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Human Rights

Guantanamo lawyer: 'Obama still gives us hope'

President Barack Obama has again pledged to close Guantanamo Bay as inmates continue their hunger strike in protest at their treatment and the UN piles on more pressure. DW spoke to detainee lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

DW: What is your response to President Obama's words renewing his vow to close Guantanamo and saying that it is damaging to American interests?

Clive Stafford Smith: Of course he is right to say that Guantanamo Bay is damaging to US interests. Guantanamo has been very bad for the prisoners there and particularly bad for the totally innocent prisoners there.

FILE - In this file photo made June 27, 2006, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. Secret documents about detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison reveal new information about some of the men that the United States believes to be terrorists, according to reports about the files released Sunday, April 24, 2011, by several American and European newspapers. The U.S. government criticized the publication as unfortunate. (Foto:Brennan Linsley, File/AP/dapd)

External access for journalists and lawyers to the Guantanamo Bay site is highly restricted

If you think back to after Sept. 11, 2001, we had a vast reservoir of goodwill around the world for having been victims of a terrible crime. If you turn the clock forward, now there are so many people around the world that hate us, and it is because we have behaved in such an abysmally hypocritical way, primarily at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

We've said we're here to propagate the rule of law and democracy. Yet we have denied the prisoners in Guantanamo any rule of law and we have held them forever without trial and even if we have cleared them we will hold them forever. That is so bad for business for America that I am very glad that Obama is coming back to his senses.

There are 166 prisoners still being held in Guantanamo Bay. How many have been cleared for release but are still in custody?

That's the extraordinary part of all of this. There are 86 people that are cleared for release. That's exactly 52 percent of the prisoners in Guantanamo. That's so hard for anyone to understand, most of all the prisoners. And it has such an impact on the prisoners' mental health.

Currently it's believed that 100 detainees are on hunger strike at Guantanamo. Some of them have been on the strike for 12 weeks. You have 15 clients in the facility at the moment, how many of them are involved and what do they tell you about it?

Some of these people have been doing the hunger strike for much longer than 12 weeks. They have been force-fed for years in a way that is gratuitously unpleasant and painful. My discussions with the prisoners that I represent show that it is more like 130 detainees now on hunger strike. The vast majority of people are on hunger strike with the exception of certain older people who are frail. Of my clients, six of them are on hunger strike officially, but in reality, only two of them are eating.

This is different to what we've had in the past. In part, because the world is now paying attention, also because the military is trying to abuse them out of doing the strike. Back in 2006, when there was a hunger strike, the military used to put tubes up the prisoners' noses to force feed them. They would use a number eight size tube and they would leave it in there and force feed them. There is, of course, a question as to whether that is unethical.

What they are now doing is pulling the tubes out of their noses after each force feeding episode to make it more painful. I have had complaints from the prisoners over the last few days saying that they are now using a number 10 tube which is bigger and therefore much more painful. The guards are going through this process of making it more painful gratuitously, so as to make it more difficult for prisoners to stay the course. That's barbaric and disgusting.

What made you decide that you wanted to get involved in the Guantanamo Bay issue and represent detainees there?

I was doing death penalty and civil rights cases in Louisiana when President Bush announced the creation of the Guantanamo Bay facility. I was horrified because I thought it would be bad for the US and for the prisoners. 

I wanted to sue President Bush and phoned around amongst my legal buddies. I saw it as a principle thing. But my colleagues back then were still very raw about the September 11 attacks. I could understand that, but I could never understand how people can do away with their principles.

When you finally went to the Guantanamo Bay facility, what did you see and what sort of stories did you hear?

I went to Guantanamo under the assumption that I was going to meet people who had been on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld had said that all the prisoners had been captured on the battlefield. And that they were the worst of the worst terrorists in the world. I naturally assumed that he was going to get it wrong sometimes. But I didn't think he'd get it wrong as often as he did. I thought most of the time it was going to be about insisting on a level of due process for people who were probably guilty of something.

The first prisoner I met was Moazzam Begg. He's five foot three, very well spoken British person, and, frankly, no more of a terrorist than I am. It was a real eye-opener. I have now represented about 80 of the prisoners - that's about 10 percent of the total population that has ever been there - and I have actually found it really difficult to find people who really were involved in terrorism. There were obviously one or two, but I didn't represent them. The vast majority of these people were not the people that Donald Rumsfeld promised us.

If, as you say, the vast majority of detainees at Guantanamo Bay are innocent, how did they end up there?

** FILE ** A shackled detainee is transported on the grounds of Camp Delta detention center, Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, in this Dec. 6, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Dept of Defense official. Five years since the first detainees arrived here on Jan. 11, 2002, Guantanamo has in some ways changed, in some ways not. Open cages have been replaced by maximum-security buildings. The U.S. still holds nearly 400 men at its Navy base in southeast Cuba on suspicion of links to Al-Qaida or the Taliban, but has also released nearly as many. (AP Photo/Brennan Llinsley)

The majority of prisoners in Guantanamo are now on a hunger strike, says Clive Stafford Smith

The USA was dropping leaflets all over Pakistan and Afghanistan offering $5,000 (3,840 euros) for every Taliban member that the local people wanted to turn in. That is a massive amount of money there, which encouraged people to turn in people they didn't really like or know.

If you read the autobiography of Pakistan's former President Pervez Musharraf, he boasts that more than half of the people in Guantanamo weren't siezed on the battlefield in Afghanistan. They were picked up by the Pakistanis in Pakistan and sold to the US for bounties. That's how the people all ended up there.

What next? With many people cleared for release but still in custody, it sounds like the legal process has been exhausted.

Barack Obama speaking in 2009. Photo: EPA/TANNEN MAURY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

US President Barack Obama announced back in 2009 that Camp Delta would be closed

Of the first 500 prisoners that we got out of there, none of them were released by court order. They were released because we got their stories out. A friend of mine once said that the only reason that Guantanamo exists is to keep it secret. Authorities want to pretend to people that this is doing something about terrorism. It's not, obviously, because most of the people there aren't terrorists. It's just hurting America. My friend said, 'if we open it up, they'll close it down'.

We have to obey the authorities rules about secrecy and some of them are very frustrating. But what is very encouraging, both for the inmates and for me, is that over the last few weeks the world is finally paying attention again to Guantanamo Bay and President Obama is paying attention again. As long as there is a political will from the most powerful person on earth, then surely they can achieve something that is right for America and for my clients.

Clive Stafford Smith has been a human rights lawyer since 1984, and has been acting for Guantanamo Bay prisoners since 2001. He is also the founder and director of Reprieve, a justice organization based in the UK.

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