liberties issues raised by the imprisonments. The administration tried to create a law-free zone in Guantanamo where it was free from judicial scrutiny and could do what it wanted to the prisoners. This is very dangerous for all of us; any of us could be next. Guantanamo set a terrible example. If the U.S. treats people as beyond the law, we should be concerned as to how U. S. soldiers will be treated when captured. This is why Colin Powell objected to denying the Guantanamo prisoners legal rights under the Geneva Conventions. I felt it important to warn the wider world, particularly in the U.S., of how dangerous to freedom the administration’s actions are in Guantanamo.
Q: How many prisoners are living at Guantanamo, where are they from, how did they get there, and what treatment are they receiving?
A: There are currently 584 prisoners at Guantanamo. That number has varied as more are brought in, some are released and some are taken to other detention facilities elsewhere in the world. They are from approximately 40 countries, mostly from the Middle East, but there are prisoners from the United Kingdom, France and Germany. They are all non-citizens (U.S. citizens are held in military brigs in the U.S.) and are Muslim or have Arabic ethnicity. We do not know how they all got to Guantanamo. The majority of prisoners were picked up in Afghanistan or Pakistan during the Afghanistan war, but others were picked up elsewhere in the world such as The Gambia. As far as we know, the administration is still picking up people from around the world.
Contrary to popular belief, these prisoners were not all picked up on the battlefield. Many were captured wearing civilian clothes far from the battlefield. The administration offered rewards of up to $5,000 for leaders of al Qaeda. That is a lot of money in that part of the world. People were turned over to the U.S. to settle grudges or just for the money. I have interviewed some of those released, and it is clear that they were not terrorists, much less the leadership of any terrorist group. I believe a majority of those at Guantanamo are neither terrorists nor a danger to the U.S. Had the U.S. given them the court hearings they were entitled to, there would have been no need for Guantanamo.
Conditions in the prison camp are bad, very bad. Inhuman treatment including torture is the order of the day. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld approved the use of dogs during interrogations, stripping, stress positions, sleep deprivation, forced shavings and beatings. I interviewed three young English men who had been released; their treatment was truly chilling. As a result of this coercion, they falsely confessed to meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Only after British intelligence proved they were in England at the time, were they released. They have written a 115-page report describing their Kafkaesque experience, and it is available on the Center for Constitutional Rights Web Site at www.ccrjustice.org.
Q: What response have you received from readers of your book?
A: One woman bought the book at a bookstore, said she was moved to tears and went out and bought 100 copies for her friends. Everyone who reads it says they are outraged by the treatment of the prisoners; that the book is accessible and that the legal, political and moral aspects of the situation are clearly explained.
Q: How has your work on behalf of the prisoners at Guantanamo affected your personal life?
A: When I first began representing prisoners, it was January 2002, a few months after 9/11. Hate mail poured into my e-mail account and to our office. It was suggested that I invite the Taliban to dinner and let them eat my children or that I should go to Guantanamo as a prison guard and see what it felt like. Others said I was un-American. We could not get any other civil liberties organizations to work with us on the cases. But that was in the beginning. Now much has changed. We had a lot of support in the Supreme Court case where former prisoners of war, former diplomats, former judges and others concerned about executive detentions and the rule of law joined us in the appeal to the court. Now we and other attorneys are representing over 70 prisoners in Guantanamo and major law firms are working with us.
Q: Are you hopeful that the detainees will eventually all receive fair trials? Why or why not?
A: I am hopeful about little as long as the current administration insists on undermining basic constitutional rights and treating the prisoners as non-humans with no rights. It took us over two and a half years to open the courthouse door for the Guantanamo prisoners, and the administration is still acting as if a ruling from the Supreme Court is a suggestion and not a ruling that it must obey. It has dug its heels in and claims the prisoners still have no right to an attorney. So for the two months since we won in court, only one attorney has visited her clients. The administration has yet to answer as to why the prisoners are held. The administration is not planning to give most of those held at Guantanamo any trial. Rather, it claims it can hold them forever, or until the war on terror is over. That war, according to the administration, could take 50 years or more. To the extent it has begun trials for a handful of prisoners, those trials are a sham and an embarrassment. They are trials before military commissions with hand-picked military judges where coerced evidence is admitted and where trial by affidavit will be routine. These types of trials are the very kind of trials the U.S. State Department condemned for years when used by military governments in Chile, Peru and Nigeria. It is amazing to me that now a country that was a model of the rule of law is now a model for lawlessness.