Mickum: Cageprisoners Interview
March 31, 2005
Brent Mickum IV is a senior partner in the Washington-based law firm
Keller and Heckman. He is the US attorney for two long-term British
residents being held at Guantanamo Bay, Bisher Al-Rawi and Jamil
El-Banna, and prior to his release, also represented Martin Mubanga. In
this in-depth interview with Cageprisoners.com, Brent Mickum highlights
the plight of his two clients, who were kidnapped in the Gambia, before
being rendered to Bagram and finally transferred to Guantanamo, where
they remain, largely forgotten by the media and abandoned by the
CAGEPRISONERS: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
BRENT MICKUM: My name is Brent Mickum. I am an attorney with Keller and Heckman in Washington, D.C. I am a partner in the firm’s litigation division. Before coming to K&H, I was a trial attorney with the Federal Trade Commission and a Special United States Attorney with the Department of Justice.
CP: When and what prompted your decision to involve yourself with the case of the Guantanamo detainees?
BM: Frankly, I was shocked at what my government was doing, holding prisoners indefinitely without trial. So, I was following the cases as they worked their way from the trial and appellate courts on their way to the Supreme Court.
I read an article written by a legal reporter named Marsha Coyle. I called her to discuss an aspect of the Eisentrager decision, among other things. We discussed it for a while, and she ended up passing along my name to the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Someone from that organization eventually called me and asked if I was interested in representing some of the prisoners.
CP: Two of your clients remain in Guantanamo. For those who are not familiar with Bisher and Jamil’s case, can you summarise the circumstances of their arrest and transfer to Guantanamo?
BM: Each was arrested in Africa. They were in Gambia to start a mobile peanut oil factory. They were there legally. They were there with the full knowledge of both the British government and the Gambian authorities. They had received full approval from the Gambian authorities and had obtained all the necessary permits. Thus, there is no mystery or confusion as to why they were in Gambia or what they intended to do.
The money that was used to start this business belonged to Wahab Al-Rawi, Bisher’s brother, who had taken a second mortgage on his flat in London. There was nothing nefarious about what they intended to do in the Gambia or what they were doing.
They were arrested and turned over to Gambian authorities immediately after they landed in the Gambia. Based on the information I have, the British government did one of two things: it either asked the Gambian authorities to hold Jamil and Bisher or it turned over the information to the Americans, who then requested the Gambian authorities to detain them.
The first time they tried to travel, they were arrested and detained by British authorities. They were tailed for nearly a week by the British because Bisher had a battery charger that could be purchased anywhere.
To make a long story short, the real reason they were detained in Gambia is because both Mr Al-Rawi and Mr El-Banna have associated with an individual who resides in Great Britain named Abu Qatada. The British and the U.S. have alleged that Abu Qatada is an al-Qaeda operative. Although he has never been charged by anyone, Abu Qatada was jailed in Belmarsh prison in the UK for nearly three years. He was recently released without charge. If the evidence is so strong, why hasn’t he been charged? Ironically, both of my clients remain imprisoned based solely on the fact that they know this man.
They were detained in the Gambia for approximately one month, during which time they were questioned almost entirely by Americans, undoubtedly CIA. They were abused during that interrogation and subsequently rendered to Bagram Air Force Base on one of the Gulfstream jets used to render prisoners around the world. They spent a month there. They were tortured and abused and overheard the torture of other prisoners. Finally, they were transferred to Guantanamo where they have remained ever since.
CP: Bisher and Jamil were first taken from Gambia to Bagram. What do you know about the conditions they were held in and the treatment they received there?
BM: They were beaten terribly. They were starved and deprived of sleep for very lengthy periods of time. They were kept in complete darkness underground for close to three weeks in dungeon-like conditions, chains hanging from the ceiling. They were tied, brutalised, degraded. Everyone I have spoken with has described imprisonment at Bagram similarly.
CP: You were one of the first US lawyers to visit the detainees. Could you tell us about the restrictions and conditions imposed by the US government on the visits?
BM: There are almost too many restrictions to recount. And it’s been a battle to overcome many of them. At first, my primary objective was to get to Guantanamo and meet with my clients. Initially, we didn’t fight the conditions, even though many were unacceptable. My colleague, Doug Behr, and I felt it was more important to let our clients know that they were represented and that we were working on their behalf.
