The Forgotten Prisoners of Guantanamo Bay

The Forgotten Prisoners of Guantanamo Bay

A talk by Zachary Katznelson, based on his [personal accounts of interactions with the inmates of infamous prison.

As you can tell from my accent, I am American. I am based in London now, but it is my country that is perpetrating Guantanamo Bay. I represent twenty-eight prisoners in Guantanamo Bay today. I have been to Guantanamo Bay ten times. I have sat face-to-face with the men and, each time I go, I have seen the human cost of Guantanamo Bay.


Guantanamo Bay opened on January 11, 2002. Think for a moment about everything that has happened in your life since then. More than six years have passed since Guantanamo Bay opened and some of those prisoners have been there the entire time. In Guantanamo Bay, no family members are ever allowed to visit. You have no interaction with the outside world. As a lawyer, I am often the only link between the prisoners and their families. In many ways, I am a very poor vehicle for this. But I do my best, because I really feel it is my responsibility to speak when the prisoners cannot. It is my responsibility to tell the world about what things there are like, what the men are going through, and what has been done to them by the American government in the name of fighting terrorism — in the name of justice.


Unfortunately, my country has abandoned human rights; it has abandoned the very values that democracy teaches us we should all believe in. In the six and a half years that Guantanamo Bay has been open, there has not been a single trial. Six years, zero trials. Everybody who is there is accused of being a terrorist. But, in a democracy, we are all taught that you are innocent until proven guilty. The most powerful government of the world, the United States, has taken these men and thrown them into the prison in Guantanamo Bay, but has never given them a chance to defend themselves.


Guantanamo Bay is on the island of Cuba so it is not inside the United States. I am often asked how the United States has a military base in Cuba. It was actually established in 1903. At that time, the United States and Cuba got along fine. America had liberated Cuba from Spain’s control and, essentially, a puppet government was in power there. The United States signed a contract for the 48 or 49 square miles of land that now makes up its military base in Cuba. The way the contract is set up, the American government pays $4,400 a year. That’s it. Almost fifty miles of territory for $4,400.  So, of course, Cuba does not want Guantanamo there. Cuba wants America to leave but the contract can only be terminated if both sides agree. Cuba doesn’t have the power to force the United State to leave and so this prison camp and this military base remain on Cuban soil.


Cuba has no control there whatsoever. None. American law applies for animals, American law applies for labor standards, American law applies for the environment, American law applies for everything except the men who are in prison. If an iguana is killed at Guantanamo, you face a ten thousand dollars fine. Five men have died in Guantanamo. Nobody has faced anything.


None of the men in Guantanamo Bay are United States citizens. And Guantanamo is in Cuba. So, the United States government says American law doesn’t apply.


The United States government says these men are terrorists. They don’t fight by the rules. So, why should we, as the United States, follow the rules when we are fighting terrorists? Therefore, international law does not apply. The Geneva Convention does not apply.


Today, there are seven men who have been on hunger strike for more than a year in Guantanamo. They are protesting being held for years and years without charge or trial. This peaceful protest is met with brutality. Twice a day, every day, the men are strapped down into a chair with sixteen different straps. You can’t move at all. A tube is shoved up their nose, down their throats and snaked into their stomachs. Then the soldiers begin to pour a liquid supplement down. Sometimes, the same tube is taken out of one prisoner and then put right into another prisoner. It is not even cleaned. This is happening each and every day.


According to the United States, these men have no rights whatsoever and they can be held until the war on terror is done, whenever that may be. There is a case before the United States Supreme Court to decide whether the men in Guantanamo do have any rights under American law. We will have a decision at some point this month[1]. It has taken six and half years to decide whether these men have any rights at all. That is shameful.


A lot of people have said to me, “These men are terrorists, so they got what they deserved.” But you are innocent until proven guilty in this world.



Many of these men, the Americans say, were caught on the battlefield. Therefore, they shouldn’t be given the usual protections that any one of us would want to have if we were accused of something. But that is far from the truth. The truth is that 66 percent of the men in Guantanamo Bay were picked up, not on any battlefield, but here in Pakistan and the Pakistani government turned them over to American government in exchange for millions of dollars. President Pervez Musharraf himself has said it in his autobiography that millions of dollars were received as bounties in exchange for human beings[2]. The road to Guantanamo Bay began in Pakistan.


