By Mahvish Rukhsana Khan
Outrage over the Guantánamo detentions spurred Mahvish Rukhsana Khan to volunteer in the legal effort to defend detainees’ basic rights.
On my fi rst trip to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, I was nervous. It was January 2006, and the air was heavy and hot. I followed a soldier through a series of gates into a dusty courtyard. Before walking through one last door, I quickly arranged a shawl over my head and arms.
I had been studying the Guantánamo detentions in law school. Incensed at how the U.S. government had stripped the detainees of their most fundamental rights, I got in touch with the detainees’ attorneys to see how I could help. When I learned that no one with security clearance spoke Pashto—the language of my Afghan immigrant parents—I got security clearance to work as an interpreter for the habeas lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees.
The first prisoner I met stood at the far end of the room behind a long table. I walked over and shook the hand of my fi rst so-called terrorist: No. 1154, Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi. In retrospect, I think I must have been expecting someone menacing because I was surprised to meet this fragile-looking pediatrician who was shackled to the fl oor by his ankle.
Stripping prisoners like Mousovi of their names and identities makes their abuse easier for military personnel and more palatable to the American public. They are represented as nameless, faceless bomb-makers rather than doctors, taxicab drivers or merchants.
It’s easy to skim over numbers. But I listened to their stories.
There was No. 1009, the 80-yearold paraplegic, a white-bearded grandfather who spoke of being beaten by American soldiers at Bagram and clung to me when it was time for me to leave. There was No. 1154, the 43-year-old Dr. Ali Shah, who had worked with the United Nations to increase Afghan electoral support and choked back tears as he recalled the last time he saw his daughter. No. 1001: Hafi zullah Shabaz Khail protested that he was a university-educated pharmacist and a staunch supporter of Hamid Karzai’s presidency. No. 1021: Chaman Gul crouched in his cage and wept out of fear that his family would forget him. No. 977: Izzatullah, a six-foot Afghan, was granted permission to view a home video of his family, whom he had not seen in fi ve years. When he saw his children on tape, he inched closer to the screen, laughing and weeping at once. Finally he said, “For the rest of my life, until I die, I will remember this act of kindness.”
No doubt there are terrorists at Guantánamo—like 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammad—but I haven’t met them. Hundreds are simply hapless victims of greed, turned in by fellow countrymen for the $5,000 to $25,000 bounties the U.S. military offered for members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I have forged friendships with these men for whom I translated. They are like my fathers and brothers.
On May 1, the Pentagon released prisoner No. 345 after holding him for nearly seven years in a concrete box without charge or trial. Sami al Hajj, as he is known to his wife, children and friends, is a talented poet and journalist who worked for Al Jazeera. In a letter to his lawyer, al Hajj reimagined the Statue of Liberty with prison cells crowded around her feet, cells fi lled with creatures in orange clothing.
He wondered, “Will the world stand for a moment of silence one day beside that colossal wreck, saying, ‘There once was a stone statue here, a statue called liberty’?” ai
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan worked as a translator assisting U.S. lawyers and dfending Guantanamo detainees. Now a lawyer herself, Khan has published articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. Her book, My Guantanamo Diary, has just been published by Public Affairs.