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Guantánamo Testimonials Project Interview, January 11, 2013

Ojeda: Good afternoon, Ramzi. Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Kassem: Good afternoon, Almerindo. And thank you for this tremendously important project you have embarked on, which both raises awareness about Guantanamo and preserves the memory of what happened—and what is still happening—at Guantanamo. While this is no longer a young issue—the prison has existed over a decade at this point—it is still an issue affecting men like my clients, their families, and their communities daily.
Ojeda: Thanks! Why don't we begin by talking a bit about the conditions in Camp Five Echo that you witnessed (or were told about) by your clients.
Kassem: I found out about Camp Five Echo from my clients at Guantanamo in the Fall of 2011, when the Department of Defense was embarked on a media campaign to "normalize Guantanamo", holding out the prison facility as a modern, state-of-the-art, model facility that bears no relation to the real Guantanamo.
Ojeda: Was this the time of the new commander, Woods?
Kassem: Yes, Woods. Who, we found out shortly thereafter, was being shipped out. It may be related to his role in ordering military review of confidential legal mail between prisoners and their lawyers, but that's also speculation on my part.
Ojeda: Interesting…
Kassem: So, essentially, we found out about Camp Five Echo—which is a throwback to the days of early Guantanamo in 2002-2005—through our clients. My colleagues and I are representing Shaker Aamer, for example. We found out from him that, since July of 2011, he was being held in a camp called Five Echo, which is situated on the same plot of land, it seems, as the brick-and-mortar facility known as Camp Five. It's on the same plot of land, but it's not a part of that concrete structure. It's a free-standing all-steel structure.
The photos of this structure have now been released, as a result of our probing, using the information that was provided to us by Shaker Aamer and other clients at Guantanamo. They reported that there's this all-steel structure where men were being held in solitary confinement and complete isolation.
The Department of Defense will try to call it "segregation" and try to hide behind the fiction that it isn't, as a matter of law, solitary confinement. They argue that this is because the prisoners, in theory, might manage to shout through a steel wall or a steel door, and might be heard by fellow prisoners and can therefore communicate with them that way. But I think any reasonable person looking at it would say it is solitary confinement. It is a facility where men are held in steel boxes for 22 hours, and given but 2 hours of recreation. There they lack all social contact with other prisoners—with other human beings other than their guards, in fact.
And so we started hearing about it in meetings with Shaker Aamer and other Guantanamo prisoners. And I personally started hearing about it in October 2011. And that's when Shaker told me that he, in October, had been held at that facility in solitary confinement, under permanent lockdown, or near permanent lockdown conditions, twenty-two hour lockdown.
Ojeda: Is the Five Echo building modeled after an American prison?
Kassem: Not to my knowledge. It seems to be modeled, perhaps, on the idea of a “hole” in a regular American prison—a place where you basically lock away prisoners who are deemed to have misbehaved (and are placed in solitary confinement, as a form of punishment).
Ojeda: The SHU?
Kassem: Yes, exactly. The Special Housing Unit. I discovered this information, about Five Echo, from Shaker Aamer and the other prisoners at Guantanamo at a time when one of the UN special rapporteurs was issuing a call for the universal abandonment of solitary confinement.
Ojeda: Yes.
Kassem: … as a practice that per se constitutes torture or cruel or human degrading treatment. And I think the alternative recommendation that the rapporteur made was that solitary confinement should not be used in excess of 15 days. Even where it is used. So the primary recommendation was to get rid of it all together because it is illegal, and then, the second recommendation, was that you shouldn't use it for more than 15 days. So this is when I find out that Shaker had been there for months.
Ojeda: Months?
Kassem: Yes. I met with him at the end of October and, at that point, he had been at Five Echo since July. And my other clients were reporting that prisoners were being cycled in and out of Five Echo on 25 day stints for punishment. So if you were deemed to misbehave, they would take you out of general population and put you in Five Echo for 25 days. And it did not matter whether it was a minor infraction or what is considered a major infraction.
There, the conditions are really harsh. Shaker and the other prisoners described the cells to me. And they told me that, for example, you don't have a toilet; you only have a hole in the ground that's really small and—pardon the graphic language—you couldn't, at once, defecate and urinate without urinating into your cell; into your living space. Of course that's also the area where you need to pray and, as you know, as a Muslim, when you're praying you are in contact with the ground. So what you have is a small space—an extremely small space—that inevitably becomes, in Shaker's terms, despicable, filthy.
