Alumna rights attorney faced Gitmo challenges
Posted: February 27, 2009
LEWISBURG, Pa. — The first time attorney Gitanjali Gutierrez tried to visit Mohammed al-Qahtani at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he refused to see her.
The second time, Gutierrez had to convince him his father in Saudi Arabia had sent her, she said.
When Qahtani finally agreed to talk, Guitierrez sat with her back to her client for hours as an interpreter imitated her tone and inflections. Qahtani insisted Gutierrez sign a contract promising she would not betray him. Even then, her visits spanned two days. The first half of each day was spent with Qahtani calling her "incompetent." After a break for lunch and prayer, there was no mention of the morning's events, and they worked for the rest of the day.
"He had such a difficult time talking, and his eyes were wide," recalled Gutierrez, a 1992 graduate of Bucknell University and attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). "He was used to being in isolation. … He was extremely paranoid that I would conspire against him."
Gutierrez has been involved in litigating challenges to the executive's post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies with the human rights organization since 2003. She recounted the experiences during a talk, "Torture, Guantanamo and American Values," Thursday night in front of a group of about 100 people at the Elaine Langone Center Forum at Bucknell.
The talk was sponsored by the University Lectureship Committee, departments of psychology and political science, 2008-2009 Peace & Resistance Program, Samek Art Gallery and Office of LGBT Awareness at Bucknell.
Gutierrez and her organization focus on challenges to unlawful detention and torture, national security issues and anti-terrorism practices. She was a member of the legal team representing the Guantanamo detainees in Rasul v. Bush before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 and in Boumediene v. Bush in 2008.
First visit to Guantanamo
Following CCR's 2004 victory in Rasul, Gutierrez conducted the first visit by a habeas attorney to Guantanamo in September 2004. Since then, she has been meeting frequently at the military prison with clients from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Syria and the Sudan.
Qahtani was part of the "first special interrogation plan," which has been described as a regime of torture and inhumane treatment authorized by the secretary of defense. The capital charges against al Qahtani were dismissed by the Military Commissions Convening Authority in May 2008.
Gutierrez also represents Majid Khan, a Baltimore resident and citizen of Pakistan who was transferred from secret CIA detention to imprisonment at Guantanamo in September 2006.
Living in fear
The men Gutierrez represents were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques," which Gutierrez said included prolonged sleep deprivation – in some cases lasting months – sensory deprivation and sensory overstimulation. Some were covered with hoods, goggles and earmuffs and left in the intense Cuban sun for hours, she said. Others were given thin uniforms, soaked with water and forced to stay in extremely cold, air-conditioned cells. The detainees were placed in cells with no light or with 24-hour lighting.
"Most of the men live in constant fear of violence," she said.
Qahtani does not remember parts of his early interactions with Gutierrez, she said, and there still are experiences he won't discuss. That sometimes makes it difficult to defend him, she said.
Making the decision to defend Guantanamo detainees after 9/11 was a difficult one for human rights attorneys based in Manhattan, but Gutierrez and her colleagues felt compelled to fight against the practice of detaining men simply by executive order, she said.
The first prisoners were taken to Guantanamo in January 2002. Lawyers were not allowed to enter the facility until two years later. The detainees – who at one time numbered more than 500, ranged in age from 10 years old to 80 years old.
Order to close
President Barack Obama on Jan. 22 gave the order to close Guantanamo in one year. But today, about 250 men remain. Most face tougher conditions if they go back to their home countries, Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez challenged the group at Bucknell to consider how treatment of Guantanamo detainees reflects on the nation.
"What happened in Guantanamo says a great deal about American values," she said. "Many in our country have been shocked at what happened at Guantanamo, but for many it stops there. … While we have restored the rule of law and upheld the Constitution, we have not reconciled with inclusion."
Gutierrez graduated magna cum laude from Cornell Law School in 2001 and was a managing editor for the Cornell Law Review. Following graduation, she clerked for the Honorable Guido Calabresi, United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit; taught International Human Rights Law and Terrorism at Cornell Law School; and served as a Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Law at Gibbons, P.C.
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