There is nothing easy about representing clients at Guantanamo. First, to get to Guantanamo, you have to have security clearance. That took approximately 6 weeks. You have to obtain country clearance and base clearance. You need to be photographed, fingerprinted.
Once at the naval base, you stay on the civilian side of the base, which is on the other side of the bay from where the prisoners are located. You have to take a ferry across which cuts down on your time with the prisoners. You have to be escorted at all times on the prison side of the island.
You have to follow the rules the military sets down. Initially, the Government didn’t want to allow attorneys to take a pen and a pad into the prison hut. When they agreed to allow pen and paper in, the Government asserted it had the right to review all of our notes. We told them if that was the case, we did not intend to take any notes. Then the Government took the position that it had the right to debrief us; that is, require us to tell the Government what our client told us in complete derogation of the attorney-client privilege. We refused. Finally we got these issues before the Court. If memory serves, we prevailed on most of the issues.
The biggest problem we face is that we are representing individuals imprisoned a thousand miles away. There are no phones. It takes a month to six weeks for my clients’ letters to reach me from Guantanamo. It is an inexcusable delay that makes it extremely difficult to communicate, particularly regarding issues that require immediate attention. There is no question in my mind that the delay is purposeful.
But there are many more problems. For example, we are not allowed to share any classified information with our clients. Thus, we are prevented from having them assist us to defend against evidence contained in classified information. Although news reporters are allowed to attend the military tribunals, we were not permitted even to view the proceeding, much less appear on our clients’ behalf.
Prisoners have no opportunity to defend themselves against the indefinite detention with which they are faced. The tribunals are permitted to rely on confessions obtained under torture. Prisoners have no opportunity to confront the evidence against them or call witnesses on their behalf. Let me give you an example: this is a real transcript passage from a military tribunal that demonstrates the problems prisoners are faced with:
Recorder [reading from unclassified summary of charges]: While living in Bosnia, the Detainee associated with a known Al Qaida operative.
Detainee: Give me his name.
Tribunal President: I do not know.
Detainee: How can I respond to this?
Detainee: If you tell me the name, then I can respond and defend myself against the accusation.
Tribunal President: We are asking you the questions and we need you to respond to what is on the unclassified summary.
If someone were to mistake this as a passage from The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, it would be understandable. It is a sad commentary on the “due process of law” being meted out in Guantanamo.
CP: How often are you able to visit them?
BM: I am going down again in April. This will be my second visit. I tried to get down earlier in February but the Government allegedly restricts the number of attorneys who can be on the island at any one time, so you have to wait your turn.
CP: Describe your first meeting with Bisher.
BM: I have described that meeting in some detail in an article that appeared in The Guardian. My initial impression of him was a very gentle and, frankly, genteel man. He has a quiet demeanour and a good sense of humour, despite everything he’s been through.
I met him in a prison hut. He was shackled round the waist with his hands chained right in front of him - he couldn’t really use his hands at all. His ankles were shackled and there was a chain that was about 18 inches (long), which ran through an oval ring on the floor. I asked that his restraints be removed, and after some negotiation, the guards removed the chains on his hands, but they refused to remove the chains on his feet. His cell is approximately 6 by 8 feet, and it is enclosed by wire mesh, which really affects your ability to see out of it, much more so than bars. I’m told that eventually it affects your vision adversely because the mesh is so close together that it forces your eyes to focus on the mesh. I’d like to stress one point: when you say a cell is 6 by 8 feet, you have to factor in the presence of a bed to appreciate the true scope of confinement. It is a tiny living space.
Prisoners are not allowed much of anything at all in the way of possessions. Bisher had come from another camp in which he was imprisoned in wire mesh, exposed to the elements, although he had a roof over his head. I guess the advantage of that is that he was not in isolation and was allowed to talk to his neighbours. But during the winter down there, it’s cold. As punishment, the MPs frequently take away your clothes and your blanket. That has happened to Bisher. It happened with another client, Martin Mubanga.
CP: Describe your first meeting with Jamil.