But the toilet is just one issue. The ventilation was another. As is the fact that you are not allowed any amenities in that space. I mean, it's really bare and extremely harsh. It is a small space. And you're only allowed out for two hours a day. You don't get what are considered privileges by the authorities, and so that limits the number of reading materials that you would have access to. As it does other so-called "comfort items" that you and I might consider basic necessities.
Ojeda: Yes, it is interesting, it was at a time, as you say, that there was this campaign to present Guantanamo as a more humane place, a place of communitary gatherings where they watched TV—even cable, and...
Kassem: Yes, there was this whole propaganda campaign that was aimed at obscuring the underlying and continuous cruelty of Guantanamo, ever since it was opened in 2002. As far as my clients and I are concerned, it remains unchanged. The fact remains that you are holding men there without charge, without fair process, indefinitely.
They don't know when or if they will ever go back to see their families. So all of this media campaign is really constructed to obscure that one fundamental point of continuity that connects Guantanamo in 2012 to Guantanamo ten years ago in 2002. And that's the daily reality of my clients. That's a fundamental form of psychological torture that they have to endure and survive. Day in and day out. Not knowing if they will ever get out. And their families suffer from that as well.
But then what's interesting about Five Echo is that it's a secret facility. So it wasn't something that we knew about; it wasn't something that the outside world knew about until Shaker and other clients of mine at Guantanamo told me.
And only when we got that information processed and approved by government censors, and were able to share it with the outside world did journalists start asking questions. I'm thinking that, about the same time that I found out about it, other lawyers must have found out about it from their clients. They must have shared that information with journalists and I think that's where it started snowballing.
What happened fairly quickly, is that, as soon as the journalists started asking questions of the Department of Defense about Five Echo, there was, at first, radio silence and then a few days later they got back to the journalists and told them that there were no longer any prisoners at Five Echo. And they released photos of the vacant cell blocks, which are now available online.
Ojeda: Yeah [laughter]
Kassem: They essentially moved all of the prisoners out of Five Echo, so that they could then go to the journalists and say "Oh, there's no one there."
Ojeda: But for how long, right?
Kassem: Exactly!
Ojeda: Who else is your client? In addition to Shaker?
Kassem: Well, right now, I technically represent 7 prisoners who are still at Guantanamo, including Shaker. Different nationalities. Saudi, Yemenis, Syrians. I am most active on the cases of Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni; Abdulhadi Faraj, a Syrian; Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi; and Ahmed al-Darbi, another Saudi. My students work with me on many of these cases.
Ojeda: Seven! That is a lot.
Kassem: Seven prisoners total, who are still at Guantanamo.
Ojeda: So tell me a bit more about the conditions in Five Echo.
Kassem: What I can tell you is the general impression I have of it, and that's why I say it harkens back to the Guantanamo of yesteryear. Five Echo seems to be a place that was designed to isolate, break down, and dehumanize prisoners who are held there.
So I'll just give some of the characteristics that were shared with me by Shaker Aamer and other prisoners of Guantanamo, who had a direct personal experience because they were held at Five Echo.
Things like not having access to soap and other items that you and I might consider as basic necessities. They are being treated as comfort items and being denied on those grounds by the authorities of the prison.
The fact that there is no toilet installed, only a small hole in the ground that if one urinates while defecating in that hole, one is essentially urinating outside of the hole and into one's cell because the hole is too small.
That there is no sink, either. And that is very difficult, especially for Muslims, because you can't perform your ablutions before your required prayers, five times a day every day.
The fact that it is very difficult to pray in that small, metallic space. You are talking about a cell that's even smaller than the standard cell size in the brick and mortar facilities of Guantanamo Camps Five and Six. So you are talking about a very small cell where the walls are made of steel, the doors are made of steel.
Ojeda: What about the ventilation?
Kassem: It's very difficult to pray in that space. It's also been described as decrepit, filthy, and disgusting by the prisoners. They described the lights as being too powerful, as being an almost constant halogen light.
