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Q&A: "Mistakes Will Continue to Happen When There Isn’t Transparency"

Stephen de Tarczynski interviews MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN, U.S lawyer

MELBOURNE, Oct 3 2008 (IPS) - Not many people want to spend time at Guantánamo Bay. But while studying law at the University of Miami in 2005, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan became outraged to learn of the lack of rights afforded detainees in the "war on terror" and was keen to get involved.

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan. Credit: Scribe Publications

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan. Credit: Scribe Publications

Discovering that lawyers at Philadelphia-based Dechert – a firm representing fifteen Afghan detainees at Guantánamo – did not have anyone with a security clearance who spoke Pashto, the daughter of Afghan émigrés to the U.S. offered her own language skills. The firm accepted and Khan was to soon find herself at the world’s most controversial prison.

Her experiences of working as an interpreter at Guantánamo have now been collated in her recently-released book, titled ‘My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me’.

Khan currently represents a Guantánamo Bay detainee. She visited Australia in September to attend the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and while there spoke to IPS correspondent Stephen de Tarczynski via telephone.

IPS: In ‘My Guantánamo Diary’ you say that "the prison camp’s very existence is a blatant affront to what America stands for." Can you tell me what you mean by that? Mahvish Rukhsana Khan: There were detainees who were denied basic constitutional rights that America was founded upon. They were never charged and held indefinitely, for sometimes up to seven years. They were denied attorneys, held without being charged, not given an impartial trial and denied the basic rights that every alleged rapist and murderer in America has.

IPS: Is that sense of injustice what inspired you to offer your services to assist lawyers? MRK: That is what inspired me. I felt outraged. I was a law student at the time studying Guantánamo Bay and the concepts that I was studying in law school were not being applied in this case. I felt that the institution of Guantánamo was created to weasel around these cornerstone legal principles imbedded in our constitution. That is initially why I wanted to get involved. I was also just baffled at how Washington policy makers were debating the legality of these medieval torture techniques – once-upon-a-time it was [called] Chinese water torture and today in America it’s water-boarding. But it’s all the same.

IPS: Were you shocked by what you saw the first time you visited Guantánamo Bay? MRK: The first time I went I was nervous and scared. I was expecting to meet somebody who was Taliban or al-Qaeda or somebody who wouldn’t necessarily want to sit down with me because I was a woman. [I was] fully expecting to meet the worst of the worst or a bomb-making terrorist. I was scared.

On the first trip, I met a paediatrician who [now] works for the U.N. to help the new democracy in Afghanistan. His wife was an economist and he was a Shiite Muslim, which are a persecuted minority under the Taliban. He fled the Taliban to neighbouring Iran and yet there he was being accused of working for the Taliban. It made no sense.

Dr. Ali Shah [Mousovi] was accused of fighting against the Soviets several decades before. It was backed by the U.S. and he was awed that he was being accused of that while he was at Guantánamo.

And the second guy I met on that trip was an eighty-year-old paraplegic who was brought to Guantánamo Bay on a stretcher. Neither of these men had been charged with any criminal activities.

IPS: Your book reveals both mental and physical abuse that detainees were subjected to. Was this something that you were prepared for? Was the situation different to what you had imagined it would be? MRK: I had heard a lot about torture, but it was different in the sense that when you hear an eighty-year-old paraplegic who can’t walk and can't see very well, who is shackled to the floor by his slow and immobile leg, talking very uncomfortably about being beaten and having his arm broken and being stripped naked in front of women, it takes on another meaning.

IPS: You also say in your book that while you "understood the need to invade Afghanistan" after the 9/11 attacks, you "also felt the suffering of the Afghans as their country was bombed." Your heritage is Afghani – although you were born in the U.S. – so was this a conflicting time for you? MRK: It was a conflicting time in the sense that I was born and raised in America. I am American, America is my home, and after 9/11 I feared for the safety of America. But at the same time I feared for the safety of the Muslim community living in America and what that would mean. You know, individuals living in Afghanistan are a lot like my own family and so I felt for them too as they were being bombed.

IPS: Do you think that your Afghan heritage and ability to speak Pashto enabled the detainees to be more open with you? MRK: Absolutely, because I understood the cultural nuances and there wasn’t an interpreter while I was communicating with these people. We could freely understand one another. But beyond that I understood their culture and where they came from and there was this instant connection – with some of the detainees anyway – and many of them familiarised themselves quickly with me. I think there was a desire to just be associated with something that reminded them of home and I often came into those meetings wearing a shawl. I covered my hair as I didn’t know how conservative the men that I would be meeting would be and that shawl was often embroidered the way things are in their home country.

IPS: And you’ve also met one of the detainees after he was released. That must have been a very different experience from knowing him at Guantánamo Bay. MRK: It was. I met Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi, who was the first detainee that I met at Guantánamo, and I promised him that once he was released I would visit him at home. And visiting him in Gardez, Afghanistan was a surreal experience because I’d only known him as this very frail, vulnerable man shackled to the floor and speaking about his desire to just open up health clinics in his country and service people after the Taliban had fallen. He was only 43 years old but he’d gone completely white – his beard – and when I saw him in Afghanistan his brothers had apparently persuaded him to cut his beard short and dye it black for his wife and kids. It was great to be able to see him with his family and safe. And he was exactly what he said he was. He was released without ever having been charged and is today working as a physician in Afghanistan.

IPS: Do you think we can learn any lessons from the use of Guantánamo Bay in the "war on terror?" I mean, the prison is still functioning and people are still detained there, but does this have to be the way it works? MRK: It doesn’t have to be the way it works because the U.S. has a system of justice and we don’t need these secret institutions. We’ve tried terrorists on U.S. soil in the past. In world trade centre bombing number one we were able to successfully try terrorists and then lock them up. Guantánamo at its peak has had almost 800 detainees – today there are about 240 – and of those, over 500 have been released, mostly without ever having been charged, with the exception of a few who died at Guantánamo. If there are hundreds and hundreds being released without charge there are obviously a lot of mistakes being made.

The other thing that a lot of people are unaware of and that I was unaware of going into Guantanamo was the bounty system. The U.S. military air-dropped thousands of leaflets across Afghanistan, offering up to 25,000 dollars per member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. That’s like hitting the super-lotto jackpot in Afghanistan because the average Afghan makes eighty cents a day, about 300 dollars a year. And added to that there are these complex tribal and ethnic, political and geographic animosities between people that go back generations and the military failed to investigate what locals were alleging about one another for a huge some of money. So, I think the lesson to be learned is that we need a better system of intelligence for one, and two, that so many mistakes will continue to happen when there isn’t transparency and a system of process.

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