Twenty percent of the men were handed over by Afghanistan to the Americans. Then, a small handful were picked up by other coalition forces, such as the British and the Australians, who were in Afghanistan. And only a very small number — fewer than ten percent — were actually captured by the Americans.


Many times, men who end up in Guantanamo Bay are accused of being terrorists not because the Americans saw anything, not because they have solid evidence, but because somebody somewhere has told them that they believe that these people are terrorists.


This is the reason, particularly, why we need trials. People are being handed over in exchange for money, and money is a powerful incentive. Imagine someone has done your family a wrong and you are offered tens of thousands of dollars by the Americans to turn in somebody who is “associated with al-Qaida or the Taliban.” This is a serious incentive to turn over someone you don’t like. All you have to do is say: “He told me he went to a training camp in Afghanistan.”


Now, sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. But the problem with Guantanamo Bay is there is no system in place to make sure that the people who are there are really guilty of the crime. They just sit in steel cages day after day after day and the Americans say no law applies.


There are some trials beginning in Guantanamo before a military court, military judges and military officers. And I want to touch briefly on those because you may be hearing about them quite soon.


There are 270 men in Guantanamo Bay today. Out of them, 19 have been charged — 19 out of 270. These 19 will go before military courts where the rules are very different than from any civilian court. First, evidence that was gained from torture can be used against the men. If you torture somebody, at some point, the pain is so great that they will say whatever they think the interrogator would want to hear to make it stop. It’s a natural human response. At some point you break down and either you are speaking the truth or you are making the story up — anything to make the pain stop. But, ask any police force, and they will say that 95 percent of the information that you will get from somebody from torture is false. It is unreliable. But the Americans will use it at these military trials.


Now, there are some very prominent examples of torture in the “war on terror.” One technique these days is something they call water-boarding. Water-boarding is when you are strapped down to a board so tightly you are unable to move. The interrogators put a cloth over your face and your head is dropped back so it is at a lower level than your feet. Then they begin to pour water on your face. Because the cloth is over your face, you cannot do anything to send the water back out. Your lungs begin to fill with water. It is the exact same experience as if you were drowning. You think you are going to die. This is the tactic that has been used and it’s not just me saying it. The director of the CIA has testified before the US Congress saying “Yes, we used this technique.”


They have used this technique on American CIA agents to prepare them in case they’re captured one day and tortured. They last, on average, 11 to 15 seconds before they break and they can’t take it any more. The United States has used it against people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani, for two minutes. The victims think they are going to die with searing pain. Then they begin to talk.


The Americans used water-boarding on a man named Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi. After they did this to him, al-Libi said that al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein were in league with each other. He said that Saddam Hussein was going to sell weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida. This information was used as evidence by President Bush and Colin Powell before the United Nations and the American people to justify the war in Iraq. They said: “Here is the link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Look! We have the testimony.”


Today, if you ask the CIA about this, they say, “This information was false. It was wrong.” The information was gained from torture. It was completely unreliable and it helped lead us to a war.


The Americans used to prosecute their own solders for water-boarding. In the Philippines war in the early 1900s, American soldiers used this technique on Filipinos and they were brought to trial and punished. The Americans punished their own soldiers for doing this. After World War II, Japanese soldiers were put on trial and punished by the Americans for doing this to the American soldiers. The exact same thing. Today, all of a sudden, Americans are permitted to interrogate prisoners using such techniques. President Bush has changed the law for this very purpose. He is acting as though he is above the law, not like he is a president.


The CIA calls the techniques it is using right now “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This is exactly the same term that was used by the Gestapo, by the Nazis, during World War II for their torture methods. This is what the United States is doing in the name of “fighting terrorism.” It has abandoned human rights and it has abandoned legal values.


So, we are trying to put the country back on the right track. It is important to remember that the threat of terrorism is real. There are people who take innocent lives without any justification. They should be caught and they should be punished. They should be put on trial for the world to see.


The American government, in pursuing its policies, needs to be smart about things. They need to think about the image that they project of themselves in this world. If America can abuse people and hold prisoners without any charge or trial for years, it sets an example to the world. It allows people in Pakistan to say: “The United States did it, we can too.” And the United States has to realize that its actions anger people. Its actions make people hate the United States. And that in turn leads to more violence.


