MPAC Director Reports on Visit to Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

April 17, 2007

Last week, MPAC Executive Director Salam Al-Marayati was the first Muslim American to observe conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Amid the sirens sounded by human rights groups calling for the detention facility to be shut down, the U.S. military is trying to make the best out of a very bad situation. In an effort to present their perspective, the Pentagon invited legal scholars, analysts and journalists to visit the detention center on April 10, 2007.

Other members of the delegation included Quin Hillyer, editor of the American Spectator; Benjamin Wittes, formerly of the Washington Post and now with the Brookings Institution; Thomas Wells, president-elect of the American Bar Association; Thurgood Marshall, Jr., former Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary for President Clinton; David Rivkin, former Deputy Director of the Office of Policy Development for President Reagan; Dr. J. Peter Pham, professor of international politics at James Madison University; and Steve Engel, Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice. The visit was hosted by William Haynes, legal counsel to the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and coordinated on the island by Rear Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) for the Guantanamo Naval base.

SEE: Air America "State of Belief" Interview with Salam Al-Marayati About Gitmo Trip (4/15/07)

MPAC acknowledges the efforts of our troops in carrying out the orders of our policymakers with professionalism, even if the policies are wrong. MPAC commends and supports Defense Secretary Robert Gates' public call for the closing of the prison. This stance has been supported by human rights groups which have investigated and condemned U.S. interrogation and incarceration practices at Guantanamo.

Sam Zarifi of Human Rights Watch provides this critique in his commentary, "A Few Good Men at Gitmo": "The military commissions now taking place at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, fall somewhere between a trial and a farce. The military officials involved in the process all seem committed to doing the best they can, but it is clear that they are struggling to make sense of a needlessly complicated and faulty system foisted on them for political purposes, not justice." Amnesty International also hosts a web page dedicated to the closure of Guantanamo, calling it a symbol of injustice and abuse.

That said, the inclusion of a Muslim American representative on the trip is an important demonstration of engagement undertaken by the Pentagon to initiate dialogue on this important domestic and international flashpoint. As MPAC has underscored repeatedly, continuing interaction between the U.S. government and the Muslim American community is a welcome and necessary step for both the security of the nation and the political integration of more than six million Muslim Americans.

Summary of the Trip

During the tour, military officials briefed the delegation on the treatment of detainees. They repeated stressed that more detainees have been released, about 390, than currently remain at the U.S. Naval base, and emphasized the desire of U.S. officials, including President Bush, to "get them all out." Military officials at Guantanamo asserted that some Muslim countries have denied repatriation of detainees who have been cleared for release.

They reminded the visiting group that the base is under constant scrutiny from approximately 1,000 journalists and hundreds of human rights lawyers, along with congressional oversight, which has forced more transparency in the procedures of detainee treatment. Military officials strive to perform and enforce with perfection the instructions received from the President and his Cabinet officials, and the delegates were impressed with the meticulous execution of the Joint Task Force on Guantanamo.

The detainees' designation as "enemy combatants" does not afford them due process, otherwise guaranteed if they were defendants in a criminal court of justice. Nonetheless, military officials emphasized in the briefing that one key aspect of the Joint Task Force for Guantanamo Bay (JTF) is to provide "safe and humane care" of the detainees.

To that end, the base is clean and orderly, and military officials vehemently reject any claims of torture or Quranic desecration. Meals provided to detainees are certified as halal (prepared according to Islamic dietary law), served three times daily, and provide 4000-5000 calories daily, greatly surpassing the daily recommended caloric intake. Officials also stressed their respect for the prisoner's Islamic faith, repeatedly mentioning that each cell has a Quran and an arrow indicating the direction for prayer (qibla). They also pointed to the presence of the International Red Cross, which has a permanent installation on the island.

MPAC's Observations

The problem with Guantanamo is not the operation per se but the poor policy that created a detention center that does not serve American interests and is in violation of basic human rights. While government officials have stated a desire to shut the detention center down, real political will on Capitol Hill among the administration and lawmakers must be demonstrated in order to turn this into an overdue reality.

The delegation was not allowed to speak with any detainees, who were out of sight for the most part. One of the glaring problems in the procedures at Guantanamo is the lack of legal representation of detainees facing the Combatant Status Review Tribunal. Even the military-appointed lawyer cannot advocate for the defendant before the tribunal. Extra-judicial practices such as those at Guantanamo provide political and religious extremists a recruiting tool, particularly when they can point to contradictions with the U.S. campaign to promote democracy throughout the world.

The ways and means by which detainees were captured and transferred to Guantanamo are key factors in determining the validity of their detention in the first place. Were they Al-Qaeda agents planning attacks on America and if so, on what evidentiary basis was that determined? Corrupted intelligence has become too often an overlooked mistake in various incidents, first and foremost the make-up of the argument to go to war in Iraq. The American public will become more confident in decision-making at the policy and military levels of our government if more transparency is placed in the process.

Providing detainees with legal rights through the military tribunal is crucial to establishing this transparency. The lack of legal representation provided to detainees when they are in front of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal undermines our national commitment to the rule of law. Without adequate legal representation, the detainees are deprived of basic human rights.

SEE: MPAC Commends Supreme Court Ruling on Gitmo Military Tribunals (1/3/07)

There were other troubling observations made by Al-Marayati. In Camp 6, detainees were pacing back and forth in claustrophobic cells. One elderly man looked at the delegation from afar with a gaze of despair, another plastered his face to a glass window. In other prisons, hardened criminals usually behave differently, whereby lifelessness is manifested in a more callous way. MPAC recommends that the government look to criminal psychoanalysts and psychiatric professionals to assess the mental state of the detainees. Amnesty and the International Committee of the Red Cross are both concerned that the conditions at Guantanamo could lead to adverse mental and psychological conditions of detainees.

MPAC supports the recommendation made by International Red Cross Committee President Jakob Kellenberger, who said last fall: "People suspected of having committed war crimes or any other criminal offence can and should be prosecuted. But these individuals must be afforded essential judicial guarantees such as the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by an impartial and independent tribunal, the right to qualified legal counsel and the exclusion of any evidence obtained as a result of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

As Defense Secretary Gates has argued, the U.S. should imprison and conduct the trials of these suspects elsewhere, because Guantanamo is identified in the minds of other nations with torture. Nonetheless, the JTF is preparing state of the art court chambers for military tribunals to take place on the island. As such, it is a permanent stain on this nation's reputation and a constant reminder to others of past U.S. mistakes. That inhibits other countries' cooperation with the United States.

MPAC will provide policy recommendations to Mr. Haynes and other U.S. officials on counterterrorism policies in hopes of enhancing America's national security while respecting human rights. MPAC also calls on the President and the Congress to devise a mechanism to "get them all out" with more efficiency compared to the sluggish-pace of government progress on this issue so far.

It is clear that the Admiral and his staff believe they are serving our country and they are doing so with professionalism. For that, they must be commended. However, as Al-Marayati told senior military officials last week, "the medical metaphor may apply here: the operation is a success but the patient is dying". To that, military officials in Guantanamo replied affirmatively and pointed to the policymakers who are responsible for giving them further orders.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council is an American institution which informs and shapes public opinion and policy by serving as a trusted resource to decision makers in government, media and policy institutions. MPAC is also committed to developing leaders with the purpose of enhancing the political and civic participation of American Muslims.



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