Going to See a Ghost
Today at Guantanamo Bay, I am supposed to meet a ghost.
Actually, Majid Khan -- whom I represent in my work as a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights-- is still very much alive. Yet his legal status as a person entitled to basic rights is under grave assault. You see, Majid is one of dozens of people who have been held in secret CIA detention centers around the world. They are known as "ghost detainees" because our government hid them away from everyone, even the Red Cross. Their existence is an enduring reminder of the shocking abuse of power taking place in this nation.
Majid's story has become fairly well known. He was born in Pakistan; his family immigrated to the United States in 1996, when Majid was 16, and received asylum in our country. Majid went to Owings Mills High School, outside of Baltimore, where he learned about checks and balances and due process. He was an amateur DJ. And he was deeply attached to his Muslim faith.
In 2002, Majid went to Pakistan to marry. On March 5, 2003, he was kidnapped by Pakistani police, who turned him over to the CIA. Our government held him incommunicado at a secret CIA facility for more than three years. According to news reports, former CIA interrogators, government memos and admissions by President Bush, techniques such as simulated drowning, sleep deprivation, extreme temperature fluctuations, sexual humiliation and extended solitary confinement in cramped quarters -- practices that amount to torture under any reasonable definition -- were used at these facilities repeatedly, brutally and systematically. But during this entire period our government denied that Majid even existed. He was a ghost. His family did not know whether he was alive or dead.
Then, as abruptly as he disappeared, Majid reappeared. In September 2006, President Bush announced that Majid, along with 13 other "ghosts," would be transferred to Guantanamo Bay to face a military tribunal. The tribunals are meant to legitimize their detention but accomplish nothing of the sort. Any military commission Majid is to face will follow rules specifically designed to ensure that the government gets the outcome it seeks.
Moreover, the proceedings will be tainted with secrecy. A transparent trial would risk revealing the events surrounding Majid's detention and treatment while in CIA custody. The government's need for secrecy has nothing to do with Majid's alleged wrongdoing -- only the circumstances under which he was captured, hidden away and interrogated. He will continue to be held behind a shroud of secrecy to protect the CIA program under which he was originally detained. He is a prisoner being punished in order to protect his jailers. The logic is terrifying. And it is being done in the name of the American people.
At least Majid's family now knows he is alive. When I see him, it will be the first time he has been afforded the basic right of meeting with a lawyer. I am writing this column now because once I meet with my client, military regulations will restrict my ability to speak publicly about the case.
Over the past few years, while serving hundreds of Guantanamo detainees, lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights have wrestled with such gag orders. Obviously, we abhor the infringement of our clients' right to a fair and transparent process -- and of the public's right to hold government officials accountable for their acts. While we are prohibited from discussing details of our cases, nothing will stop us from denouncing this abuse of power and challenging the government's attempts to use secrecy to hide its criminal conduct. From the violation of habeas corpus to the use of torture to sham trials that mock the most basic rules of law, the executive branch under President Bush has assaulted the very foundations of our system of justice. This must end.
In the coming months, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to reject these abuses and restore the rights envisioned by the Founders. I hope that at this critical time, the American people will make it known that while our president may have disdain for our Constitution, we the people still cherish it.
In literature, ghosts are symbols not only of mortality but also of accountability. Ghosts render judgment upon actions and compel us to mend our ways. For three years, Majid Khan was a ghost. Now he has reappeared. Let his terrifying experiences serve to remind us of the danger posed when power goes unchecked -- and of our duty not to be silent but to stand and fight for the fundamental rights that protect us all.
Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, represents numerous detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. She was a member of the legal team in Rasul v. Bush and was the first habeas corpus lawyer to travel to Guantanamo, in 2004.