Outlook: Realities of Guantanamo

Mahvish Khan
Law Student, University of Miami
Monday, May 1, 2006; 12:00 PM

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: It's a place of tropical beauty that hides a controversial reality -- the U.S. Naval base camps that house prisoners in the war against terrorism. Many of the men have been in detention awaiting charges for three years or more. Mahvish Khan , an Afghan American law student at the University of Miami, felt so strongly about the situation that she wangled her way into an interpreting assignment with American lawyers traveling to Guantanamo to represent the detainees in their petitions for habeas corpus before U.S. courts. She tells the story of her experiences in her Sunday Outlook article, "My Guantanamo Diary." Mahvish Khan was online from Guantanamo Monday, May 1, at noon ET to discuss her article and the realities of Guantanamo.

My Guantanamo Diary , ( Post, April 30, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Mahvish Khan: Hi everyone, I'm in Guantanamo right now and welcome any questions.


Athol, Mass.: Can you help me understand why I should care about the treatment of individuals bent on killing me and/or my countrymen. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, Roosevelt illegally placed thousands upon thousands of Japanese in camps during WWII and Wilson put the boots to the press (effectively suspending free-speech) during WWI.

Mahvish Khan: There's no evidence and nothing's been proven that these people actually were killing your children and your families. The whole purpose of having habeus corpus down there is to have a trial and if they're found guilty then lock them up and you don't have to care about people who've committed crimes. We don't know that they've committed crimes and there are laws of war for a reason.


Albany, N.Y.: Would closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp reverse the damage this operation has done to the U.S.'s image abroad? Or is the taint to America's ostensibly pro-liberty and pro-freedom image irreversible in the eyes of the Muslim world?

Mahvish Khan: I think closing this detention center can help redeem some of the unlawful detentions, but what's going on in Guantanamo is abhorrent to the laws of our nation and habeus corpus pre-dates the Magna Carta and having the Guantanamo detention camps is an affront to international and domestic law. So putting an end to the detentions in Guantanamo can only begin to redeem the injustice that has been done by our country.


Urbana, Ill.: This open dialogue is great. Since the exposure of the conditions in the camps in the last year, do you know if there have been any improvements in the camp conditions?

Mahvish Khan: It depends on the camp that the detainee is in. Some of them are in complete solitary confinement and don't see the light of day for months. It's often arbitrary which camps they're placed in; some are given a checkerboard in solitary confinement but it's hard to play checkers by yourself. In Camp 4 for example detainees mingle with each other several times a day so there is someone they can speak with but it depends on where they are placed. Some of the Uighar detainees who have been deemed non-enemy combatants are housed in Camp Iguana and have a communal setting and get to watch movies, etc. But those are not enemy combatants and they are still being detained.


Detroit, Mich.: This article puts human face on the Guantanamo prisoners. We are paying huge bounties for the terrorist in poor war-ravaged countries, so it doesn't come as surprise that many innocent end up in our hands. If our government has solid cases against these prisoners couldn't they provide them with speedier trials? How many prisoners have been found innocent so far and released? Once released, one could imagine that many of them await brutal treatment in their own countries, so what does our government do to ensure their safety?

Mahvish Khan: I don't know the numbers of people who have been released; some have been released but it's totally based on military discretion. Some fear that when they are released they are released to their home countries where they will later be imprisoned and some face torture in certain Middle Eastern countries. To my knowledge the U.S. hasn't done anything to ensure their safety upon their release. Regarding the speedier trials, they aren't afforded civilian trials in the sense that we know and the government is fighting what habeus counsel are trying to provide. Currently all they're being given generally is military hearings where they have no lawyer and most of the witnesses they want to call are deemed not presently available because they are outside of the country, they don't have an investigator to gather evidence and the attorneys who are representing the clients feel that their military hearings are not fair and not impartial. On a side note about the bounties, for example Afghanistan has a per capita income in 2005 $288 per year so when the U.S. military drops leaflets offering millions of dollars to pay for an entire tribe's cattle and school. Specifically they were giving $5000-$25,000 to turn in anybody who was Talib or al Qaeda member. In a country with such a low per capita income, that kind of money goes a long way.


