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How did your work in Guantanamo Bay start?

Guantanamo Bay

Clive Stafford-Smith (Human Rights Lawyer) gives expert video advice on: How did your work in Guantanamo Bay start?; Is it just the principle of it or do you believe the prisoners are innocent?; How do you contact your clients in Guantanamo? and more...

How did your work in Guantanamo Bay start?

To me, Guantanamo Bay is exactly the same as the death penalty, except it is exponentially worse. And it's for this reason in the death penalty, you take someone, and you hate them horribly and the DA says that they're so despicable, they should die. In Guantanamo, George Bush says they're the worst of the worst, and they're all awful and we should take them to Guantanamo and every single prisoner in Guantanamo, some people don't realize this, face the death penalty if they're put on trial. But, then in Mississippi or wherever, you give someone a terrible lawyer to represent them and you give them no lawyer on appeal. In Guantanamo, they don't give you any lawyer in the first place. In Mississippi, they give you a legal process that puts you in a prison miles away from anywhere in hopes that no one will go see you. In Guantanamo, they take you to Cuba, for goodness sake, where no one can go see you. In Mississippi, the client's family so often can't get to see them because they are poor. Sometimes they can, they can go every two weeks. In Guantanamo, they can't go at all. So, what I saw when I saw Guantanamo being set up in January 2002, just made me very annoyed because here's George Bush being as hypocritical as a hypocrite can be, saying that in the name of the war on terror and the rule of law and democracy, we're going to set up a prison that has no rule of law and we're going to hold people there and just announce that they are “evil doers.” And that's just so wrong and it's not just wrong, it's stupid. Because if there's one thing you know, it's that hypocrisy breeds hatred. And at a place like Guantanamo, when Americans going around the world preaching democracy and rule of law and then doing Guantanamo, we're absolutely bound to get in trouble.

Is it just the principle of it or do you believe the prisoners are innocent?

I know a large number of the people inside are innocent. When I first went down there I somewhat took the government on faith when they said everybody had been captured on the battlefield of Afghanistan. Of the 60 odd people that I've met in Guantanamo and outside who have been at Guantanamo I think I could only identify 4, maybe 5 who were ever on any battlefield in Afghanistan. And whether them fighting the Northern Alliance was somehow a crime against America is a good question, but the others weren't. You know I could go down the list of innocent people in Guantanamo and some of them are innocent. It's just terrible. Muhammad El Gurenni, a 14-year-old child who was never in Afghanistan until the Americans took him there and he's no more a terrorist than you and I. And they say after five years, number one they don't know how old he is, they can't even figure that out, they only need to get a birth certificate, but number two they say that in 1998 he was in the London cell of Al-Qaeda, which was rubbish he was 11 years old at the time and he'd never left Saudi Arabia. And yet they won't let him have a trial so he's still in Guantanamo today. And I can list dozens and dozens of people like that but it's outrageous what went on.

How do you contact your clients in Guantanamo?

I have to go down to Guantanamo to see them, which is a pain in the neck. You can write to them, but they're normally not allowed pens to write back, so, what's the point, even if they do get the letters? Some of them get to write back, but very often they don't, so I go to Guantanamo about every two months.

What are the conditions like there?

The Bush Administration says it's a holiday camp, like it's Club Med in the Caribbeans, and I have seen almost every death row in the deep south of the United States and there is no prison anywhere close to as bad as Guantanamo Bay on so many levels. They're held in isolation cells, they can't see any other person for days on end, some of them. They're not allowed to see families, they're not allowed this and that. They get beaten up all the time. It's just shocking what is going on. Many people wouldn't even believe that until pictures of Abu Gray came out. But General Miller who is in charge of the whole fiasco in Abu Gray of course went from Guantanamo to Abu Gray. But he went to "gitmoize" Abu Gray and that tells you enough that he was taking the horrors of Guantanamo to Abu Gray that existed in Gitmo first. You see these prisoners, it's just sad that so many of the guys are losing their minds when they get down there. It's very sad.

Do the prisoners trust you?

Sometimes it's very hard to establish trust. I have to have an American passport as I do, to go to Guantanamo. If you don't have one, you couldn't go and I have to have a security clearance. So I go in there and I say "Hi, I'm from America, I'm here to help you" and these are guys who have been abused or tortured for five years. So to expect them to trust you immediately is very improbable. The United States intelligence people do devious things to try to stop them from trusting the lawyers. You know one day I went in to see one of my clients, Shakarama who's from here in London. And Shakar said, you're Jewish aren't you? And it turns out these idiots told him I was Jewish just to try to make him not trust me. And we had a long conversation "Yeah actually I am half Jewish, though they didn't know that they made that up." I didn't know that until I was thirty seven, and so it came as a surprise to me that Shakar did. And then the next time that I go down there, one of my really conservative unworldly clients says, "They're telling me that you like to have sex with men." It's just because they think that Muslims hate gay people. And you know I don't have time to debate about homophobias, tell him about my marriage and all of that nonsense. But you know this is the sort of bullshit that they get into to try and under cut the trust between lawyers and prisoners. That speaks so much about the problems of how wrong that whole process is and you laugh at it but it's very serious.

How do you see the situation ending?

If you talk about the situation ending, first you talk about Guantanamo ending, and then you talk about secret prisons, and then we're talking about Utopia, which we will never achieve. I'm not really interested in the ultimate perfect society. I'm interested in stopping what's going on right now. Guantanamo will close fairly soon, and it will close because we have been able to show the world what a nightmare it is. Guantanamo is only a tiny part of the problem. If you look at just U.S. official figures, there are 14,000 prisoners in U.S. custody, which means that Guantanamo is only about 2%. Almost 98% of prisoners in U.S. custody are in secret prisons. And those are places that you probably never heard of. I'm dying to get Guantanamo out of the way, so that we can get the world to focus on all the other secret prisons around the world where a lot more people are suffering than in Guantanamo, and not one lawyer to date has gone in to see any of them.

Is there not a danger if released these people would go on to commit terrorist atrocities?

There's a danger if I release you, that you'll commit terrorist atrocities. That doesn't mean I get the right to lock you up today. And if you happen to grow a beard and tell me you're Muslim, then apparently that makes you more dangerous. Again, it doesn't give me the right to lock you up. For the last thousand years or so, we've had a perfectly sensible approach to dealing with people who may commit crimes, and it's not the movie “Minority Report.” You don't say, “Well, I see that chap over there, and I think maybe he'll commit a crime sometime in the future.” And the idea that somehow today we need a new system is ridiculous. The idea that Al Qaida, for example, a group of people who back in 2001, you could have written all of their names on one sheet of paper, that somehow they're more dangerous than Adolf Hitler and all the armies of World War II, you know, that's just ridiculous. And the only people who can pretend that are people who've never read a history book. And we developed all of the human rights law after World War II, and we developed it through the Cold War when the Soviets wanted to blow us all off the map. And the idea that we need to jettison all of that because there are a few lunatics out there who want to attack the West, you know, that's just not supportable; it's absurd.