BM: Similar to Bisher, Jamil was completely shackled. He embraced me warmly. Jamil’s English is limited, so initially it was pretty slow going. My impression of Jamil was that he was a very gracious and gentle human being. I told him about his family. Prison has aged Jamil. He appeared much older than I was led to believe he was. His hair was very dark in the pictures I had seen of him before his arrest. Now he is almost entirely grey with a very long, grey beard. He has lost a tremendous amount of weight; almost 100 lbs. He had lost about 80 lbs by the time of our first meeting. He has been traumatised by the fact that he has not been able to see his children. He has five young children, the eldest of whom is about 9 and he has a daughter who is close to 3 now, whom he has never seen. I was able to get the manacles on his hands removed when I visited him, but he was living in the same condition as Bisher in terms of the dimensions of his prison hut.
CP: Having visited both Bisher and Jamil, could you tell us about the conditions in which they are held?
BM: They don’t get enough time to eat and they don’t get enough food to eat. That is a complaint I hear from almost everyone. But that is part of the military’s attempt to break prisoners and keep them in a weakened state. Many are living in wire mesh cages 24 hours a day exposed to the elements. For all intents and purposes, they are allowed no exercise. They are not allowed to read newspapers, magazines. For all intents and purposes, they get no medical or dental treatment.
The military is using medical people, psychologists and psychiatrists, to try and identify ways to manipulate prisoners to provide information. Jamil is traumatised by being away from his family. His interrogators figured out that his family is the way to get to him, and they have used it against him. Within the last several months, I was informed through the Red Cross that the military had just given Jamil 16 letters from his family, which it had been withholding. That is just unbelievably shameful. When I met with him, he asked me, ‘Why is my wife not writing?’ Of course, his wife and children were writing; the military just was not delivering their letters.
Although the Government has consistently denied that prisoners at Guantanamo are tortured, thousands of recently released FBI documents show that the Government has been lying. The FBI documents describe the torture in detail: a prisoner chained in a fetal position (short-shackled) and exposed to excessive heat in a small room overnight has pulled out clumps of his hair before mercifully falling unconscious; another is short-shackled, barefoot in the freezing cold for hours on end with instructions from his interrogator that he is not to be moved; others are short-shackled in front of strobe lights and assaulted by screaming loudspeakers on either side for 15-20 hours at a time; a prisoner is “waterboarded” (strapped to a board with his feet in the air, a towel over his nose and mouth that is constantly wetted with water until the prisoner is drowning). Another prisoner who was rendered to Egypt for torture arrived in Guantanamo without fingernails, bleeding from the ears and nose. While in Egypt, this same prisoner was suspended by chains across an electrified 55 gallon drum, requiring him either to keep himself suspended or rest his legs on the electrified barrel. As I understand it, Guantanamo’s medical personnel, including psychologists, are active participants in the torture. Everything is planned and orders are given regarding the treatment/torture that prisoners receive. If we are ever allowed discovery, and the military hasn’t destroyed it all, we will be able to expose these practices.
Bisher wrote me two letters on the 5th and 6th of November. I was finally allowed to read the letters on December 17. He told me that he had been put in solitary confinement without “comfort items” for having a list of prisoners who asked him to help them obtain legal representation.
Bisher and Jamil, like most of the prisoners at Guantanamo, have been subjected to at least one hundred interrogations by scores of different interrogators. The same questions are asked over and over. If a prisoner refuses to cooperate, he is placed in solitary confinement, his toilet paper, toothbrush, blanket, soap, and his cup for water are taken away. All requests for medical or dental treatment must be routed through a prisoner’s interrogator. Those who do not cooperate do not receive medical and dental care. Poor Martin Mubanga was refused dental treatment for a bad tooth the entire time he was there.
CP: How are they bearing up psychologically? Are there signs that they have lost hope?
BM: No, I would not say that they have lost hope, but they are approaching three years in captivity now, and I don’t know how long a person can be expected to hold up without prospect of release in such brutal conditions. I try and write to them as frequently as I can. Unfortunately, the judge has stayed the case. This is a terrible development because the appeal could last a year. The case could go to the Supreme Court after that, which could last another year.
