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Secrecy grows at Gitmo, lawyers say

Daily Report
By Meredith Hobbs
September 24, 2007

Detainee’s attorneys at Sutherland say government is trying to keep lid on bad publicity as hunger strikes continue

When I spoke to John A. Chandler a year and a half ago about the Guantanamo detainees that he’s representing with his partner Kristin B. Wilhelm and several other lawyers at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, there were about 490 men imprisoned at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

That number has dwindled to 340, but after Chandler and Wilhelm’s latest visit to Guantanamo in August, they told me that the government’s secrecy about the men it is holding indefinitely has intensified.

“As the public’s condemnation of Guantanamo has increased, the restrictions have increased. The government does all it can to keep a lid on the terrible publicity,” said Chandler, who heads Sutherland’s litigation practice.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court will finally consider the detainees’ habeas petitions. Six of the seven men from Yemen that Sutherland represents have been imprisoned at the base for almost six years, since they were picked up on suspicion of being al-Qaida members in the military’s sweep of Afghanistan and Pakistan in late 2001. One of the Yemenis has been there only three years, after spending two years in a Jordanian prison where he was tortured for nine months, the lawyers said.

“The Supreme Court is going to decide, I believe once and for all, if these men have a right to a hearing before a judge,” said Chandler.

Chandler and Wilhelm discovered after their August visit that they are no longer allowed to talk about one client’s hunger strike, which he began in January. Their client, Muhammad Ali Abdullah Bawazir, is one of about 23 detainees on a hunger strike.

Bawazir went on an earlier hunger strike in August 2005 with at least 75 other detainees to protest their imprisonment and treatment at Guantanamo. The 2005 hunger strikes and the suicides of three detainees last year caused a public furor here and abroad.

“The only power these men have is the power not to eat,” said Chandler.

The lawyers’ interview notes from the August visit, which they must submit to the military for vetting, came back with all hunger strike information marked “for official use only,” which means they can discuss it only with designated government officials or other lawyers representing detainees. The only reason Chandler and Wilhelm could tell me that Bawazir is on a hunger strike is because he stopped eating before hunger strike news was deemed restricted.

“It’s to keep us from giving information about the atrocities that they are committing today,” Chandler said in disgust.

Bawazir, who’d been a charity worker and Koran teacher in Afghanistan, is strapped in a restraint chair and force-fed through a tube up his nose twice a day. According to his medical records, which the lawyers receive under a federal court order and are not classified, he vomits frequently from the daily infusions of about a quart of nutritional formula and olive oil and walks and communicates with difficulty.

Bawazir stopped his earlier strike in January 2006, 11 days after the military started using the restraint chair to feed him.

“They broke him,” said Chandler.

When Bawazir resumed fasting last January, his lawyer said, he did not resist the tube feedings, but, nonetheless, the government immediately started using the restraint chair.

“Which is torture,” said Chandler.

International and U.S. medical experts have condemned the forced feedings and use of restraint chairs and say military doctors at Guantanamo are violating medical ethics by forcing treatment on the fasters.

In an Orwellian touch, none of the doctors at the base wear nametags, Chandler and Wilhelm’s clients have reported. In Bawazir’s medical records, all of the doctors and nurses’ names and initials are blacked out.

Another client, Muhammad al-Adahi, needs heart surgery but the government will not send him to the U.S. or Yemen for the operation, saying he must get it at Guantanamo, the lawyers said.

“He refuses to have surgery performed by a doctor who refuses to tell his name,” said Chandler.

“It’s a primary care facility,” added Wilhelm in exasperation. “No military personnel would get heart surgery there.”

Al-Adahi, who is in his 40s, was taken to Guantanamo after he was picked up on a bus in Pakistan, where he’d fled after the U.S. bombings of Afghanistan. An oil refinery worker in Yemen, he’d taken leave from his job to escort his sister to her husband, who was working at a charity in Afghanistan.

Wilhelm said al-Adahi’s heart problems cause him to faint and his blood pressure is very high—207 over 103.

