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Small mistakes at Guantanamo have big consequences

April 3, 2007
By Michael Georgy

KHARTOUM, April 3 (Reuters) - Clive Stafford Smith has spent years helping detainees held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay cope with what he calls severe physical and mental abuse.

But he still has trouble convincing some of them he is their lawyer, not another CIA agent trying to get into their heads.

In a book about to be published by Weidenfeld called "Bad Men", the veteran death penalty lawyer recalls how many of his clients turned paranoid in their small cells.

He says cooks, shopkeepers and television cameramen were tortured into admitting they worked for Osama bin Laden.

A Moroccan cook with bipolar disease, he said, was designated "the general" by the U.S. military after he had a breakdown and announced he was bin Laden's superior officer.

"Ahmed used to tell me 'I am the cook that became a general and the crack of an egg became the explosion of a bomb'," said Stafford Smith of his client Ahmed al-Rachidi.

During a tour of Khartoum this week aimed at mustering support for Sudanese detainees among the 380 held at Guantanamo, Stafford Smith said he hoped his book would focus attention on the 38 men he is defending at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

He doubts they will ever gain as much notoriety as Australian David Hicks, the only prisoner convicted in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals, who could make about $1 million selling his memoirs, according to an Australian publicist.

"I guarantee you we are going to get these prisoners home. It is just a matter of how long it takes," he told Reuters in an interview in the Sudanese capital.


The tall, sharp featured 47-year-old has devoted much of his life to fighting capital punishment in the United States -- even in U.S. President George W. Bush's home state of Texas -- and he has only lost a handful of cases.

But Guantanamo is a far more complicated challenge, defending people with few rights and an unclear legal status.

"We were arguing that if you gave the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay the same rights as iguanas they would have legal rights," said the British-born American.

"If you, as an an American soldier, kill an iguana or harm an iguana you get a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison. But if you, as an American soldier, beat up on someone from Sudan you get no punishment."

One of his best known cases is Sudanese Sami al-Hajj, a former al-Jazeera cameraman who was picked up in Pakistan in 2001 and is on his 85th day of a hunger strike. He sleeps on a thin mattress over a metal bed. Hajj is allowed to read a Koran, but without his glasses.

"At nine o'clock in the morning they force feed him and he is strapped to a chair. They force a tube up his nose. It is excruciatingly painful. That lasts about an hour," said Stafford Smith.

"Three times so far, according to what Sami has told me, they have put the tube in his lung ... and that is effectively drowning him."

The routine is repeated at three o'clock in the afternoon. Aside from alleged abuses, Guantanamo detainees are also vulnerable to small misunderstandings that can have catastrophic consequences, said Stafford Smith.


A translation error fuelled suspicions Muhammad al-Gorani was an al Qaeda financier. Stafford Smith says the word tomato was mistranslated into "money" due to a difference in Arabic dialects.

"They got very aggressive and said 'you have to have money' and Muhammad said he did not take any tomatoes when leaving Saudi Arabia because he could get tomatoes anywhere," he said.

"So they leapt to the conclusion that he is now an al Qaeda financier and that somehow he is in the money business."

Stafford Smith has many stories of torture, but it's the mental anguish of Moroccan Ahmed al-Rachidi, the so-called general who lived in Britain for 18 years, that has left one of the deepest emotional scars.

During a breakdown, Rachidi announced that he was bin Laden's superior officer and that a huge snowball was about to envelope the earth and kill mankind.

"They (the U.S. military) wrote the stuff down. They said he was the general of al Qaeda," Stafford Smith said. "They agreed now that they got it wrong after five years and they cleared him for release. It's one of the few instances that we proved it's rubbish."

The cover of "Bad Men" has pictures of bin Laden, Stafford Smith's clients in Guantanamo, Bush and his close ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"I put some of us lawyers on there just to be fair because they think we are the bad guys," said Stafford Smith. "Unfortunately George Bush is keeping me in business forever. But I wish he didn't."

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