Still, both Bisher and Jamil seemed to be in pretty good shape psychologically, but you must understand that I have no basis for comparison. I didn’t know them before they were imprisoned. Each was lucid, each was still able to laugh. I guess they seemed about as well as they could be under the circumstances.
CP: Jamil’s physical deterioration prompted you to file a motion to get immediate medical access to him and his records. Did that bear any fruit?
BM: It really didn’t. At that time the he Court blithely accepted the Government’s assertion that Jamil was fine. This was well before all the FBI documents were released. I don’t know if we would get the same result today. The Court finally seems to have seen through the Government, and the judges appear to realize that Government officials have clearly lied on any number of occasions.
CP: Can you elaborate on your statement that medical personnel in Guantanamo are active participants in torture?
BM: There is no question that medical personnel are assisting in the interrogation and torture of prisoners. The Government doesn’t deny it. The military has what are referred to as “Biscuit” - Behavioral Science Consultant Teams. These teams consist of medical personnel whose job is to participate in and figure out ways to make interrogation more effective. We don’t know a lot about it, other than that they exist. I have discussed the matter with a former interrogator at Guantanamo who confirms the involvement of medical personnel. In my opinion, it presents a terrible conflict for medical personnel who are ethically bound to help, and not hurt, people. The military’s position is that the medical personnel are soldiers not doctors, and there is no conflict. What the Government say, goes.
The Government denies that any torture takes place at Guantanamo but we know for a fact that torture is commonplace at Guantanamo. It is taking place all over the world. The FBI documents that have been released paint a very graphic picture of the types of torture. We are not talking about aggressive interrogation techniques, but torture. The Government has merely defined the issue away. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that simulating drowning over lengthy periods is not torture? Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that leaving someone chained in a room so hot that he pulls out clumps of his own hair before falling unconscious? I guess I’m like Potter Stewart [former Justice on the Supreme Court]: I know it when I see it.
CP: Bisher wrote in a letter recently: “Everything here is about destroying the detainees, mentally, physically and psychologically through systematic oppression, humiliation and degradation.” Could you cite examples of this from what you have heard from your clients?
BM: I think Bisher’s statements are accurate. You must understand, that is exactly what the military set out to do, not just to Bisher and Jamil, but to every prisoner at Guantanamo. The base was intended to be an interrogation facility. It was not meant to be a prison. It was meant to be a place beyond the jurisdiction of the courts where no rules applied and torture was permitted.
The military always thought that Guantanamo was beyond the reach of U.S. law. Thus, there were no rules to worry about or be broken. Everything the military does is meant to break down, terrorise and traumatise the prisoners, from their initial seizure to their 24 hour transfer to Guantanamo by jet. Prisoners were strapped into very painful positions. If they even tried to move they were beaten. A few nights ago I saw a show on “Frontline.” In it, a person posing as a prisoner but working for the CIA as a mole, told his interviewer that he wished someone would have shot him. That is how brutal the trip was.
Once a prisoner reaches Guantanamo, he is immediately thrown into isolation for a minimum of 30 days. You don’t know what’s going on; the guards threaten to torture you, they threaten to harm your family, they threaten to render you to countries like Egypt and Syria where prisoners know they will be tortured horribly. They separate you from your friends. If you speak a language, you are placed among prisoners who can’t speak that language.
The military frequently removes a prisoner’s clothes and comfort items. Allow me to correct that euphemism. What the government calls “comfort items” are, in reality, items such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, tooth paste, towels, blankets in the winter. These are not non-essential items, they are necessities. Removing the clothes of a devout Muslim man prevents him from praying. I don’t fully understand all the ramifications, but my understanding is that you need to be clothed to pray. It’s all about degradation.
If the interrogators feel that you are not playing ball, you don’t get medical treatment, and you get punished.
CP: You had advised your clients not to attend the CSRT (Combatant Status Review Tribunals). What happened with regards to that?
BM: We advised all three of our clients, Bisher, Jamil, and Martin Mubanga not to participate in the tribunals and not to consult with the personal representative assigned to them because the representatives could be compelled to provide testimony against them. I sent the letters out on September 1st last year. The letters were not delivered until the day after each of my clients participated in their Combatant Status Review Tribunals, almost a month later. This was just before I visited them, so I guess the military felt it had to deliver them. This suggests two things: First, the military was reading my mail and deliberately interfering with my ability to provide legal advice to my clients. In any event, each participated in the process. Not surprisingly, each was found to be an enemy combatant.
