Faces of Gitmo described at University of Maine event

Posted March 26, 2009, at 11:15 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — The many foreigners who have been detained and held at the U.S.-controlled detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not simply prisoners who want to do Americans harm. They have faces.

Richard Wilson has seen them.

He has seen Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was captured in June 2002 in Afghanistan at age 15, then sold by Pakistanis to U.S. military officials. Khadr has been charged in the death of a U.S. solider but awaits a trial, nearly seven years later. Wilson said Khadr has been tortured relentlessly during his time at Guantanamo.

He has seen Polad Sirajov, 31, who was captured in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sirajov has been detained for his supposed intelligence of future attacks that he knows nothing about, Wilson said.

And he has seen Salem Gherebi, a 48-year-old Libyan who was detained for his alleged association with a terrorist organization in Egypt. Gherebi has a wife and three children, including a 7-year-old daughter he has never seen because he remains at Guantanamo Bay.

Wilson, a professor of the Washington College of Law at American University who has represented these three Guantanamo Bay detainees, spoke to an audience of faculty, students and others Thursday at the University of Maine.

He outlined what he called the big picture of U.S. involvement in detaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, but he also showed the close-up picture represented by Khadr, Sirajov, Gherebi and many others.

“This work has been incredibly hard; I’ve never had harder cases,” said Wilson, who has represented murderers, rapists and others during his legal career. “These people needed someone to speak for them, but every time we turned to the law, the law rejected us.”

Nearly 800 prisoners from dozens of countries have spent time at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. More than 500 have been released outright. About 265 still are being held. Only 20 have actually been charged with crimes.

One of the first things President Obama did after he was sworn in was sign an executive order that shut down the CIA’s secret interrogation program at Guantanamo Bay. Wilson said that decision was probably the right one, but it brings up serious questions about what will happen to detainees once they leave Cuba.

“There are still plenty of detainees who are serious threats and there are negotiations with other countries to take some,” he said. “But for the others, do we expect them to be happy or angry with the U.S.?”

Wilson admitted that the decision to close Guantanamo has implications that are difficult to predict.

Adm. Gregory “Grog” Johnson, former U.S. Navy commander and a former assistant to then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, also spoke Thursday at the lecture, whose host was the School of Policy and International Affairs.

Johnson called Guantanamo a vexing policy issue that needs a simple and direct approach that it did not have during the previous administration.

“Under the Geneva Convention, we are entitled to detain prisoners until combat is over,” he said, referring to international law. “But how long will it last?”

Johnson admitted that indefinite incarceration for some prisoners just doesn’t make sense.

“Every policy has a human face on the other side of it,” he said.

Both Wilson and Johnson said President Obama has the chance to reverse policy when it comes to prison detainees, but that a new policy will not please everyone.

“It’s clear from his executive orders that his frame of reference acknowledges a law of war,” said Wilson.

UMaine’s School of Policy and International Affairs lecture series aims to bring nationally renowned experts to speak about complex social and political issues. Thursday was the seventh in the series that began in 2007.

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