“We’re worried he’s going to die,” she said.

The lawyers have tried unsuccessfully to obtain their client’s medical records so an outside doctor can assess the risks of surgery at the prison. “We made a Freedom of Information Act request two years ago to get the records. There has not been one response,” Chandler said.

The doctors treating al-Adahi will not talk to them, said Wilhelm. Instead al-Adahi writes down the names and dosages of any pills he’s given and tracks his blood pressure on a yellow pad so they can check his treatment with outside doctors.

“We raised our health concerns with the JAG officers and were told the detainees receive better medical treatment than the men and women serving in Guantanamo,” said Chandler dryly.

The Red Cross monitors the detainees’ treatment, but Wilhelm said some of their clients have asked them not to discuss their condition with the aid agency because it reports its findings solely to the government.

“They don’t trust the Red Cross and won’t meet with their representatives when they come,” she said.

Some of the men have also stopped writing to their families in Yemen, Wilhelm said, because of threats and intimidation from the guards and interrogators. Guards have said things to them such as, “If you won’t talk to us, we’ll go talk to your wife and kids,” she said.

Wilhelm said one client with two small children reported that “the interrogator said things about the children in the interrogation sessions so he stopped writing home. He didn’t want to give the interrogators or guards any information that could be used against him.”

His wife told Wilhelm that she understood why her husband stopped writing but that it was very hard for the children.

“The letters were the only glimpse of their dad that they had,” said Wilhelm. The detainees can’t use phones or computers and their families are not allowed to visit the base.

The government heavily censors the letters the men do send and receive, Wilhelm added. “A family member in Yemen might get a letter that says ‘Dear wife’ or ‘Dear brother’ and has a signature—with nothing in between.”

He noted the men are interrogated much less frequently as the years go by. “They’re of no use to the U.S. government. They’ve been there almost six years.”

The lawyers call their clients’ family members in Yemen every couple of months to tell them how their husband or brother or son is doing. But the family news they can pass on to their clients is limited. “We can discuss their families’ well-being only as it relates to their case,” said Chandler.

The Sutherland lawyers visit their clients about every two months. Chandler and Wilhelm alternate trips with lawyers from the firm’s Washington office because it takes them a full work week to see their clients—a travel day on either end and a half day with each of the six clients they visit. (One man refuses to meet with them out of mistrust, but they continue to represent him on behalf of his family.)

Time is a precious commodity on their trips. Wilhelm said visiting hours used to be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but have been cut back to only five hours a day, which gives them only two to three hours with each client.

The military has become more restrictive but also erratic about the information that the lawyers and their clients can exchange, the two said. On the August trip, a guard would not allow Wilhelm to bring in a declassified transcript of a client’s detention review or an accompanying Web site printout of a Casio watch model that is part of the military’s claim that the man is an al-Qaida member. (He was picked up wearing a cheap, mass-produced Casio digital watch and the government says a different Casio watch model has been used by Islamic terrorists to make explosive devices.)

“I could have called the JAG officer, but it would have wasted an hour,” Wilhelm said.

Since the Sutherland lawyers started visiting Guantanamo about two years ago, they’ve given clients Arabic translations of their legal proceedings so they can follow their cases—but lawyers are no longer allowed to give clients anything written in Arabic, said Wilhelm.

And on the last trip, when Wilhelm and Chandler routinely submitted for vetting a drawing that a client had given them as a token of thanks, it was deemed classified. “I was planning to frame it and put it on my wall,” said Chandler in bemusement.

I asked the two lawyers what the odds are of their clients being released if they can get a judge to review their imprisonment.

“For our guys, it’s huge. The government doesn’t have the nerve to take these men before an independent judge,” said Chandler.

He predicted that if the Supreme Court rules in their favor and U.S. judges start scheduling habeas hearings for the detainees, the military will send them home “instead of trying to justify their basis for holding these men for so long.”

“I would be more than happy to have a day in court with the classified information tomorrow. A jury and the court would be fascinated by what is classified,” said Wilhelm.

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