CP: Can you highlight the farce of the CSRT proceedings? What was the nature of the evidence presented against Jamil and Bisher?
BM: Well I’ve talked about it already. First, there is no substantive evidence against either man, not in the classified evidence, not in the unclassified evidence. As for the process itself, only the Bush administration could say with a straight face that it is fair, and they, of course, are the same individuals who have implemented systematic torture. The prisoners have no ability to confront the evidence against them or confront their accusers. Even Jamil’s personal representative, who is nothing but a government shill whose job was to gather information, said there was insufficient evidence to determine that Jamil was an enemy combatant. The Tribunal president stopped the proceeding three times and required the military prosecutor to get more evidence. The fourth time apparently was the charm. I’ve seen the evidence produced the fourth time, and there is nothing there. This is where not having an attorney was particularly harmful.
In fact, all Jamil did was drive Abu Qatada’s son and wife to meet him. End of story. He did this because his friend, Bisher, didn’t own a car. Jamil followed Bisher, who was riding his motorcycle, in his car. He didn’t know where he was going, but he was doing what he thought was a good deed. That is his sole crime. That is the only basis on which the government has found him to be an enemy combatant. Abu Qatada is out of jail, but Jamil is still jailed. Bisher is no different; his only crime is his association with Abu Qatada.
The military, like the British Government, simply decided that Abu Qatada is an al-Qaeda operative, and that is the end of the discussion. No one can challenge that determination. It makes no difference that Abu Qatada hasn’t been charged with anything. The tribunal relied on newspaper articles and public interviews with Abu Qatada. The quality of the military’s evidence is really laughable. There is nothing that remotely resembles due process about these tribunals. They are, as you say, a complete farce, a fact that Judge Green in her January 31 opinion appears to agree with, by the way.
CP: Could you comment on their links with Abu Qatada, in particular the fact the Bisher allegedly transferred thousands of dollars on his behalf to the Middle East and that he found him a safe house while he was in hiding?
BM: It’s ridiculous to suggest the British didn’t know where Abu Qatada was. The British government knew all along where he was. Everyone knew, including the French. If I’m correct, there are only two conclusions you can draw: either British Intelligence is incompetent or it is feigning incompetence. And don’t believe it is incompetent.
The money was collected in mosques and sent to the poor. Both Bisher and Jamil transferred money from the same sources to the poor. Jamil’s tribunal believed the money was going to the poor and he was not charged. Bisher’s tribunal did not.
There is no evidence anywhere that any of the money didn’t go to the poor. There is no evidence, none, that any money went to al-Qaida. It just is not there. When you have the power, you get to make up the rules. I guarantee you that the Government would never have guts to put this evidence anywhere near a courtroom.
CP: Bisher also says that he acted as an intermediary between M15 and Abu Qatada. Can you comment on that?
BM: I really can’t comment on that aspect of his case. Portions of his factual return are sealed.
CP: What was the response of the British Government to Bisher’s request to call three M15 agents as character witnesses?
BM: The British Government refused, simple as that.
CP: The basis of their detention appears to be their association with Abu Qatada. Where does that leave them in light of the fact Abu Qatada has since been released from Belmarsh?
BM: That’s a great question. The only reason Bisher and Jamil are imprisoned – I repeat, the only reason – is their association with Abu Qatada. The problem is that the British government has donned the mantle of Pontius Pilot and washed its hands of Jamil and Bisher. The Government is embarrassed because it is completely responsible for the arrest and torture of two very innocent men. That is the reason it refuses to do anything to assist them. In many respects, Bisher and Jamil’s treatment is similar to that of the Guildford Four, they have been maligned, railroaded, and locked up. The British hope the key has been thrown away. It’s shameful.
