The legacy of torture

Noted human rights lawyer Jameel Jaffer presented his case for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp on Wednesday at Northeastern, saying the U.S. government has a legal and moral obligation to shutter the military prison.

Many prisoners, he noted, have been held without formal charge or trial for more than a decade, while six have committed suicide and hundreds have gone on hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their confinement.

“You would not be able to cleanse the stain of Guantanamo Bay by moving the camp to the U.S.,” said Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “If you want to cleanse the stain of Guantanamo Bay, you need to end the policy of indefinite detention.”

Jaffer discussed the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in 240 Dockser Hall, delivering the 22nd annual Valerie Gordon Human Rights Lecture to some 200 students, faculty, and staff. His talk marked the start of a monthlong series of university-wide events focused on the history and legacy of Guantanamo Bay, which is located at the southeastern end of Cuba. The centerpiece is a new exhibit in International Village titled “Confronting Guantanamo,” which examines the controversial past and questionable future of this hotly contested place. Click here for more information or see below for a rundown of upcoming events.

Jaffer, for his part, oversees the ACLU’s work on human rights, national security, free speech, privacy, and technology. Since joining the ACLU in 2002, he has litigated many cases related to torture and targeted killing, including a landmark case that led to the release of the Bush administration’s “torture memos.”

One of those memos focused on the torture of Abu Zubaydah, the No. 3 man on the al-Qaida org chart, who was transferred from a secret CIA-operated prison in Thailand to Guantanamo in 2006. There, Jaffer said, Zubaydah was placed in isolation for 47 days and then waterboarded in the hope that he would divulge useful intelligence. “But,” he noted, “the CIA ultimately obtained mostly false information and he never provided information about other terrorist attacks.”

Zubaydah is one of 779 suspected terrorists who have been held at Guantanamo since the detention camp opened in the wake of 9/11, according to the nonprofit organization Human Rights First. More than 120 prisoners remain detained today, including 56 who have been cleared for release.

Jaffer noted that more than half of the detainees have not committed any hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies, citing a report based on an analysis of Department of Defense data. “For the most part,” he said, “Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not committed terrorists. They were just unlucky.”

The Obama administration, he noted, has deemed a substantial number of them simultaneously too difficult to prosecute and too dangerous to release, a Catch-22 that Jaffer calls “misguided.” “If there is credible evidence that these prisoners are dangerous, there is no reason why that evidence could not be introduced against them in criminal trials,” he said in 2010. “The criminal laws, and the material support laws in particular, are broad enough to reach anyone who presents a serious threat, and the federal courts are fully capable of affording defendants fair trials while protecting the government’s legitimate interest in protecting information that is properly classified.”

In the Q&A, one attendee who lived abroad for 20 years asked Jaffer to explain how the military’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has reshaped the world’s view of the U.S. “I see human rights advocates in other countries in despair over the fact that the U.S. has not been able to pull itself out of the human rights hole we got ourselves into in the years after the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “Now, we don’t have the standing to complain when other countries torture their prisoners, and it’s impossible to measure the cost that comes with that erosion of credibility.”

Here’s a rundown of upcoming events in the monthlong series:

  • Confronting Guantanamo: The exhibit—which examines the reality of the refugee experience, the ethics of public health, and the implications of indefinite incarceration—will be on display in the lobby of International Village from now until April 25.
  • Duty Bound: The Battle of Medical Ethics and Public Health at Guantanamo: Three professors— George J. Annas, of the Boston University School of Public Health; Albert J. Shimkus, of the U.S. Naval War College; and Mary K. Smith Fawzi, of Harvard Medical School—will discuss their Guantanamo-related experiences as well as the military’s treatment of detainees and the responsibilities of the army’s healthcare professionals. The roundtable will be held April 2 in 310 Renaissance Park.
  • The Haitian Experience at Guantanamo: A Community Event: Northeastern will welcome three of Boston’s Haitian and Haitian-American residents to discuss the Haitian refugee crisis as well as the U.S. government’s decision to detain thousands of Haitian-born refugees on Guantanamo before repatriating them back to Haiti. The event will be held April 18 in 22 International Village.