Silver Spring, Md.: Are the Gitmo prisoners and personnel supervised in an effective way, for example, by video camera reviewed by independent viewers, to prevent torture of prisoners?

Mahvish Khan: No, there's no video cameras to monitor if torture is occurring but the interrogations are recorded by the government.


Salt Lake City, Utah: I worked as an interrogator at Gitmo for the Department of Defense from 2002 to 2003. I interrogated many prisoners, and recommended many for release to their home countries. My question is, of the 180+ detainees that have been released from Gitmo so far, what compensation have they received for the time they have been incarcerated, kept away from family and friends, and deprived of liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Thank you for your work and dedication to ensuring adherence to human rights and dignity.


Mahvish Khan: To my knowledge the detainees that have been released haven't received any form of monetary compensation or otherwise for their wrongful detention.


Washington D.C.: Ms. Khan - can you answer a question?

Is there a SINGLE inmate/detainee presently - right now, in real-time - at Guantanamo who has actually been determined by ANY tribunal (military or other) to be an anti-U.S.. terrorist actually involved in any attack on the U.S. or U.S. forces?

My understanding is that, at maximum, there have never even been 10% of the Guantanamo detainees even formally accused of any specific action hostile to the U.S. or Coalition forces. A large number seem to have been "sold" to the U.S. by bounty hunters, and some other detainees seem to have been collected entirely by accident.


Mahvish Khan: According to the recently published statistical reports based on unclassified government documents (by Seton Hall University), 86% of the detainees were sold into captivity, 5% are there as a result of U.S. intelligence and there have been no fair trials and impartial hearings to determine whether the allegations that many of these prisoners face are true. While all of the detainees I have encountered have been accused of hostilities against U.S. and Coalition forces, because they have not been allowed to bring forth evidence and have fair representation of their side of the stories, many of these men are being detained on the flimsiest of allegations, often hearsay reports, and when they ask who their accusers are and for the evidence against them they're often told that the evidence is classified, so they have no way of refuting it.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Thank you for the work you are doing and for your excellent article. I also read "Wilting Dreams" by P. Sabin Willett (WP 4-27) and cannot express how ashamed the treatment of these individuals makes me. What in your opinion can the average citizen do to help?

Mahvish Khan: I would say write to your Congressmen and Senators and forward those articles around. It's important for Americans to know whose in Guantanamo and to be informed and to speak out against the injustice that are ongoing in Guantanamo.


New York, N.Y.: I am from Pakistan and completely understand the feelings you expressed in the article. I think it is difficult to comment whether one is guilty or not just by listening to him/her once. No offence, but when its emotional, you tend to think more from heart than mind. It's probably more likely that they did something wrong without any intention to harm the U.S. Having said that, I really appreciate whatever you are doing to help those people getting the fair treatment and justice; it really requires a courage, not many people have. Thank you!

Mahvish Khan: I've seen the military charge sheets, I've read the transcripts of hearings and my belief is that this is not based on emotional attachment but after analyzing the allegations and the complete lack of evidence that the U.S. has on many of these men, I came to that conclusion. For example, Dr. Shah is accused of associating with the Taliban. He spent 12 years in exile in Iran while the Taliban were in power. The Taliban looted his personal property and estate while he was in Iran, only when the Taliban fell did he return to his country and he was arrested two days later. The allegations against him have not been substantiated. This is a man who worked closely with the U.N. to encourage Afghan electoral support. He was in support of the Karzai administration and wanted nothing to do with the Taliban.


Washington, D.C.: The article did a nice job of pointing out that there may be some innocent people in the prison. But comparing to the justice handed out to Americans in all Muslim countries, where an American is very likely to find his head separated from his body without any kind of trial, these people are not getting too bad of a deal and in the end will get their day in court and may be freed (the U.S. has released many prisoners from Guantanamo and no one has been executed yet). There were more than 11,000 terrorist attacks last year by Muslims (about 30 a day). When you pray for these prisoners, I hope you also say a prayer for all terrorists' victims and their families.