The British Government didn’t really have any choice with respect to the repatriation of its own citizens. Those prisoners had to be returned to the UK. The story I hear is that the British cut a deal for their return due to public pressure and revelations in the press about the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. Obviously, I’m not privy to the details. When Australia heard about the deal with the British, its Government demanded the return of Mamdouh Habib. Bisher, Jamil, and the other permanent residents are the odd men out in all this. They are expendable.
I find it strange that the British Government appears to have learned little from its recent history. Its treatment of Bisher and Jamil really is reminiscent of its treatment of Guildford Four. It’s no less wrong, and the truth will come out over time, perhaps not through me but through others like Gareth Pierce and Louise Christian. I’m stunned at the Government’s refusal to do the right thing. I’m not asking for it to come right out and admit culpability, but the least it can do is step up and try to assist in returning two innocent men back to their families. A former interrogator at Guantanamo I’m working with told me to watch the movie In the Name of the Father to get some idea of some of the interrogation techniques that are being used in Guantanamo.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not blaming the British to the exclusion of my own Government. It’s just that the Bush administration is beyond rehabilitation at this point.
CP: Bisher also apparently took a lie detector test. What was the result of that?
BM: Although I believe virtually all of the prisoners have been administered lie detector tests, I am not aware of the results. No results have been provided to any of the attorneys in the case. My guess is that the military has already destroyed most, if not all, of the test results, even though a Preservation Order has been entered in the case.
Assuming that Bisher did take a test, I would be shocked if the examination revealed any deception. At this point, Bisher and Jamil have been interrogated more than a hundred times each. To my knowledge, neither is withholding any information. They don’t have any information to impart. They have told the same story from start to finish. Hell, the military interrogators are still asking them about the battery charger they brought with them to the Gambia.
CP: Bisher has exerted himself on behalf of the other detainees. Can you tell us about his efforts and what his pains have cost him?
BM: In some of his letters, Bisher inquired whether we could help other prisoners. We encouraged him to provide us with their names. Through Bisher’s efforts, twenty to thirty prisoners now have legal representation. During a cell search, he was found to possess the names of five people who had asked him to write to me on their behalf. He was thrown into isolation and had all his comfort items and his clothes taken away for at least a month. Despite his treatment, he has continued to send more names. Every letter comes with new names.
I know that Bisher interceded on behalf of his fellow prisoners to try to get extra blankets distributed during the winter months for prisoners who were exposed to the elements in the chicken wire cells. The military refused to do so.
I’m told that when we sent him down a copy of the transcript of Judge Greens’ December 1 hearing on the Motion to Dismiss, he and some fellow prisoners translated it into Arabic, acting it out in dramatic fashion for the other prisoners.
CP: Did you take any action in response to the ‘punishments’? Did the US authorities act upon your complaint?
BM: I wrote letters but I never received a response. The military takes the position that the courts have no authority to tell the military what to do. They take the position that these men are not entitled to counsel. Why bother to answer a letter from me? Is it wrong? Yes. Does the military or the Bush administration care? No. Will the courts do anything about it? We’ll see.
CP: You said previously: "When we first got involved in this case, I wondered whether this could all be true” – what is your position on detainee abuse in Guantanamo now? What led to the change in your convictions?
BM: I think that quote had to do with the release of the report prepared by Gareth Peirce that involved the three young men from the Tipton area in England. When I read that report, which is very graphic and very disturbing - there are drawings in there which show the prisoners being short shackled and being beaten by the Extreme Reaction Force. I wondered whether all the reports were true, and, if so, how we could go about proving that the torture actually occurred.
It is important to remember that the Government categorically denied that any of the Tipton account was true. Well, we don’t need to prove that anymore. Everything in that report is true, established by the Government’s own documents. The FBI documents talk about the short shackling, exposure to cold, exposure to heat, beatings, the Extreme Reaction Force.
The only issue left unsubstantiated had to do with the prisoners’ allegations about the use of prostitutes. We now know that this charge has been established as well. Female interrogators dressed as prostitutes were part of the interrogation team. In some cases they appeared to smear menstrual blood on some of the men. So there is nothing in that report [by the Tipton Three] that hasn’t been established in spades.
