United States of America

USA: “Anger motivates me” – A Guantanamo lawyer on the fight for her client's basic rights

Ammar al-Baluchi is one of 30 men still held at the Guantanamo Bay camp in the United States. He was abducted in Pakistan in 2003 and held incommunicado by the CIA for more than three years before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006 ©DR

Ammar al-Baluchi is one of 30 men still held at the Guantanamo Bay camp in the United States. He was abducted in Pakistan in 2003 and held incommunicado by the CIA for more than three years before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. We spoke to his lawyer, Alka Pradhan, who came to Geneva to brief the United Nations Human Rights Committee about Mr al-Baluchi's conditions of detention.

What motivated you to get involved in the case of Mr. al Baluchi?

I first met Mr. al Baluchi eight years ago, after I represented other Guantanamo detainees. I had been horrified by the reports of torture and the disappearance of detainees for years, since law school. Those men from the CIA torture programme were held in the harshest conditions at Guantanamo. Some of them were facing prosecution before a special military commission, set up only for non-US citizens. I had to understand why this new court had been set up. Once I joined Mr. al Baluchi’s team, I quickly learnt that the goal was to cover up the CIA’s torture programme. The U.S. government is trying to use torture-tainted evidence in military court . Information about Mr. al Baluchi’s torture remains classified and unknown to the public.

Can you tell us about the first time you met your client?

I was taken to Camp Echo 2 - one of the CIA’s old secret interrogation facilities, also known as “black sites”, at Guantanamo. It was horrible to think that I was going to meet with my client for a death penalty case in a place where detainees used to be tortured. I was expecting him to be very serious, perhaps unfriendly to me, his American lawyer. I would not have blamed him if he had been wary.

Instead, he was very jovial and welcomed me into that terrible place, offering me tea and asking about my life and my family. It was clear that he was eager to learn about me, and to help me as much as he could, despite his many injuries.

What successes and obstacles did you meet while defending his case?

Success is difficult to measure at Guantanamo because the U.S. government controls everything so tightly. Even if we win small battles in court, the government finds a way to rewrite the rules constantly. Categorizing information about the torture programme as “Secret” or “Top Secret,” just because it is embarrassing to them, is one way of doing that.

But we are proud of our fight to get information about U.S. crimes declassified, including a damning CIA report confirming that Mr. al Baluchi should never have been sent to the black sites in the first place. Even though the U.S. government refuses to investigate or prosecute the CIA’s torture programme, the Guantanamo military commission has become a pathway to some accountability.

How do you manage to stay motivated despite the lack of response from the authorities?

Anger motivates me - anger about injustice, the corruption of humanitarian and human rights law, and how we have sacrificed our values at Guantanamo - because even now the U.S. government cannot admit that this was a mistake.

What encourages me is that we have managed to raise awareness on the ongoing torture happening in Guantanamo. The rightful outrage I see from the international community keeps me going.

How do you manage to encourage your client to keep fighting for his freedom despite all the hardships he faced?

The answer is very sad - Mr. al Baluchi’s two motivations are his desperate need for medical care, and his desire to see his family again after more than 20 years. He suffers from multiple traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and cognitive decline, all resulting from the CIA’s torture techniques: bashing his head against a wall, years of sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced starvation and nudity. He also has a growing spinal tumor - and the U.S. government refuses to provide independent medical care for him. The “detainee medical programme” at Guantanamo ensures that information about torture-related medical issues is kept as secret as possible.

What hope do you have for the future of Guantanamo detainees?

We continue to hope that the White House will - as it can - simply decide to close Guantanamo , and safely transfer the remaining men home or to countries where they can receive the medical care and support that they need after their decades in arbitrary detention. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and several other agencies have all called for this. We also hope that the US will grant reparations to torture victims. Accountability for torture and war crimes can only strengthen our national security and ultimately contribute to peace internationally.

Alka Pradhan photo Guantanamo
Alka Pradhan, Human Rights Counsel, Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions ©DR