They described the air temperature as being controlled and often extremely cold, but the air also smells filthy because of a circulation issue whereby all the vents are interconnected. So if one of the prisoners uses faeces in an act of protest, everyone has to breathe it in.
And then, ultimately, there is the fact of prolonged solitary confinement: you are allowed no social interaction with anyone. No direct social contact with anyone, other than the guard. Because when you're in Five Echo, you're only given two hours of exercise time during the day, or at least that's what Shaker and the other men that I represent have reported.
And when you're given that, those two hours of exercise time and you're finally taken out of your steel box, you are taken alone to the outdoors, but you're only allowed to exercise in a small and restricted recreation "cage" of sorts. So even that is restricted and solitary.
Ojeda: And that area is enclosed with mesh fences all around—walls and the ceiling, right?
Kassem: Yes, exactly. So I think one way to describe it, would be as essentially a cage. There you are given two hours daily to work out, walk, run, do whatever you want to do, but by yourself. And then you are taken back to your cell. And you stay there for the other 22 hours.
Ojeda: Are they being interrogated at this point? Are these conditions to soften them up to be interrogated? Or is it just purely punitive?
Kassem: Well, some of my clients have described them as punitive. So, if you commit an infraction (or what is considered an infraction by the prison authorities), be it major or minor, they will take you from the general population, in Camp Six for example, and put you in Camp Five Echo for 25 days.
So that's one of the uses of Camp Five Echo. But the other use, is for men like Shaker Aamer. Shaker is not being held in Five Echo because he's on punishment. He's not being held in Five Echo because he's a particularly dangerous individual. Shaker was approved for release by the Bush administration. The administrative review boards determined that he should have been released. The UK government has clamored for his return to the United Kingdom because he was a resident there. So he's not in Five Echo because he's particularly dangerous. He's at Five Echo because the present administration thinks that Shaker is an influential prisoner and, more importantly, they think that Shaker is not compliant enough.
Their belief is that Shaker is a difficult prisoner to deal with. That he protests. That he asserts his rights. That he won't take injustice lying down. And, for all of those reasons, they've put him in isolation for a very, very long time—to keep him away from the prison population because they're afraid that he's going to incite the prisoner population to be similarly..
Ojeda: Rebellious
Kassem: Yes, similarly, I guess righteous. So that's the reason that he's in Five Echo. He's not there for 25 days, he's been there for months. Or at least in October 2011 when I spoke to him, he'd been there since July. And I met with him more recently, actually, but I can't yet share what he told me because that hasn't been processed.
Ojeda: Hmm, maybe next time?
Kassem: Maybe next time.
Ojeda: Is he in the group of prisoners of third category of the Obama prisoners, the ones that are too dangerous to release but not tried?
Kassem: No, I have no reason to believe that. In fact, as of 2012, I can publicly say that the Obama Administration, too, has formally approved him for release. That information used to be considered “protected,” so I couldn’t disclose it, but it has now been made public by the U.S. government.
Ojeda: Approved for release...
Kassem: He was approved for release under Bush and now under Obama..
Ojeda: I know, but Obama did it all over again, right? Obama...
Kassem: The thing it is, one other interesting facet of the Obama administration is that in many ways it's more secretive than the Bush administration.
Ojeda: How so?
Kassem: The determinations of the Department of Defense, back under the Bush years, were public. So I could share with the public, just as I shared with you, what the Bush administration decided with regards to Shaker, in terms of whether he was approved for release or not.
When Obama took over, he constituted a task force to do the same thing. But, until late-2012, I couldn’t tell you what that task force decided. It was considered sensitive and protected information. Only the US government could tell you. So under Bush, I could tell you. But under Obama, I couldn’t until very recently.
Ojeda: Yes, but do you know as his attorney what it is? Or you don't even know that?
Kassem: Yes, I did know, even back when it was protected information.
Ojeda: Okay, we'll move on then.
Kassem: Yeah. I mean it is extremely ridiculous. And I'll say the only reason why they had this restriction in place—they'll tell you a dozen different things—but the only real reason is that they didn’t want lawyers being able to go and tell the public, "look: my client was approved for release by President Obama's task force in 2009, and now we're in 2012 and he's still there."
That's the only thing they wanted to avoid. They wanted to avoid that embarrassment because they learned that lesson from the Bush administration.