If I can just go back to the Extreme Reaction Force; it is a group consists of five soldiers who go into cells and subdue prisoners by beating them senseless for doing things like reading the Koran too loud or refusing to stop praying. We know this is true because it happened to a US soldier who was asked to take part in a training exercise without telling the ERF he was a soldier. This was reported on 60 Minutes. He was beaten so badly that he has now an epileptic, suffering 15 seizures a day. He cannot function properly, he can’t hold a job. The tape of this exercise inexplicably has vanished.
There is no mystery left. We know that torture is a firmly established fixture in Guantanamo. It is established beyond any question. And the Government continues to lie about it.
CP: Has this altered your perception of your government?
BM: It depends on when you are talking about. This late in the day, I don’t think it has altered my perception much. My perception has always been that, insofar as Guantanamo is concerned, my government has acted shamefully, and that view has never changed. The bases for that perception continue to be strengthened as more information comes out.
In some respects, I feel vindicated because now everyone knows that Government has engaged in abhorrent behaviour. For a while, I was getting hate-mail, which I always answered. The sad thing is that the Bush administration doesn’t appear to feel any sense of shame over this.
CP: Have you visited the families of your clients? What is their condition and how have they been affected by the detention of their loved ones?
BM: I have not, I am afraid to say. I have spoken with family members over the phone. I have spoken with Mrs. El-Banna and various family members of Bisher. I would like to meet them and I am hoping to travel to England after my next trip to Guantanamo. The families are coping as well as they might, considering the circumstances. Mrs. El-Banna, who has five young children, has been profoundly affected. But she is a very strong woman. It must be extraordinarily difficult to raise five young children by yourself.
It also has been very difficult on Wahhab Al-Rawi, Bisher’s older brother, because it was his idea to start the Gambian venture. I think he feels responsible for Bisher’s imprisonment.
CP: Could you explain Bisher and Jamil’s links to the UK? Why do you believe the British government has a legal and moral responsibility towards these men?
BM: These men are innocent. They are imprisoned because of the British Government. Bisher has lived there all his adult life, in the UK. He has never been in any trouble, and never engaged in any violence, had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or Afghanistan. Why the British Government wants to turn on him, I don’t understand.
Jamil has not lived in the UK quite as long but there is absolutely no evidence he is linked with Al Qaeda.
CP: What efforts have you made on their behalf with regards to the British government? What has been their response?
BM: The Government’s response thus far has been that “there is nothing we can do.” I do not believe that is the case. We believe that there is an obligation for the British government to act on their behalf. I met with the British embassy officials here, and tried to establish some common ground. I have continued to work with people in the UK who are keeping the case moving through Parliament and British officials, Gareth Peirce, Mark Jennings, and Victoria Britain.
CP: To what extent do you believe that the British government is complicit in the transfer, abuse and detention of your three clients?
BM: It’s difficult for me to give you an opinion about Martin. But the British Government is absolutely complicit and bears responsibility for Jamil and Bisher’s arrest for the reasons I have articulated previously. For whatever reason, the British Government didn’t want them to leave Britain in the first place. When they did finally leave, it had them arrested. They are in Guantanamo because of the British Government.
CP: Do you believe that the release of the last British citizens from Guantanamo gives hope for the British residents who remain behind or are they likely to be forgotten?
BM: No. I think it has been very traumatic for Bisher and Jamil to see their fellow countrymen leave. They feel left behind, abandoned. Accordingly I don’t think it has given them any cause for hope, quite the contrary. I have explained why they haven’t been released, but I don’t it that provides them with any solace. The US cut a deal with the British to release its citizens. Now, the military feels that it can do whatever it wants with the residents because the British Government hasn’t asserted itself on their behalf.
CP: The Pentagon recently announced plans to transfer the Guantanamo detainees to other regimes or to their home countries. What are their reasons for doing this in your opinion?
BM: I can tell you that there is no plan to transfer Bisher or Jamil back to the UK, because the British Government won’t allow them back. Bisher, I believe, will be transferred to Iraq. That is very problematic from my viewpoint. He has no family there, no place to stay. I gather he will be imprisoned. That presents a whole other set of problems. The Iraqi government does not have any information about Bisher. The only information that they could possibly have would be given to them by the British Government or the American Government. I know what information the American Government has and there is no basis to hold him. The same goes for Jamil. My understanding is that there is an extradition request from Spain for Jamil and he might have to be transferred to Spain. In the event that that is not the case, he would be transferred to Jordan. Of course, we are desperately trying to prevent their transfer to countries like Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
The Bush administration is embarrassed by all the bad press it has received, and it wants to transfer the prisoners, the vast majority of whom have no intelligence value at all, to countries where they can be warehoused in prisons, with no access to courts to establish their innocence.
