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Protesting Gitmo

"Hearts Ruptured with Sadness"

by FRIDA BERRIGAN

On January 11, 2007 more than 100 people in orange jumpsuits trudged slowly from the Supreme Court to the Federal District Court in Washington, DC. Black hoods covered their faces. Another 400 protesters followed "the prisoners" as they tried to enter the U.S. court building. This bit of political theater symbolically brought the plight of tortured and indefinitely detained prisoners out of the legal shadows of Guantanamo and into the court, thereby shining a light on the illegality of their treatment and detention.

Five years after the first "war on terrorism" prisoners arrived at Guantanamo — invisible and isolated in their hoods and shackles and orange jumpsuits — the world community sought to draw attention and sympathy to their plight. From Warsaw to Wichita, from Bahrain to Boise, from Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, England, more than one hundred protests joined this month’s International Call to Shut Down Guantanamo.

In front of the Federal District Court — the one that ruled in November that an ailing prisoner at Guantanamo could not gain access to competent (and unbiased) medical attention off base — the theater began. Police turned the hooded prisoners away. But another 89 people had entered the building earlier in the day and gathered in the atrium to read the names of nearly 400 men who remain imprisoned.

It was a haunting litany of loss and lamentation. I took off my sweater to reveal an orange t-shirt emblazoned with "Shut Down Guantanamo: End Torture" and began to read former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg’s account of arriving at the prison camp.

As we continued our program, the head of the U.S. Marshals Department told us that if we put away our banners and took off our orange t-shirts, we could stay throughout the afternoon. It was an unprecedented offer. But to those committed to bringing the names, cases, and stories of men rendered invisible and unheard by the Bush administration (an injustice largely unchallenged by the U.S. criminal justice system), it was an unacceptable bargain. We kept reading the names — Saifullah Paracha, Mahbub Rahman, David Hicks, Jumah al Dossari, Abdullah Mohammad Khan.

My hands shook. In my pocket was enough money to get on the subway and an index card with the name "Omar Deghayes, Britain." Many of us standing in the courthouse atrium did not bring our own identification. We were experimenting with how to move beyond symbolism and concretely bring the name and story of a Guantanamo prisoner to the attention of the courts.

At the same time, the mother and brother of Omar Deghayes were in Guantanamo, Cuba, demanding to be let onto the U.S. military base and reunited with Omar. They had come as part of an international delegation that included peace activists, lawyers, the co-director of the film The Road to Guantanamo, and former Guantanamo prisoner Asif Iqbal.

In December 2005, as part of Witness Against Torture, 25 of us had walked more than 100 kilometers to get as close to the U.S. base as we could, fasting and vigiling and calling on U.S. authorities to grant us access to the prison camp.

Journeying from Dubai to Guantanamo a little more than a year later, Omar’s brother Taher and his mother Zohra were now standing in the same spot. Zohra writes of the "excruciating" pain of being so close to her son but unable to enter the base. Omar "is in this cursed jail for so many years in conditions which are not even fit for animals," Zohra writes. "I pray to Allah during every prayer that he is released and that he finds people who treat him kindly and compassionately. My heart is ruptured with sadness." It is not the first time the Deghayes family has suffered. When Omar and Taher were children, the Qaddafi regime assassinated their father. Zohra sought political asylum in the UK for her family.

By all reports, Omar is an innocent man. A devout Muslim who aspired to be a human rights lawyer, he traveled to Malaysia and Afghanistan in early 2001, got married, and had a child. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, the young family fled to Pakistan and made plans to return to England. Instead, Pakistani security forces arrested them in April 2002 and turned them over the U.S. forces in exchange for a $5,000 bounty.

At Guantanamo, Omar says he was singled out for harsher treatment because of his familiarity with the law and his tendency to stand up for other prisoners. Permanently blinded in one eye when a U.S. guard jabbed him with his finger, Omar has also been subjected to sexual humiliation, has endured high power water jets forced up his nose, and was held in solitary confinement for over eight months. U.S. officials at Guantanamo also allowed Libyan intelligence agents to question and threaten Omar.

At the District Court protest, I focused on Omar, Taher, and Zohra to put my own predicament in perspective. We followed through on our plan to read the names, and the marshals kept to their word as well by arresting us. Held in a cold basement cell for three or four hours, we were released with a citation to appear in Federal District Court on April 18.

When I go back to court, I will have a chance to tell Omar’s story. The citation bears my height, weight, and hair color. But the name on the ticket is Omar Deghayes.

As the court cases about Guantanamo grind on — bandied among the Supreme Court, the Federal Court, and the Executive Branch — the movement to shut down Guantanamo builds in the streets and the statehouses. More and more Americans are unwilling to tolerate torture and indefinite detention as the only visible end products of the "war on terrorism." January 11, 2007 marked five years of Guantanamo imprisonment for Omar and the hundreds of others. Can their hope and humanity endure another year of imprisonment? Can our sense of law, justice, and democracy withstand the corrosion of executive impunity that long?

Let’s not take that chance. Let’s shut Guantanamo down.

FRIDA BERRIGAN is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus and Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. Her primary research areas with the project include nuclear-weapons policy, war profiteering and corporate crimes, weapons sales to areas of conflict, and military-training programs. She is the author of a number of Institute reports, most recently Weapons at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict. She can be reached at: berrigaf@newschool.edu