Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Shame of Guantanamo Exposed in Cuba by Medea Benjamin


“This is the closest I have been to my son in almost 5 years,” said Zohra Zewawi, the mother of Guantanamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, as she stood in front of the gates of the prison on the Cuban side. “On the one hand I feel incredibly sad that I am so close but can’t see or hold him; on the other hand I am happy because focusing the world’s attention on this shameful place might help get my son out of prison.”

While protests were happening all over the world to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the first prisoners taken to Guantanamo on January 11, 2002, a group of us traveled to the city of Guantanamo to bring our protest close to the gates of the US prison. The group, organized by CODEPINK and Global Exchange, included U.S. activists such as retired US Colonel Ann Wright, peace mom Cindy Sheehan, mother of 9/11 victim Adele Welty, and constitutional lawyer Bill Goodman. But the most compelling members of the delegation were three people most directly affected by the prison: Zohra Zewawi and Taher Deghayes, the mother and brother of a current prisoner; and Asif Iqbal, a former prisoner who spent 2 ½ years locked up in the cages of Guantanamo.

Zohra Zewawi and her son Taher Deghayes traveled all the way from Dubai to shine light on the plight of Omar Deghayes. Omar had been captured in Pakistan in September 2002, accused of being an enemy combatant. While his family is convinced that Omar never committed any crimes and was picked up merely for the $5,000 bounty the US military was offering, they were not in Cuba to plead his innocence. “We are simply asking for due process and fair trials for my son and all detainees at Guantanamo,” said Zohra.

This is not the first time tragedy has befallen the Deghayes family. Zohra's husband, a labor lawyer in Libya, was killed by the government of Col. Omar Qaddafi. Zohra fled to England to raiser her five children. "The dictator Qaddafi tortured and imprisoned my husband; now the U.S., a country I thought was civilized, is doing the same thing to my son," she said.

The other member of the delegation most directly is Asif Iqbal, who was captured in Afghanistan when he was 20 years old. Asif and the two friends imprisoned with him, all from Tipton, England, became known as the Tipton 3 and their plight became the subject of the powerful docu-drama Road to Guantanamo.

“Most of the people in the prison in Guantanamo are simple farmers or villagers from Afghanistan who were sold to the US to get a $5,000 reward,” said Asif. “Many of them never heard of Al-Qaeda, although under torture some, like me, might have confessed to things they knew nothing about.”

This was the first time such a delegation had come to Guantanamo to protest the prison, and the residents of Guantanamo, horrified by the shameful reputation their city has gained, greeted us with open arms.

Teachers from local high schools flocked to the all-day conference we held on January 10 to hear about prison conditions. Their hearts went out to Zohra Zewawi when she talked about longing to see her son, and to Adele Welty, US mother of a firefighter killed on September 11, who insisted that she didn’t want her son’s legacy to be the abuse and false imprisonment of other mothers’ sons. The local people packed the 1,000-person theater in Guantanamo to see the movie Road to Guantanamo. They gave a standing ovation to the co-director Matt Whitecross and the protagonist Asif Iqbal and afterwards stood transfixed, not wanting to leave the theater.

On the day of the march, January 11, we started out in the center of town, decorating the caravan and practicing our songs and chants. We drove to a town near the base, La Glorieta, then walked to the gate of the military zone. The opening service was officiated by our Cuban host Reverend Raul Suarez, head of the Havana-based Martin Luther King Center, and attended by other religious leaders from the province. The ceremony included testimonies, a reading of the names of those still imprisoned, placing flowers on the military fence, singing and chanting. There was press from all over the world, including AP, Reuters, BBC and live feeds from CNN, Al-Jazeera, Telesur and Cuban television.

For the people of Guantanamo, our visit gave them insights into the horrors of the prison, but hope that people around the world are working to shut it down. “My city used to be known for Jose Marti’s beautiful poem and the song Guantanamera. It pains us that now we’re known worldwide for the infamous prison on the US base,” said Eneida Leiva Molina, head of the Guantanamo Friendship Institute. “We hope that once this anniversary is over, people will continue to work to shut the prison down.

Taher Deghayes, whose brother remains behind bars, made a poignant call to the American people. “Now more than ever, after the tragic events of September 11, America needs to be the leading example of how we should treat all human beings—with dignity, respect and due process for all,” he said. “I would like to appeal to the American people to fight for and uphold the values that once made America admired and respected around the world.”

Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org) is the cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange.

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