“Not quite the thing to do here”

Frank Kendall – Human Rights First volunteer consultant – is in Cuba to monitor the proceedings and is reporting back on events as they unfold. He is providing updates of what he observes.

Guantánamo Bay, July 13, 2008: The flag of the great State of Mississippi is missing. Yesterday when I arrived in Guántanamo, it was flying on a tall flag pole among the Quonset hut shaped tents I’m staying in here at Camp Justice. Two hours later it was gone. Its valiant sister, the Texas state flag was flying right beside it and is still flying. Now, I did point out to my escort, an Army First Lieutenant that I wasn’t sure what state the flag with the very prominent Confederate States of America’s stars and bars was from, and I asked her if she knew. Neither she (from New Mexico) nor the other soldier with us at the time (from Wisconsin), nor I (from Virginia) knew, but we had a pretty good idea what part of the country it was from, south of the Mason Dixon line.

I have nothing against the State of Mississippi, but the flag started me thinking about symbols and how they become identified with places in a way that evokes very strong emotions. Guántanamo has become a symbol to much of the world, a symbol of the failure of the United States to live up to its historic values, a symbol of the indefinite detention without charge of suspected enemies, a symbol of abusive treatment of prisoners, particularly prisoners who are culturally and ethnically different from their jailors.

Once a strong emotional connection between a symbol and what it represents has been created, that bond is almost impossible to break. Despite the many good Americans who are working here and trying to do their duty, Guántanamo will always be a place of shame for the United States. The more we learn about what has been done in our name at Guántanamo, the more we will all regret that our government ever opened the detention center here. Despite official assertions to the contrary, it has become more and more undeniable that serious abuses have occurred at Guántanamo. Recently it was revealed that the International Committee of the Red Cross had informed the highest levels of the Bush Administration that the treatment of detainees at Guántanamo was categorically torture and punishable under international law as a war crime. That sort of thing makes for a strong and enduring symbol.

The symbol I noticed, the embedded Confederate flag that takes up about half of the Mississippi state flag, is viewed by some as a symbol of a proud heritage and great sacrifice. To others, however, it is something else altogether. I only asked my escort what state it was from. I didn’t say anything else. I don’t think I needed to. The disappearance is a mystery; my escort said she did ask someone else where it was from, but she doesn’t know why it was removed. Perhaps the National Guard unit that was from Mississippi left, or perhaps the power of a symbol used by some to express racist sentiments, and viewed by many as a symbol of those sentiments, wasn’t quite the thing to have flying in a place where Americans have held 250 Muslim men for six years without charge. At any event the flag is gone. The prisoners, however, are still here.

I’m still here too. I’m a former Army officer and former Department of Defense and defense industry executive, now a part time attorney and human rights activist. I have no sympathy for the murderers of 9/11. I lost a colleague in one of those planes. But I also have high expectations for my country and believe that we should live up to the standards we have long set for ourselves and for others.

This is my second trip to Guántanamo as an unpaid consultant for Human Rights First. The first was last April, and my posts from that trip are available on Human Rights First’s web site.

This trip, I am here in the shadow of last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Boumediene v. Bush, the fourth Supreme Court case that has gone against the Bush Administration’s attempts to create a law free zone at Guántanamo. Boumediene established that foreign nationals held at Guántanamo have a constitutional right to habeas corpus. Habeas corpus provides the right to challenge detention in an impartial court, and it forces the government to justify the detention or release the prisoner. Those challenges are now going forward in federal district court, but here in Guántanamo, the military commission trials are continuing.

I am here to see pre-trial hearings for Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who has been at Guántanamo for over six years. He is accused of having been a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Mr. Hamdan has one of the longest and most complex legal histories of any of the Guántanamo detainees. In 2006, in just one of his legal proceedings, Mr. Hamdan’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The result was that the Court overturned the Bush Administration’s first attempt to set up special trials by military commission for some of the prisoners at Guántanamo. Now, two years later, Mr. Hamdan is on trial again under the new Military Commission Act rules. While the Boumediene court answered one question about Mr. Hamdan’s rights, it failed to address many others.

This week we will learn how far this tribunal thinks Mr. Hamdan’s rights extend. And in so doing, we will learn a little more about what kind of symbol Guántanamo will be for our country, and perhaps confirm again that this symbol should also be taken down.

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Published on July 14, 2008

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