Ojeda: What about the protests—the ten-year protests, that the prisoners made in January?
Kassem: That was really inspiring, and for many reasons. The prisoners, my clients, and the other men of Guantanamo really didn't want the 10-year anniversary to pass by without marking it in a meaningful way. And they especially wanted to counter the message that the U.S. government has been trying to spread worldwide about Guantanamo. That it's a humane facility, that it's a modern facility now. It's a changed place. That the prisoners at Guantanamo are happy that they have access to satellite television, that they get their halal food, and that they're treated well. It's not the same Guantanamo that people think of when the word comes up.
And so they especially wanted to send a message that Guantanamo remains as unacceptable in 2012 as it was ten years ago in 2002 when it was created as a prison.
And what's really inspiring is that, not only did every single cell block in Guantanamo participate in a three-day, peaceful protest, to mark the anniversary, but they wanted to do that in lockstep with protesters the world over, who are marking the anniversary. They especially wanted to coordinate, or do it at the same time, as the protesters in Washington because they thought it was important to sort of build that bridge of solidarity with people in the United States. And they thought it would be particularly powerful if the message was "not only do the American people still reject the government's messaging that Guantanamo is OK, but standing with them are the prisoners of Guantanamo themselves who also have not accepted this injustice. And who are also objecting..."
Ojeda: Yes. It is very inspiring. I think anything that ties the two struggles together on both sides of the fence is great. How...
Kassem: Yeah, and it worked out just like that. The January 11 anniversary was on a Wednesday, right? So the prisoners set aside a three-day period, beginning on Tuesday, the day before the anniversary, following to the anniversary on Wednesday, January 11th, and continuing through Thursday the 12th. And during those three days, they engaged in a campaign of peaceful sit-ins where they would refuse to return to their cells, where they created banners and signs that they held up to protest the fundamental injustice that characterizes Guantanamo today the way it did ten years ago—which is indefinite imprisonment without due process, the fact that they don't even know if they are ever going to get home, never going to see an inside of a courtroom. So they had banners, they had signs made, they didn't go back to their cells; some of the men were on hunger strikes and this was happening in every single cell block, in Camps FIve and Six, for that three-day period.
And the day before the beginning of the three-day period, on Monday the 9th, every cell block appointed a prisoner representative to go and inform the military officer in charge of that cell block that beginning the next day, and for the next three days, there was going to be this peaceful action. And that the peaceful action was being conducted by the prisoners to protest the existence of the prison and their presence there ten years later. The prisoners wanted to make sure that they didn't give any room to the military authorities to lie and try to mischaracterize what the protest was about, because they remembered their experience months ago when they staged sit-ins in solidarity with the beginning of the Arab Spring and the military authorities at Guantanamo went and told journalists that the protests had nothing to do with the Arab Spring, that they were about the prisoners wanting more ice cream and wanting XBoxes.
So there's always this attempt at mischaracterizing the facts and depoliticizing the prisoners' actions, infantilizing the prisoners, and so this time the prisoners wanted to anticipate that. And so, that Monday, they informed the authorities that they had their three-day protest. And I can tell you that, because they now have some access to outside news sources, that they were very heartened and encouraged by...
Ojeda: That's what I was going to ask, how much do they know about the sentiment outside?
Kassem:  I think they're fairly aware of the world opinion about Guantanamo. They're very well aware that world opinion opposes Guantanamo, but they are especially heartened when they see sights like what we saw in DC on January 11th. With thousands of Americans and people living in America turning out to protest Guantanamo.
Ojeda: Were they able to see that actually...
Kassem: Yes.
Ojeda: It wasn't censored by the government?
Kassem: It was reported by a lot of networks. They have access to a handful of networks, and that information is there. And then they also get a lot of information from the guards, themselves, and from lawyers. And prisoners communicate as well. So the information travels pretty quickly and the prisoners were probably aware on the day of the protests in DC, that there were thousands of people there. And I think whenever they see that, anywhere in the world, it's encouraging to know they are not forgotten. But seeing that in Washington particularly.
Ojeda: Hmm, that's great. Well if you can tell Shaker and your clients about our work, please do. Tell them that I look forward to the day in which we will sit down, in freedom, and I will have the honor of taking down their testimonies.
Kassem: Okay. I really appreciate your work Almerindo.