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UCD center to host interview of former prison detainees

Davis Enterprise
by Cory Golden
May 22, 2008

When it comes to Guantánamo, words matter.

Words from memos authored by then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General (now UC Berkeley law professor) John Yoo, provided a legal basis for what many call the torture of detainees. Words from a recent Department of Justice report revealed FBI agents raised concerns about the legality of military interrogations there.

Absent video recordings made of interrogations or photographs, words alone form a picture of life inside the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

To add to that picture, the UC Davis Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas is collecting testimonies of alleged prisoner abuse from eyewitnesses, among them former guards, a military lawyer, a chaplain and the detainees themselves.

At a May 31 event hosted by the center, before an audience in the Sciences Lecture Hall, journalist Amy Goodman will interview former Guantánamo prisoners, via videoconference, in Sudan. The event also will raise funds for the center's Guantánamo Testimonials Project.

The center's founder and director is a man who knows words, linguist Almerindo Ojeda. He posts the accounts on the center's Web site."We try to lay it out in a way so that readers can decide if they agree or disagree," he said. "We also don't take a position on whether they're guilty. We take the position that they're human beings, prisoners and men captured during conflict, all designations that afford them protection."

Ojeda, whose book "The Trauma of Psychological Torture" is due out today, said 779 Muslim men from 40 countries have been held at Guantánamo. About 270 remain."

I personally believe we have enough evidence to say gross human rights violations and abuses have taken place. We are obligated from legal, ethical and security standpoints to seek accountability for those responsible. The only way to mend relations with the rest of the world is to acknowledge we've done something wrong."

One way to do that, he said, might be to undertake something like South Africa did after apartheid, trading criminal trials for confessions in an effort to expose the truth and seek reconciliation.Many of the accusations made by former Guantánamo detainees about their treatment — like sensory depravation or overload — were initially dismissed by the public, Ojeda said. Accounts from FBI agents and others have since validated many of their stories, however, including growing detail about medical abuse, like the drugging of prisoners and refusing all but emergency care.

Ojeda said the detainees' own descriptions "have a sort of irrefutability to them," he said."Unless they're all consummate liars — and all 779 can't be — how else are you going to explain it, except that it's true?"

For a person of Ojeda's training, the language used by the Bush administration and those running the detention center is of particular interest."Words do two things," he said. "They reveal and they conceal."In the case of Guantánamo, those in charge use words and phrases that provide "one ounce of revealing and a pound of concealing."

Prisoners are called "detainees." "Prisoner," Ojeda said, is too reminiscent of "prisoner of war," someone provided specific protections. Plus, " 'detainee' sounds like an inconvenience," Ojeda said, when, in fact, a man may be facing what amounts to a life term.

Guantánamo, then, is a "detainee center" — not "a concentration camp," Ojeda said, "which would evoke things I think are more accurate."Operations manuals given by whistleblowers to the Web site Wikileaks have revealed that suicides there are to be referred to as "a self-harm gesture" and hunger strikes "voluntary total fastings."

The controversial interrogation technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is made to believe he will drown, was called "drown-proofing" according to one guard — as if, Ojeda said, "they're doing a service for the guy, they're preventing him from drowning."

Such terms meets the classic definition of propaganda, he said."

First you deny. Then, if it comes out, you try to minimize the damage. Then you justify — 'these are just terrorists; they're animals; they're subhuman; we're just administering justice.' "Names carry a certain power, too, and the names of detainees also have been hard to come by. Ojeda has compiled 445.

If the names of those held are all but unknown to Americans, he said, "they have become battle cries in the Muslim world."Take the name Sami Al-Hajj, who may be among those Goodman interviews from UCD. The Al Jazeera news cameraman was held for seven years at Guantánamo, during which he said he was beaten, sexually assaulted and force-fed during a hunger strike that went on for more than 400 days.

Al Jazeera made his a prominent story, day after day, throughout the Arab world.One last word then: "Guantánamo."For Latin Americans, like the Peruvian-born Ojeda, the name can instantly bring to mind the hummable Cuban song "Guantanamera" ("Girl from Guantánamo"). Now, the name means something much more "ominous" to him.

And to the world, Ojeda said, "it has come to mean a symbol of hypocrisy, I'm sad to say. There are all these beautiful-sounding principles and then there's Guantánamo — that's the way the world sees America."

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What: Journalist Amy Goodman interviewing former Guantánamo Bay prisoners, via videoconference
When: 8 p.m. May 31
Where: 123 Sciences Lecture Hall, UC Davis
Cost: $10
For tickets: contact or call (530) 752-3046