Mahvish Khan: Of course my heart goes out to victims of terrorism, but just because there are acts of terrorism occurring around the world doesn't mean we should strip people of their natural right to a trial.


Silver Spring, Md.: How were you able to visit Guantanamo? Can any U.S. citizen get permission to go there?

Mahvish Khan: I had to go through a rigorous six month security clearance and my purpose was to travel with the habeus team. Any citizen cannot go to Guantanamo unless cleared by the State Department. Some journalists are allowed to go but have not been allowed to meet detainees.


Toronto, Canada: In answer to your first questioner -- I encourage them to try reading some of the transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, and from the more recent Administrative Review Boards. They are online. Here is the URL: Combatant Status Review Tribunal and Administrative Review Board Documents (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

I am sure if he or she reads half a dozen they will be sure to come across some detainees where they must admit there is doubt about their guilt. I am sure if he or she reads a dozen they will be convinced some of the detainees are completely innocent.

Mahvish Khan: Furthermore, as is also written in my article, I quoted the military presiding officer of Dr. Shah's military hearing and this military judge stated that he "couldn't believe" that Dr. Shah was flown all the way over to Cuba. He said that no matter what accusations somebody brought against him he found it very difficult to believe that he is guilty. And yet he has sat for the last few years in prison.


Albany, N.Y.: The US government seems to make no distinctions between terrorists from any countries--inmates at Guantanamo Bay hail from nearly 50 countries. Why are there no U.S. citizens detained at Guantanamo?

Mahvish Khan: Guantanamo Bay is a place where only aliens and non-U.S. citizens have been held. It is outside of U.S. jurisdiction and that has allowed the administration to create legal loopholes and strip the legal rights of prisoners.


Reston, Va.: In what specific respects is the prison illegal and unconstitutional?

Mahvish Khan: The right of habeus corpus is enshrined in our constitution and it forces the jailer to show why he is holding somebody prisoner. It's also unconstitutional in that these detainees have been given no legal recourse, they have not been afforded the right to a trial or lawyers. There's hearsay evidence used against them in their military commissions. In addition to violating domestic law, it violates international law, the Geneva Conventions and it goes against past historical U.S. precedent.


Detroit, Mich.: Do you know if there is a time-line for closing of the prison?

From the recently published list of the prisoners, I was surprised that in addition to the "regular suspects" (Afghans, Arabs, Pakistanis) that there are also prisoners from less suspecting countries like China. It seems absurd that Chinese are terror suspects.

Besides the somewhat random list of their country of origin, the common link between the prisoners seem to be that they are Muslim and not white. Do you think that racism is a part of the reason for the horrible treatment that is inflicted upon them?

Mahvish Khan: I don't know if racism is the reason they have been treated the way they are. To my knowledge there is no plan to close the prison; in fact they are in the process of building another detention facility called Camp Six. So in fact it appears as though they're expanding. With regard to the Chinese detainees, those are the Uighars and they've been designated as non-enemy combatants.


Toronto, Canada: Thanks for your excellent, important article.

About a year ago, when the DoD let a BBC crew interview some of the enlisted staff, they broadcast a short interview with one guard, who made two points. (1) He expressed a sense of helplessness, that the prisoners could throw bodily waste on them, or threaten them, and they had no means to retaliate; (2) "Half of the guys here killed an American soldier".

The soldier's notion was absurd, of course. I checked. About 190 GIs had died in Afghanistan, at that point -- most of them long after most detainees had been captured.

Have any of the staff there expressed similarly misinformed notions to you, on your visits?

Mahvish Khan: I have heard in the past of detainees, I don't know how many or how frequently, throwing feces or urine on guards. But I don't believe that means they are guilty of anything other than that in and of itself.


Mahvish Khan: I'd like to thank everybody for your interest in the story. I've enjoyed speaking with you. I hope you continue your interest in what's going on here.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company