ANTI-TORTURE ACTIVISTS CONVICTED
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 27th in D.C. Superior Court. The defendants represented themselves, mounting a spirited defense of their First Amendment rights to protest the gross injustice of abuse and indefinite detention of men at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.
Charged with “unlawful free speech,” the defendants were part of a larger group that appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11—the day marking six years of indefinite detention and torture at Guantanamo. “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.
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 in Massachusetts, told the court, “I am 19-- the youngest person in this courtroom—and I come on behalf of all the prisoners at Guantanamo who were younger than I am now when they were detained. According to the U.S. Constitution we have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances and Guantanamo Bay prison is beyond grievous.”
Historian Michael S. Foley, a professor at the City University of New York, teaches the U.S. Constitution to undergraduates. He testified that if “you told me that the defendants would be arrested for ‘unlawful free speech’ just twenty feet from where the Justices decide First Amendment cases, I’d say you were ‘crazy.’”
Those who stood trial this week were arrested (along with 43 others) without their identification and taken into custody under the names of Guantanamo prisoners. This twist on traditional protest allowed the defendants to symbolically grant the Guantanamo prisoners the day in court that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have denied them.
“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 Guantanamo. 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 Guantanamo must also be acted upon.”
The defendants are common citizens: 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.
Judge Wendell Gardner will sentence the defendants tomorrow (Friday, May 30), in D.C. Superior Court (courtroom 218, 500 Indiana Ave), and has indicated that some are likely to receive prison sentences.
A number of the defendants waived their right to speak during the trial, recognizing the near–total denial of legal and human rights to the Guantanamo detainees. “We could not in conscience exercise our rights,” says Matthew Daloisio of this courtroom witness, “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 Guantanamo. 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. U.S. 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 Guantanamo Bay in the case decided in their favor by the U.S. 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 were part of forming many of the defendants’ motivation and intention. 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 11th 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 Guantanamo. We came to the Supreme Court on January 11th not to protest but to present a letter to the justices, asking them to act on behalf of detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo, 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 Worchester, 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, the name of the prisoner at Guantanamo 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 U.S. detention facilities to protest conditions there. January 11, 2008 marked six years since the opening of U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. The Supreme Court demonstrators were joined by protestors in London, Sydney, Edinburgh, Istanbul, Barcelona and throughout the world.
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."
Witness Against Torture will continue its efforts to have the detention facilities at Guantanamo shut down and torture by United States ended.