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Experts Talk GITMO at SF State

Golden Gate [X]press
by Natalie Leal
October 21, 2009

Scholars and legal experts gathered at SF State on Oct. 12 to discuss the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay and the base's strained relationship with Cuba and the world.

Abdiel Oñate, Latin American area studies program director, and Katherine Gordy, assistant professor in the political science department, organized the event. The aim of the conference was to shed more light on the history and current issues facing Guantánamo Bay's U.S. Naval base.

"I wanted to have people who knew the history on not just the U.S. side of Guantánamo but also on the surrounding area," Gordy explained.

Gordy said her main concerns are the torture of prisoners and their detention in this location. Gordy wanted the symposium to focus on the base's history and raise awareness of what she says is the illegal detention of the people there.

The speakers in attendance studied Guantánamo in ways ranging from the history and legal issues about the holding of the prisoners, to the documentation of firsthand accounts from people who have been detained there.

Gordy was disappointed that only 12 people showed up. "I thought more people would come," said Gordy. "It's not just about Cuba. It's about the abuse of executive power."

"I went because I had read an article by Jana Lipman and some of the legal motions written by Stephen Truitt, and because I am opposed to the existence of the base," said Ben Grimshaw, 24, a graduate student enrolled in the educational specialist credential program.

Jana K. Lipman, assistant professor at Tulane University who wrote a book on the history of Guantánamo, started off the conference with a presentation on the history of the city of Guantánamo, Cuba and the hardships experienced by Cuban men and women who have worked in the U.S. Naval base. Lipman said when most people hear the word Guantánamo they associate the word with the U.S. Naval base in the bay, and not the city itself.

On Feb. 1, 1964, Lipman said that the U.S. Coast Guard spotted four Cuban fishing boats 70 miles from Key West, Florida. Florida officials jailed the fisherman, impounded the boats, and in retaliation the Cuban government shut off the water supply to the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay.

As a result, President Lyndon Johnson decided the base would be self sufficient and thousands of Cuban workers who crossed the Cuban border daily to work at the base were fired without receiving the pension money they had been saving for years. Some of the workers chose to be exiled from Cuba in order to maintain their steady jobs at the base, thus, never seeing their families again.

"It was especially interesting that the Cuban workers in the base had already been forced to address issues of which nation's laws were applicable," Grimshaw said. "I was convinced by her argument that the workers on the base maintain an interesting and implicitly critical relationship to both the U.S. and Cuba."

Lipman described the United States' establishment of a naval base in Guantánamo Bay after they intervened in Cuba's fight for independence from Spain. In 1898, Spain surrendered all claims on Cuba to the U.S., not to the Cuban National Army. The United States then did not allow Cuba's independence until they accepted the Platt Amendment, allowing the U.S. to intervene in Cuban affairs, and the indefinite lease of the naval base in Guantánamo Bay.

"The fact that it is on Cuban territory and they have no say in what happens makes it easy for the U.S. to do almost whatever they want," Gordy said.

Almerindo Ojeda, the director of UC Davis' Center for the Study of Human Rights gave a presentation on torture at Guantánamo's naval base. He works on the Guantánamo Testimonials project, which documents various forms of abuse prisoners suffer.

Ojeda discussed the nine forms of abuse of prisoners talked about in testimonies. The forms of abuse are: physical, sexual, medical, legal, psychological, age-related, religious, national and verbal. The abuse he discussed has been inflicted upon prisoners as young as 13.

"I am appalled to learn firsthand the depth of depravity our government has chosen to do to these people," said Sam Thoron, 70, who attended the symposium with his wife. "It is absolutely contrary to what any sane human being would conform with."

There are currently 240 detainees being held at Guantánamo Bay, according to the New York Times. After President Barack Obama took office in January, he made plans close the prison in Guantánamo Bay by January 2010. However, there are legal difficulties in deciding what to do with the prisoners.

Stephen Truitt, a lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights who has represented Guantánamo prisoners and has visited the naval base 14 times, said the symposium went well. "The topics were different but led in a logical succession to the endpoint: torture in the interest of national security," he said.

Truitt said there is no record for the prisoners to be held at Guantánamo Bay's detention center and Habeas Corpus is needed to get them a trial in order to challenge the basis of their imprisonment. According to UC Davis' Center for the Study of Human Rights, 779 prisoners are known to have been detained at the base at some point.

UC Davis' Guantánamo Testimonials Project gathers testimonies of prisoner abuse in Guantánamo. These testimonies have been made on behalf of the prisoners, the Red Cross, U.S. Marine Sergeant Heather N. Cerveny, interrogators, a CIA asset, military and other physicians, military guards, military lawyers and defense lawyers, the Department of Justice, Foreign Affairs officials and others.

According to Truitt, the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which state that torture is prohibited if one falls in the hands of the enemy.

"I was brought up to believe that you don't lock people up without trial or any hearing to challenge the basis of their imprisonment," Truitt said.

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