President Bush says doing all this makes Americans safer. That it makes the world a safer place. We should all ask ourselves: September 11, 2001 or June 4, 2008. Which is a safer world? Do you feel more comfortable now that you did then? I believe the world is a more dangerous place today and the primary cause of this has been the policies of President Bush and his administration.


I have hope that Barack Obama will bring change. He has spoken about this issue more than any other candidate during the campaign so far. He has said he will close Guantanamo Bay immediately. He has said that it is not okay to hold people without charge or trial. It is a long way to go before the November elections but, as with any politician, I think it is our responsibility to hold him to his statements if he is elected.


American public opinion has changed over the years but there is still that silent majority that accepts a place like Guantanamo Bay. I think the root of this is that many in America have never put themselves in the shoes of the men in Guantanamo. Many people say that the prisoners must have done something wrong if the government is holding them. Although many people in the United States do not trust the government, when the terrorism label has been applied, people accept what the government says. Some of this acceptance comes from fear, some from anger from the events of September 11, 2001, and some from ignorance of the facts. People do not associate themselves with these men. They do not see them as human beings. For whatever reason, they believe what the American government says about them.


Five men have died at Guantanamo Bay. Four of them, the Americans say, committed suicide. The have never released their autopsies and their organs were removed from their bodies so no further examination could be done when they were sent home. One of the men died, the Americans say, of cancer. His name was Abdul Razzaq and he was sixty-nine years of age and from Afghanistan. Abdul Razzaq died in 2007. He had been complaining for many months of pain and only in the last two months of his life was he given treatment. By then it was too late.


Pakistan has done good work already on behalf of the prisoners in Guantanamo. Sixty-seven Pakistanis have come back home from that prison. None of the men repatriated from Guantanamo have been compensated by the American government. Not even a single dollar. Nothing. Of course, no amount of money can ever compensate you for this experience. Our jobs do not end when people go back to their countries. People returning from Guantanamo Bay need medical and psychological help. There’s no question about it. In some countries, such as England and Morocco, there are some facilities available for them, depending on where they return. Others have not been given any help at all.


There are seven Pakistani prisoners left today in Guantanamo. They are: Saifullah Paracha, Muhammad Madni, Majid Khan, Ammar al Baloch, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Abdul Rahim Rabbani and Muhammad Rabbani.


I represent Saifullah Paracha, who was a well-known businessman and philanthropist before his capture by the CIA. He had an export business, sending clothing to the United States from Pakistan. He had an American business partner with whom he had worked for more than a decade.


Mr. Paracha got a phone call one day from his business partner requesting his presence at a business meeting in Thailand. Mr. Paracha agreed to go to Bangkok. It was July 2003. He called his family from the airport in Karachi, told them he loved them and would talk to them upon his arrival in Thailand. His family didn’t hear from him again.


Six weeks, eight weeks went by. Finally, a post card arrived in the mail through the Red Cross saying: “I am in Bagram Air Force Base. I am in an American prison and I don’t know when I am coming home.”


When Mr. Paracha arrived at Bangkok, the CIA was waiting for him. They grabbed him, they took him and they threw him in prison in Afghanistan. He was there until September 2004 and then he was taken to Guantanamo Bay.


Mr. Paracha is 61 years old and has had two heart attacks, one in American custody. Mr. Paracha suffers from chest pains that last up to five hours at a time. The American doctors say that Mr. Paracha needs a cardiac catheterization and, possibly, open heart surgery. But the hospital at Guantanamo Bay is a small island hospital. It does not have a real operating room and there are no cardiologists there. The doctors have told Mr. Paracha that they act as military men first, and as doctors second; they see him as an “enemy” before they see him as a patient. I ask any of you: would you be comfortable having someone like this open up your chest? After the procedure, Mr. Paracha’s hands and feet would be shackled to a bed twenty-four hours a day. Even the military’s own doctors have said that he will need to walk around to recover from such a serious surgery. But, in Guantanamo Bay, he would remain chained to the bed. As a result, he has refused to have this procedure done in Guantanamo. He is willing to go to any proper heart hospital, but the United States refuses.


