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Live from Guantánamo

Camp Justice, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

Today marks ten years since the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.  As fate would have it, I am here for a week visiting one of my detainee clients.

A decade ago, the first 20 prisoners arrived at this remote military outpost, which was designed to be a place where no laws applied.  Over the following years, nearly 760 additional men and boys would arrive here from across the world, many of whom would become my clients.  And years later, though many have been released, 171 men still remain.

I frequently hear from former clients who have been released, usually about their families and their struggles to rebuild their lives after years of abuse and imprisonment without charge or trial.  I received an email just the other day from a Somali man who was released in 2009, who asked me to send a message of hope to his brothers who remain indefinitely detained.

It is difficult to acknowledge, however, that there is little hope for those still here.  Although 89 of the 171 remaining men have been approved for transfer — unanimously by the relevant military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies — no one has left Guantánamo alive in more than a year. Congress has used its spending power to pass legislation restricting the transfer of detainees regardless of their status.  President Obama has shown little leadership or courage, and effectively surrendered plans to close Guantánamo to his political opponents.  And the Supreme Court remains locked away in its Ivory Tower, seemingly aloof to the tragedy which continues to unfold at Guantánamo. Guantánamo has simply become part of the American landscape.  We as a nation, as a people, have normalized and accepted the existence of a prison that Amnesty International once aptly called “the gulag of our times.”

I am struck by the relative normalcy of daily life on this naval base.  Men and women get up and go to work, enjoy the beach on the weekends, and so forth, in a constant, self-perpetuating existence.  Each day is the same.  Sunny, hot and dry.  Yet there is rarely any open acknowledgement of the prison or the men held indefinitely, potentially for life, just a short distance away.

There is no visible recognition of today’s anniversary, except an oblique reference in the local paper to marking “ten years of progress.”  Progress toward what?  Perfection of lawlessness?  Indifference to human suffering?

To mark the anniversary, we will drive out by the old Camp X-Ray, where the earliest prisoners were held in outdoor cages like dog kennels.  It’s shuttered and overgrown with vegetation now.  Hardly anyone seems to notice this bit of history, sitting by the side of the road.  I suspect that many of the men and women on this base were children when the camp opened in 2002.  But the men who suffered there, including my client Djamel  Ameziane, cannot forget it as much as they may wish.

Djamel is a refugee from Algeria.  He left his country in the early 1990s to avoid a civil war which killed hundreds of thousands of people.  He lived in Austria and Canada for many years, working as a well-known chef, until he was denied permanent refuge.  Fearing deportation to Algeria, he fled to Afghanistan just before the US invasion in October 2001.  Like thousands of other refugees, he fled to Pakistan to escape the war and was picked up and sold to US forces for a bounty.  He was young then, with a bright future ahead of him.  Now, ten years later, he is an older man.  I see it not only in his gray hair but in his eyes. He is tired, and survives day by day.  He paints, draws and reads French mystery novels — crime thrillers are his favorite — as he waits for the day when he is released.  He has no problem with Algeria, but fears he will be persecuted based on his Berber ethnicity and his status as a Guantánamo detainee.  He waits and hopes for another country to resettle him, perhaps a country where he can use his French, English and German language fluencies, but he would gladly accept anywhere safe.

Whether such a day will come for Djamel is a mystery.  His legal case was stayed by the court without a decision on the merits nearly three years ago, and the US government will not disclose whether he is one of the 89 men approved for transfer.  Yet resettlement remains his primary goal.  For Djamel home is no longer a place.  It is a journey to freedom.  It is a long road to somewhere he can slowly begin to rebuild his life before it is too late.  I hope he makes it there.

As I sit and watch the sunset over the Caribbean, I cannot reconcile the beauty of my surroundings with the feeling that morality and justice slip further away with each passing day.  Guantánamo Bay has been open for ten years too long.  It is illegal and its continued existence demeans us.  It must be closed.

I hope that ten years from now Djamel is free, and that we mark January 11 as a day of remembrance for all who have suffered here, in America’s illegal offshore prison.

WELLS DIXON  is a Senior Staff Attorney  at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is currently in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba visiting one of his clients.

 

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