Detainees' rights subverted at Guantánamo, their lawyers say
A federal judge asks for statements from two guards accused of threatening a detainee.
On July 18, Ahmed Zaid Zuhair, a detainee in Camp 6 of the US Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, wrote to his legal team in the US, terminating all written communication. He claimed that two guards had harassed him the previous night: one threatening to kill him and quarter his body; the other threatening to cut off his ears and nose. One guard then read through his legal correspondence, confiscating several documents.Skip to next paragraph
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"Right now, my state of mind is not normal because I have been threatened with death by a guard," Mr. Zuhair wrote. "Do not send any more papers after today."
It's impossible to verify Zuhair's charges. The US military says it won't comment on specific allegations in a district court case. But Zuhair's decision to halt communication with his legal team highlights the ongoing challenge of defending inmates at Guantánamo.
If detainees can't communicate with their lawyers without fear of retribution, defense lawyers say, then their rights to an attorney – or to challenge their detention under habeas corpus – don't amount to much.
"Without assurances that future contact with his lawyers will not occasion death threats, Zuhair's right to habeas corpus is meaningless," says Darryl Li, a member of Zuhair's legal team from the Allard Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School.
The judge has not yet ruled on the motion.
The courts have affirmed that the detainees have legal rights. In 2004, a federal judge handed down a protective order that preserved attorney-client privilege while addressing the government's national-security concerns. This summer, the US Supreme Court clarified that detainees do indeed have the right to challenge their detention.
Many are making that challenge. Of the 270 detainees at the detention facility, 235 have court proceedings under way. Zuhair's case stands out because his allegations about the guards caused his legal team to file an emergency motion Aug. 12, asking a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., to intervene immediately and ensure that Zuhair's legal papers are returned to him and that he is allowed to speak with his attorneys so that they can assure him that his rights will be respected.
Sworn statements from accused guards
On Sept. 12, the judge ordered that the accused guards, identified by their badge numbers in Zuhair's letter, file sworn declarations within 10 days – a first, according to Mr. Li.
"In similar instances so far, the government has only produced vague declarations by the camp commander, not a response from actual personnel accused of wrongdoing," he says. This order ... sends a strong message that the abuse of detainees will no longer be met with total impunity and official silence."
The military declined to comment directly about Zuhair's case.