Anti-TortureActivists Convicted: Guantánamo Prison Put On Trial
Frida Berrigan was one of the 77 Witness Against Torture
activists arrested protesting against torture at the US Supreme
Court in January 2008. Her case was dismissed (along with at least
a half dozen others) because she wasn't wearing an overtly
James Carroll, in his Boston Globe column, wrote about this case immediately before the protesters went to trial:
"Can one break the law to uphold the principle of law? That will cease being the question tomorrow when the names of 35 incarcerated men are stated aloud in a courtroom -- names that should have been spoken before a judge years ago. When that happens, the questions will become: Why are those men themselves not before a judge in a US court of law? And why are their torturers not charged with crimes? How is it possible that the American judicial system is itself protecting this rank violation of the American judicial system?"
Thirty-four Americans arrested at the Supreme Court on January 11, 2008 were found guilty after a three-day trial which began on Tuesday, May 27, in D.C. Superior Court. The defendants represented themselves, mounting a spirited defense of their First Amendment rights to protest against the abuse and indefinite detention of men at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay.
Charged with "unlawful assembly," for protesting on the Supreme Court plaza and steps, the defendants were part of a larger group that appealed to the US Supreme Court on January 11 -- the day marking six years of indefinite detention and torture at Guantánamo.
"I knelt and prayed on the steps of the Supreme Court wearing an orange jumpsuit and black hood to be present for Fnu Fazaldad," said Tim Nolan, a nurse practitioner from Asheville, NC, who provides health care for people with HIV.
"I am not surprised at being convicted," continued Nolan, "but I felt compelled as a medical professional to speak out against torture that is facilitated by medical personnel at Guantánamo. I have to act on my ethical principles every day: if I know child abuse is occurring, I am required to report it. The abuses at Guantánamo must also be acted upon."
Defendants and witnesses argued that they did not expect to be arrested at the Supreme Court, "an internationally known temple to free speech." Ashley Casale, a student at Wellesley College, told the court, "I am 19 -- the youngest person in this courtroom -- and I come on behalf of all the prisoners at Guantánamo who were younger than I am now when they were detained. According to the US Constitution we have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and Guantánamo Bay prison is beyond grievous."
Those who stood trial this week were arrested (along with 43 others) without their identification and taken into custody under the names of Guantánamo prisoners. This twist on traditional protest allowed the defendants to symbolically grant the Guantánamo prisoners the day in court that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have denied them.
The defendants are priests and pastors, construction workers and farmers, schoolteachers and professors. They come from Charlottesville, Des Moines, New York City, Scranton, Saratoga, Worcester, and other cities and towns.
A number of the defendants waived their right to speak during the trial, recognizing the nearñtotal denial of legal and human rights to the Guantánamo detainees. "We could not in conscience exercise our rights," said Matthew Daloisio of New York City, "when our country continues to deny the rights of others. It was powerful to hold the name of Yasser Al Zahrani in my heart as I sat in a court of law. Yasser was a 22-year-old Yemeni man. He was arrested at 17, and brought to Guantánamo. He was never charged or tried. On June 10th, 2006, he apparently took his own life. He will never have the chance to sit in this court room, and my conviction today seems a small price to pay to bring his name in court."
During the trial, some defendants took the stand to testify to their motivations and intentions in acting on January 11. They argued that they were there to appeal to the Supreme Court Justices to rule against the Bush administration in the cases of Boumediene v. US and Al Odah v. Bush. They contend that after all other remedies had been exhausted. Direct action and appeal were the only options.
The judge refused to let Thomas Wilner, a partner at the Washington law firm Shearman and Sterling, take the stand. Wilner represented twelve Kuwaiti citizens detained at Guantánamo Bay in the case decided in their favor by the US Supreme Court on June 28, 2004. His descriptions of the predicaments of his clients, and expressions of horror and dismay at the failure of most Americans to act against the detainees' indefinite detention and torture, helped motivate many of the defendants' protests. After his testimony was deemed "not relevant" and "unnecessary" by Judge Gardner, Wilner addressed defendants and supporters outside the courthouse, saying: "Hopefully, we'll end torture and indefinite detention as a matter of law. And then, we need to work to make sure that hysteria and false facts don't sweep away the soul of the nation again." He then addressed those on trial directly, saying, "You are standing up for the soul of this nation."
In the defendants' first closing statement, Father Emmett Jarrett, an Episcopalian priest from New London, CT, told Judge Wendell Gardner, "we came to the Supreme Court on January 11 with one intention -- to put dramatically before the court -- both the Supreme Court and the higher court of public opinion and conscience -- the plight of the men and boys detained at Guantánamo. We came to the Supreme Court on January 11 not to protest but to present a letter to the justices, asking them to act on behalf of detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo, to restore their human and legal rights -- to give a voice to the voiceless."
Arthur Laffin followed with a closing statement that touched on both legal and moral arguments for the defendants' innocence, and pleaded with the court and the prosecution to join the defendants in "ending the horrors." "The Nuremberg Accords," he asserted, "state that individuals have a duty to prevent crimes against humanity and that if people don't act to prevent such crimes, they are actually complicit in them." He then concluded, "We, who are on trial today, along with many friends, refuse to be complicit in these crimes."
After Laffin finished, Claire Schaffer Duffy, of Worcester, MA stood and stated, "on behalf of Abbas Hasid Rumi Al Naely, I stand by Art's closing statement." And then, one after the other, each pro se defendant also stood, stated their own name, and then the name of the prisoner at Guantánamo they carried on January 11 and through the trial experience. Many were openly weeping as they stood.
The action on January 11 was organized by Witness Against Torture, a group that formed in 2005 when 25 people walked from Cuba to the US detention facilities to protest conditions there. January 11, 2008 marked six years since the opening of US detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. The Supreme Court demonstrators were joined by protestors in London, Sydney, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Barcelona, and elsewhere.
Retired Admiral John D. Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, said of the Supreme Court demonstrators, "In the military, there is the concept of 'calling in artillery onto your own position.' It refers to heroic action taken in desperate situations for a greater good. That's essentially what these courageous Americans are doing They accept that there may be an adverse consequence to them personally but they believe drawing attention to the issue is worth the sacrifice."
The sentences varied from suspended sentences of between 5 and thirty days, along with a year of probation and an order to stay away from the Supreme Court, and a $50 fine, up to ten days in jail, a $50 fine, and a stay away order.
Eve Tetaz of Washington DC said during her sentencing statement, "My faith translates into advocating nonviolent resistance to all forms of injustice as the sole means of achieving justice and equity for all. We must look for common ground in dealing with our enemies, solve differences without resorting to armed conflict, and replace the desire for revenge with forgiveness and reconciliation. In closing, I would like to invite you and every who is present in this court room to join the defendants in this trial in our refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice. Let us together turn our swords into plowshares so that nations may learn war no more."
Witness Against Torture will continue its efforts to have the
detention facilities at Guantánamo shut down and torture
by United States ended.
For More Information:
The Department of Justice Inspector General's report on FBI agents who objected to US torture policies and practices as war crimes, but were ignored and ordered to desist by the Department of Justice, A Review of the FBI's Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantánamo Bay, Afghanistan, and Iraq, http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0805/final.pdf
To get involved, contact Witness Against Torture, www.witnesstorture.org