On December 7 twenty-five Christians set out from Santiago de Cuba on a seventy-mile pilgrimage to Guantánamo Bay. Their mission is simple: to meet with more than 500 men who have been held without trial, virtually incommunicado, for nearly four years. If they are turned away, they will fast in support of Guantánamo’s hunger strikers and hold a three-day vigil at the prison gates.
The march, which coincides with International Human Rights Day on December 10, is the first time private citizens have attempted to take a protest to Guantánamo’s doorstep.
The idea was born in a Baltimore Catholic Worker community this spring and quickly spread to other communities across the United States. If Guantánamo were on American soil, they asked themselves, would we be there? Straight away they knew the answer.
“If this were happening in the United States, there would be a constant presence outside the base,” said Mike McGuire, a Catholic Worker spokesman. “Once we passed that mental threshold, the question was, Why aren’t we there?”
In response to international criticism of Guantánamo this June, President Bush declared, “You’re welcome to go down yourself…and see how they’re treated.” But there is no reason to believe that the marchers will be allowed in. The Catholic Workers are now calling the President’s bluff.
It is only in the past year that prisoners at Guantánamo have had any access to lawyers, and most prisoners remain without legal representation. The International Committee of the Red Cross is the sole organization to have been given full access to the prison, and then only in return for keeping their findings secret. Most recently, the United Nations turned down an offer to inspect Guantánamo after it was told that areas of the prison complex would remain off limits.
The shell game is indicative of the Bush Administration’s overall strategy. It has swept the detainees into a legal black hole. Only nine have had formal accusations placed against them. The rest, left in Kafkaesque limbo, are unable to take steps to prove their innocence because they haven’t been charged with anything. The Supreme Court threw this strategy out in June 2004, but the Administration continues to deny Guantánamo’s prisoners their day in court.
And now the Administration’s default position is threatening to become law. Congress is considering an amendment introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham that would strip the prisoners of their right to habeas corpus–the very provision that demands detainees must have the charges against them presented in a fair hearing.
By the end of the first day of their journey, the marchers were eighteen miles along the busy tarmac thoroughfare that leads from Santiago de Cuba to Guantánamo. “We are closer than many family members of those people have ever been. It’s an absolute bittersweet walk to go visit the scene of the crime,” said New York Catholic Worker Matt Daloisio by cell phone as he set up camp at the side of the road.
They carry a letter, written by torture survivors, asking that the marchers be allowed in to talk with the prisoners. “We…seek to initiate a credible, objective and fair assessment of the situation of the detainees at the detention facility,” the letter states. Should they be allowed in, doctors and lawyers are poised to join them.
Demonstrations of support are taking place across the country, and a website posts regular updates on their progress, along with locations of protest vigils.
As lead attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Gitanjali Gutierrez has already heard the stories of those held at Guantánamo’s tropical gulag. “We have revealed not only that the vast majority of these men are innocent but that they have been tortured and subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” she says.
Saifullah Paracha is one of them. In July 2003, Paracha was en route to Bangkok from his native Pakistan to meet a buyer for his clothing business. According to his attorney, Gaillard Hunt, when Paracha stepped off the plane, he was set upon by masked men. They pulled a hood over his head, shackled him and drove him to an unknown destination, where they stripped off his clothes and hung him from a hook in the ceiling. Paracha was then moved to Bagram in Afghanistan, and in September 2004 to Guantánamo.
Hunt does not know which agency was responsible for Paracha’s arrest, and he has not been charged with any crime. Paracha has been held in solitary confinement at Guantánamo ever since his transfer last year.
Paracha’s nephew, who spoke at recent a press conference in New York, and did not want to be identified, has known his uncle all his life. “He is one of the nicest, most generous people I know…. He wrote in his letters that it could have been fatal the way they treated him.”
After Paracha’s disappearance in Thailand, his family searched desperately for a month before they finally heard of his arrest in a news bulletin. It was two months after his transfer to Guantánamo that they received a letter from the International Red Cross informing them of Paracha’s whereabouts.
It is situations like Paracha’s that have motivated the Catholic Worker group to walk to Guantánamo. As the night drew in after the first leg of their journey, Daloisio explained what fuels their determination: “We’ve reached a point in our country where we don’t simply condemn torture but debate its usefulness. We need–myself included, the American people, the Administration–to regain our humanity.”
If Daloisio is allowed in to meet with the prisoners, he knows what he will say: “The first word, and most appropriate, would be, I’m sorry.”