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St. Helenan fights for Guantanamo prisoner rights
human rights

St. Helenan fights for Guantanamo prisoner rights

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Abu Wa’el Dhiab was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2002. Never having been charged with a crime, he was cleared for release in 2009, but was not actually discharged until last month along with five others in a deal between the U.S. and Uruguay.

During his incarceration, Dhiab, who is from Syria, went on hunger strikes to protest his detention without trial and charges and his treatment, which included being force-fed and being forcible removed from his cell 1,300 times.

Enter Elizabeth Marvin, an attorney who represented him in a lawsuit against the U.S. government and President Barack Obama seeking protection against those treatments, and the release of videos that the U.S. military made of the procedures.

Marvin was born and raised in St. Helena. After graduation from high school in 1994, she attended American University in Washington, D.C., she then went on to law school and has been living in the nation’s capital ever since.

Along with her colleague, Eric Lewis, and other attorneys working for the human rights organization Reprieve UK, Marvin represented Dhiab pro bono in litigation.

“It’s an effort on behalf of Mr. Dhiab to expose conditions of confinement at Guantanamo, especially for a man who hasn’t been charged with anything and had been cleared for release,” Marvin said. “Taxpayer dollars are funding this prison and we are housing many men who have been charged with no crime, with no trial and no due process. And the conditions down there are pretty grave.”

Marvin’s team hired medical expert Dr. Sondra Crosby to examine Dhiab. At the preliminary injunction hearing in October, which lasted three days, Marvin questioned Crosby about her findings. Dhiab was not allowed to take the stand, nor are detainees permitted to be at their own hearing or trial.

“There are special procedures for detainees,” Marvin said. She had to get a security clearance to represent him because she was privy to information that the government has deemed secret. One of the things they deemed secret was their dossier on him, “so we couldn’t talk to him about what they (the government) thought he did.”

Crosby met with Dhiab over the course of three days, and physically examined him for about 90 minutes. She testified that Dhiab suffers from severe back pain on account of a pre-incarceration injury, and that the pain progressively worsened during his detention. He also has severe headaches, blood in his urine and complained of right-side weakness in his leg, arm and face, with no feeling below his right knee.

Marvin said one of the highlights of Dr. Crosby’s testimony – and one that got a lot of media attention – was related to a Guantanamo “Doctor’s Order” that deprived Dhiab of his boxer shorts and cotton socks. Crosby testified that she could think of no medical reason to deprive a patient of such items and that medical treatment at Guantanamo seemed punitive. Regarding a closed-session viewing of force-feeding videos, Crosby called them “disturbing.”

Marvin’s team failed at the preliminary injunction stage to stop force-feeding and forcible cell extraction, and has appealed that ruling. However, they did win an order compelling the government to release videos of forcible cell extractions and force-feeding.

The judge in the case ordered the videos released subject to redaction to protect the identity of military personnel. The government has appealed those decisions. Members of the press, including the New York Times, the Associated Press and a collection of other newspapers have since come together and intervened, saying the public has a right to know what’s going on at Guantanamo. That aspect of the litigation will continue, Marvin said.

The videos are considered classified and Marvin is not allowed to talk about the contents.

“Our foreign policy includes sanctioning other countries for human rights violations, but we are committing them ourselves at Guantanamo,” Marvin said. “I firmly believe that the most patriotic course to is hold our leaders to the high standards that our forefathers set for our country and that, of course, includes freedom from torture and imprisonment without charge.”

At its peak, there were nearly 700 detainees at Guantanamo.

“Post-9/11 was sort of a crazy time,” said Marvin. “(Our) government was over in the Middle East and were picking up anybody who they thought might have had some kind of connection to a terrorist organization or al-Qaida. They didn’t even have to have evidence in some cases. As part of that process, a lot of men were sold to the U.S. government for a bounty because in these countries where they were rounding up guys, they are economically depressed so there was an incentive for, say, a farmer who had not much money to say ‘hey, I know that guy is involved’ that would result in that guy being picked up and brought to Guantanamo. That happened a lot more than you would want to imagine.”

As of December, there were 136 men at Guantanamo, and 35 have been cleared for release, officials said. Marvin explained why it has taken so long for prisoners who have been cleared to actually be released.

“During their confinement at Guantanamo, there were two different presidential administrations (Bush, and then Obama in 2008) with very different policies with respect to treatment of detainees there,” she said.

“One of Obama’s campaign promises was to close Guantanamo. However, he has been met with opposition from Congress. He has implemented a couple of different mechanisms to facilitate the release of prisoners, and an effort to, at a minimum, reduce the population there, and to repatriate them to their country if it is safe, or find other countries for them.

“He set up a government commission from various countries to review their files to determine whether detainees should remain at Guantanamo, and the commission cleared a large number of detainees for release. The implication was ‘we don’t have anything on these guys.’”

Between 2009 when Dhiab and others were put on a list to be released, and 2014 when they were actually let go, “Congress has been very opposed to the release of these prisoners, and has enacted legislation that in many ways hinders the execution of their release,” Marvin said.

“Plus, they had to find places for them to go, and that has proven to be a very difficult task.” For Dhiab there were further delays in internal politics in Uruguay, where he is now receiving medical treatment.

Marvin currently represents another prisoner, and is going to bring similar litigation on his behalf.

“It’s not all that I do, but it’s the most rewarding aspect of my job. It feels good to do work that is important, and I think will put us on the right side of history,” Marvin said.

“I truly believe the U.S. public needs to know what our government is doing. I am very patriotic. My desire to work on these cases is directly related to my love of our country. I also believe in the principles of our Constitution, which is one of the reasons I wanted to become a lawyer.

“We have a situation in Guantanamo where all of the rights that you and I believe in and think that our country represents, that our military represents overseas, who we are to the world, are sort of disregarded at Guantanamo. I think that is especially disheartening when you’re talking about the lives of men who haven’t been charged with anything.”

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.

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