A poster hanging in Law School Professor Harold Koh’s office shows a night scene in Guantanamo Bay, a reminder of the city and naval base where he helped free clients from prison. After several trips to the base, Koh said he was not sure he would ever again use his knowledge of Guantanamo Bay or the prison there. But now, as the United States holds detainees from the war on terrorism at the base, Koh said Guantanamo Bay has become the hub of a human rights debate.
Koh, the former assistant secretary of state for human rights, discussed his experiences at Guantanamo Bay and the debate over the detainments at a speech at the Law School Friday. About 25 students and professors attended the speech, titled “Guantanamo and the Constitution: The Rights of 9/11 Detainees.”
Since January 2002, the United States has detained 625 prisoners from 43 countries at Guantanamo Bay, or Gitmo, as it is known. The prisoners were all detained as part of the war on terrorism initiated after Sept. 11, 2001.
The Red Cross and Amnesty International led public outcry over treatment on the base in late January 2002, after photos were released showing the prisoners kneeling, wearing goggles and heavy gloves amid towering barbed-wire fences and open-air, scanty cells.
This Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to release information obtained from interrogations of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
In his speech Friday, Koh recalled the hasty decision last January to send captives from the war in Afghanistan to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo where, he said, they were stripped of their POW status and their rights. Guantanamo Bay was the first offshore detention camp in American history, giving the United States the opportunity to ignore the Constitution off its soil, he said.
Detainees receive necessities and fluorescent orange jump suits, Koh said. Most do not know why they are being held or when and under what circumstances they could be released, he said.
Koh, who has successfully represented Haitian and Cuban refugees at Guantanamo in the past, said the United States has sidestepped the Geneva Convention of 1949. The Geneva Convention promises prisoners of war humane treatment, the right to refuse interrogation, and substantial legal protections. Koh cited the Geneva Convention in stating that “nobody in enemy hands can fall outside the law,” and called Camp X-Ray “a land without rights.”
The U.S. government justified its actions by arguing that the war on terrorism is a unique type of war, Koh said.
Koh said that the treatment of the detainees moved focus from the United States’ goals to criticism of its actions, giving allies reason to worry. Koh continued that China and Russia could choose to follow the example the United States set at Guantanamo Bay, by jailing innocent ethnic minorities in order to fight “the war on terrorism.”
Koh said he thought only four or five detainees have useful intelligence information.
Koh said the U.S. released four detainees in October and has become much more careful in the methodology of incarceration. Still, the U.S. committed to creating 200 more 8-by-8 chain-link cells through Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company.
Families of some detainees have brought lawsuits against the U.S. government. Koh said he was unsure any cases would reach the Supreme Court, but said he would keep following events at the base.
“There is nothing wrong with an American lawyer holding the U.S. to its best statutes and principles,” Koh said.
After the talk, Neeraj Arora LAW ’05 said he thought there should be a procedure to ensure the safety of detainees at the camp.
Engineering professor Jerzy Blawzdziewicz said he learned more about Guantanamo Bay and said he thought most Americans did not know enough about conditions at the base.