CP: What action have the US lawyers taken to prevent this? What further action is being considered?
BM: We filed an emergency motion and a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent the Government from transferring them without notice. The Government responded and we will file a reply by next Monday (28th April 2005). A hearing will be set, and we will argue it.
CP: What is the basis of Spain’s request to extradite Jamil as part of their terrorism investigations?
BM: I have no idea what the basis is. I do know that Spain has an incorrect spelling of his name. I met with officials from the Spanish Embassy, who were very gracious. I pointed out the misspelling and that Jamil had been jailed for two years. They still contend he is the man they want, although I find it is hard to believe. Still, I’d rather Jamil be in Spain than Guantanamo.
CP: Could you comment on the US Congress’ recent proposals to introduce new legislation (the Interrogations Procedures Act) that aims to regulate the practice of “highly coercive interrogation”?
BM: I don’t know that they have done anything and I'm not holding my breath for the legislature to do the right thing. They have stood idly by while the military has engaged in abhorrent, illegal practices and done nothing. I will believe it when I see it.
CP: What message does Guantanamo send to other regimes in the world?
BM: To regimes that regularly employ torture, Guantanamo shows them that the U.S. uses torture. The country that criticises them for human rights violations is doing the same thing.
Certainly, the Government can’t hold the moral high ground. The State Department recently released the 2004 report on human rights and in it they pointed out that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria among others are countries that engage in torture. And yet it is to these very countries that we are rendering prisoners. And for what: torture.
CP: What do you believe its effect has been or will be on relations between the US and the Muslim world?
BM: I really don’t know. That’s beyond my event horizon. But, I can’t believe Guantanamo is helping relations. My guess is that Guantanamo has damaged the credibility of the United States and is hurting relations with many in the Muslim world.
CP: You’ve said that a court victory for the Guantanamo detainees has implications for the ghost detainees. Elaborate.
BM: The next big case out there is likely to be on behalf of the ghost detainees. Our Government takes the position that it can kidnap anyone, anywhere, and imprison them anywhere in the world at the United States’ behest. It’s fairly clear that Guantanamo can’t be used as an interrogation center anymore because the Supreme Court has ruled that anyone imprisoned there has access to the courts. That’s exactly what the Government wants to avoid. We need to formulate a litigation strategy to challenge the Government’s ability to imprison someone in Egypt, Syria, or Afghanistan and torture them and hold them indefinitely without charge, based on the say-so of someone to whom, for example, the Government has paid a bounty. We’ll see if the Courts have the guts to stand up and do the right thing.
CP: The CCR has continually striven for justice on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees. What can be done for the "ghost detainees" held by the CIA in undisclosed detention facilities in various locations around the world?
BM: These are tough questions. First we have to establish jurisdiction and then articulate a constitutional challenge. We are working on it. Judge Bates issued a brave and thoughtful decision in the Ali case [Editor’s note: he is referring to the case of Ahmed Abu Ali, a US citizen who was held and tortured in Saudi Arabia for almost two years at the behest of the US administration]. Perhaps that case may provide us with a foothold.
CP: What message would you like to give our readers?
BM: Let your politicians or MPs know that you disapprove of Jamil’s and Bisher’s treatment. They should be allowed to return to the U.K. Bisher and Jamil have not done any thing wrong, but they have paid a tremendous price. The British people have shown themselves to be much more sympathetic than the Americans. I’m not sure why it is, but the American public seems much less disturbed about this.
CP: Could you comment on our website?
BM: It’s the best of its kind. I know that many of the attorneys on the Defense Team rely on it for information. It serves a tremendous purpose, raising people’s consciousness about shameful practices that are going on all around the world in places like Bagram, Guantanamo, and elsewhere.
CP: Brent Mickum, thank you for speaking to us.