P. Sabin Willet
Who’s at Guantánamo Anyway?
12 August 2009
Peter Sabin Willett, known as Sabin Willett, (born March 6, 1957) is an American lawyer and novelist, a partner with the Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen, previously called Bingham Dana. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts. He is perhaps best known as a defense lawyer for several Uighur prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp.
Articles by Sabin Willett
- Sabin Willett (September 27, 2006). “The Innocent Man at Guantanamo”. International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- P. Sabin Willett (November 14, 2005). “Detainees Deserve Court Trials”. Washington Post. pp. A21. Retrieved 2008-01-19.
- Sabin Willett (December 3, 2007). “I will never leave Guantanamo”. Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-01-13.
- Sabin Willett (2008-11-30). “Judging detainees on the facts”. Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-12-01. mirror
That’s what I was wondering one hot day last July when I walked across a prison yard so silent and sterile as to be a little eerie. Nothing grew in the yard: no grass or flower or tree or even weed. We approached a hut. Inside was a man chained to the floor. His name was Adel. My firm had filed a habeas case for him the previous March, but I’d never seen him or spoken to him before. Was he a terrorist? One of the worst of the worst?
Three weeks before I got to Guantánamo, Vice President Cheney said, “The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield, primarily in Afghanistan. They’re terrorists. They’re bomb makers. They’re facilitators of terror. They’re members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Something was off, right from the first minute. Something about the young man’s gentle smile; his calm didn’t fit. On that day last July I discovered what President Bush, and his lawyers at the Justice Department, had kept secret from the public, and even from the court: the military had concluded that Adel was innocent. Not a terrorist. Not an enemy soldier. Not a criminal. Never been on a battlefield. He’d been sold to U.S. forces from the soil of Pakistan, a nation with whom we have never been at war.
Vice President Cheney says that Adel and men like him were picked up on the battlefield, but according to a 2005 study conducted at Seton Hall School of Law, five percent were picked up on the battlefield. Ninety five percent were not.
How did we get the rest? We distributed leaflets, with smiling Afghans declaring: “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams… You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaida and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”
Eighty-six percent were sold to us by people who got the flyers. Vice President Cheney says these men are al Qaeda fighters. What do the data show? Eight percent are al Qaeda fighters. Ninety two percent are not.
Vice President Cheney says they committed hostile acts against Americans or their allies. What do the data say? 55% of the detainees committed no hostile act against the US or its allies or any one else. By the way, Cheney and other Bush administration officials construe “hostile act” extremely broadly. Fleeing from the bombing by US forces is a hostile act. Being sold to US forces is a hostile act. Possessing a Kalashnikov rifle is a hostile act. It has been estimated that there were upwards of 10 million Kalashnikovs in Afghanistan in 2001, and only 8 million adult males. An adult Afghan male who hadn’t possessed a Kalashnikov was harder to find than an adult Texan male who hadn’t possessed a hunting rifle. If you walked into a restaurant in Kabul, you found Kalashnikovs hanging on the coat rack.
For 60% of the detainees, the only hook by which they are deemed enemy combatants is that they were “associated with” the Taliban. But you have to understand that in 2001 in Afghanistan, the Taliban was pervasive. Except in a few strongholds of the Northern Alliance, they controlled every village, every town, every guesthouse. If you traveled to Kabul and stayed in a guesthouse, you associated with the Taliban. If you were conscripted against your will into a Taliban militia, you “associated with” the Taliban. For two Saudis held at Guantánamo, their association with the Taliban is that the Taliban held them in prison as enemies of its regime.
I’m not making this up.
Who’s at Guantánamo? Privates, orphans, the poor, conscripts, cooks, drivers. The mayors, the ministers, the Taliban generals—they’re not there. Take Sayed Rahmutullah Hashemi. He joined the Taliban as a young man. He became a party spokesman. Osama bin Laden came to his office. Is Rahmutullah at Guantánamo? No. He is a freshman at Yale. Some of his former Taliban colleagues are now in the Afghan Parliament we helped create. The desperately poor kids they employed as drivers and cooks sit in Guantánamo.
The last lie, the whopper, the huge one, is that Guantánamo holds terrorists. The President, the Vice President, their amen chorus in the Senate, they all tell you relentlessly, that these people are terrorists. I don’t say that there is no terrorist there, although years later not a single person had been convicted of a single terrorist act. But when you review the data, when you search it for anything remotely like a terrorist act—an act of violence against persons or property, for bombing or bombmaking or the teaching of bombmaking or the fundraising for it, you find that that is, most of all, who isn’t at Guantánamo.
If there is anyone in Guantánamo who conspired in the 9/11 murders, then I would like to see him tried. If he is guilty I hope he is convicted. If tried and convicted by a court martial duly constituted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I would shed no tear for the ultimate sentence. All that we lawyers have been asking for, since the beginning, is a hearing. A chance to show whether someone really is an enemy combatant or not. And when Guantánamo cases came up for an actual hearing, like Shafiq Rasul’s, what happened after his case came under Supreme Court scrutiny?
They released him.
What happened to Moazzem Begg? Another worst of the worst?
They released him.
When the story of his torture in Egypt surfaced, they released him.
They told us these people were the worst of the worst, and yet rather than prove it, rather than protect you and me from them, they released them before a judge could see any facts. * * * Now you might ask, why care about this? Why volunteer your time to represent these men? It’s the war on terror, isn’t it? So what if somebody is roughed up a little in Kandahar or Bagram—there are horrors in Darfur and New Orleans. So what if a few Uighurs pay the price—we have reservists from Vermont losing mortgages. Injustices abound in the world. Why care about this particular one?
I want my flag back. My country has been hijacked and I want it back. If we care about being a civilized people, then it is precisely in times of fear that we have to hold fastest to our rule of law. * * * During the Vietnam war, a protestor stood outside the White House with a candle. Every night for weeks. He stood in the cold, in the rain. One day a reporter came up to him and asked, “Do you really think, with your candle, you’re going to change White House Policy?” “No,” he said, “I’m sure I won’t change White House policy. But that’s not why I’m doing this.”
“Then why are you doing this?” the reporter asked.
“So that White House policy doesn’t change me.”
Based on a speech given at Princeton, in 2006.