Mr. Paracha is accused of meeting with Osama Bin Laden, once in 1999 and once in 2000. Mr. Paracha does not deny he tried to meet him. He had a television studio in Karachi called Universal Broadcasting and he was trying to make a name for myself as a journalist by asking Bin Laden for an interview. Bin Laden never responded to Mr. Paracha’s request.


The second main allegation is that Mr. Paracha met with three other Pakistanis who are in Guantanamo Bay: Majid Khan, Ammar al-Baloch and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. The Americans say these three men are very high level al-Qaida people. Mr. Paracha did have meetings with them in Karachi but he had no idea who they were. They lied about their identity. They went by different names. They claimed to be businessmen, seeking investment opportunities. Mr. Paracha was building an apartment complex in Karachi. He ran a television studio. He had the clothing business. So someone seeking investment opportunities seemed normal to him. The men never mentioned al-Qaida. They never mentioned terrorism. They simply asked for help, as one Pakistani to another, to learn of business opportunities.  And so Mr. Paracha agreed to help them. When Mr. Paracha later found out that they were arrested and accused of being terrorists, he was shocked. He has told me he never would have talked to them if he had known.


Someone may say this is just one man’s version. But the Pakistani government has sent officials from the Ministry of Interior to Guantanamo Bay. They have met with Mr. Paracha. They have met with the American investigators. They have reviewed the file the Americans have on Mr. Paracha. And those Pakistani officials have told me that Mr. Paracha is neither a terrorist nor a threat in any way to America or to Pakistan. The Pakistani government has cleared him. They agree this is an innocent man. Yet, he remains a prisoner.


There have been approximately 780 people who have gone though Guantanamo Bay at some time or another. Today, there are 270. So, more than 500 have been released. Remember, how many trials there have been. Zero. Men leave Guantanamo because politicians, heads of states and foreign ministers make requests — and follow through. Tony Blair said to George Bush: “You can no longer hold the British citizens that you have. They must come home.” And there were nine men who were put on the plane and sent home. The King of Saudi Arabia said to George Bush: “You can no longer hold the sons of Saudi Arabia in this condition without charge or trial.” And they were sent home.


Now it is Pakistan’s turn.

The Foreign Minister will be going to Washington in the coming month and we are told he will put this high up on his agenda. He will be requesting that Mr. Paracha be returned. These are his ministry’s words. But words are not enough. We must see to it that these words turn into reality. We all have a role to play.



The media has done a very good job this past week highlighting Mr. Paracha’s story. This is critical. The people need to know what is happening — and we must all speak out. People ask just how they can make a difference. There are many ways. If we write or talk to even one politician about the issue, we are having an impact. If you write to the prisoners at Guantanamo, you are changing things for the better. Many times, being in prison, you feel like the world has forgotten you. You are alone. If you receive even one letter it helps to reawaken your spirit and give you hope. It makes you — the prisoner — feel that you are not forgotten in this world and there are people who are struggling to bring you justice.


I know it is not easy. All of us get wrapped up in our daily lives. We have many of our own problems, many of our own issues. It is certainly not easy in a country where there are so many problems such as the economy, the price of fuel, the price of food. Everyday is a struggle and it is not easy to focus on somebody else who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. But we must speak out. If we continue to raise awareness, we cannot be silenced. At some point, the politicians will have no choice but to respond. Politicians are reading the newspapers. They are aware of the citizens demonstrating on the streets. At some point, a government that refuses to follow human rights will fail. History teaches us that. Each government that has attempted to rule forever, changing the law in a blind effort to keep control, eventually loses power. This is because people do speak out and demonstrate. It causes governments to listen. And, slowly, the walls of injustice will tumble down.


Seven Pakistanis remain in Guantanamo Bay today, including Mr. Paracha. They must come home, and we all must continue to speak up on their behalf until they are back with their families. I will do it and I hope that you will join me.

[1] US Supreme Court decided on June 12, 2008 that foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the right to appeal to U.S. civilian courts to challenge their indefinite imprisonment without charges. President Bush was reported as hinting that he might seek another law to keep the detainees locked up at the prison. accessed on July 20, 2008.

[2] Pervez Musharraf. 2006. In the line of Fire. p 237. London: Simon and Shuster.

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