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Peter Jan Honigsberg

Peter Jan Honigsberg

Posted: March 14, 2011 01:57 PM

Without Human Rights We are Just Another Country


This past week President Obama affirmed what many people expected. Although the president had proclaimed soon after he was elected that he would shut Guantanamo Bay Detention Center within one year, he has now confirmed that the prison will remain open for the foreseeable future. Consequently, a significant number of the 172 detainees currently detained at Guantanamo will be held without charges indefinitely, perhaps for their entire lives.

Our Witness to Guantanamo project (W2G) interviewed former General Counsel of the United States Navy Alberto Mora in December 2010. He reflected on the damage we had done to due process and the rule of law post 9/11 in Guantanamo and observed that, "Without human rights we are just another country."

A government that has held prisoners for over 9 years without charges, and now acknowledges that it will continue to hold a significant number of them indefinitely without charges or prosecutions, cannot pretend that it is committed to human rights. Given the ongoing violations of the rule of law in Guantanamo, we cannot help but ask: Are we becoming just another country?

W2G has filmed 53 in-depth interviews. Thirty one of the interviews have been with former detainees and 22 with other voices, such as prison guards, chaplains, med-techs, JAG lawyers, habeas lawyers, prosecutors (including a chief prosecutor), translators, an FBI profiler, military officials, the father of a Kuwaiti detainee and, of course, Alberto Mora.

Khalid Al-Odah, a Kuwaiti citizen and the father of detainee Fawzi Al-Odah, interviewed with the W2G project in January 2011. Fawzi has been held in Guantanamo Bay since spring 2002 without charges. Years ago, Khalid had lived and trained in Texas, and found everyone he met gracious and kind. He had admired our constitution and he believed in the United States and its values. When he had first heard that his son was being held by the Americans, he expected that Americans would treat his son humanely and pursuant to the rule of law.

He organized the families of the 12 Kuwaiti men who had been captured and taken to Guantanamo, with the goal of bringing them home. Today, 9 years later and largely through his efforts and those of the Kuwaiti government, 10 of the 12 men are back home with their families in Kuwait. Khalid's son, Fawzi, is not one of them.

There does not seem to be any logical reason why Khalid's son is still imprisoned. Fawzi's story is no different from many of the over 600 men who have been released from Guantanamo. We asked Khalid whether he believes that his activism may have caused the U.S. to hold his son as a warning to those who speak out against our policies. He replied that many people have suggested this to him over the years, but he cannot accept that the U.S. would act in this revengeful way. He would like to continue to believe that the United States adheres to the rule of law.

During his interview with W2G, we asked Khalid about the emotional effects on his family. He told us this: Sometimes he awakes in the middle of the night and finds that his wife is not in bed with him. He now knows where she goes. She has gone to their son's room to sleep in his bed.

To Khalid Al-Odah, and to all the other parents, wives and children of the men in Guantanamo, and to the citizens of the world, America can no longer pretend that she is the standard bearer of human rights and the rule of law. As long as we hold people for years, and possibly even decades, without charges and prosecutions we are becoming what Alberto Mora said we should never become -- just another country.

Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco; author of Our Nation Unhinged (Univ. of California Press); and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project (witnesstoguantanamo.com).