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Congressional Hearing Calls for Urgent Solution for Refugees Imprisoned at Guantánamo

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First Ever Testimony by Former Guantánamo Detainee to U.S. Congress;
Attorneys Testify on Behalf of Imprisoned Men

Contact: press@ccrjustice.org

May 20, 2008, WASHINGTON, D.C. — Guantanamo attorneys, experts, and – for the first time - a former detainee today testified to Congress to call for a solution for the approximately 50 refugees still imprisoned at Guantánamo and unable to be safely repatriated to their home countries. Witnesses testified to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight about the mistakes of Guantanamo.

Witnesses included Murat Kurnaz, released from Guantánamo to Germany after five years of wrongful imprisonment; Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who has previously described his experiences of command pressure in Guantánamo’s military tribunals; and Sabin Willett, an attorney for some of the 17 Uighurs still imprisoned in solitary confinement only because they cannot be safely repatriated to China and the United States has refused to accept them or find a safe third country for them. This is the first time that a released Guantánamo detainee has ever testified before the U.S. Congress.

The U.S. government cannot safely or legally return approximately 50 detainees to their native countries for fear of torture. These men are from countries like China, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Many have been cleared for release by the U.S. months or years ago. So far, neither the United States nor European or other countries have been willing to give them safe haven. In fact, the U.S. has already sent 40 detainees back to countries that are known for human rights abuses – including Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt – without any process in place to determine whether they should not have been returned.

Attorneys have called on the U.S. government to do more to secure safe haven for these men. They called on the U.S. to review their asylum applications, or to invite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct refugee status determinations for these men. Many of these men remain inexplicably in solitary confinement at Guantánamo. Witnesses called for these men to be removed from solitary confinement urgently.

“These men are in a desperate situation. They sit alone in a cell day after day, year after year. The only reason that they remain is because no country is advocating for their safe release. This is one more horrific example of how Guantánamo makes a mockery of justice,” said CCR Staff Attorney Emi MacLean, who testified at part I of the hearings before the subcommittee on May 6. “Our client Abdul Ra’ouf al Qasim is one of these men. The U.S. has tried to return him to Libya – acknowledging that he should not be imprisoned at Guantánamo. We prevented his transfer to torture, but now he remains in prison with no solution found to allow him to return to a normal life, which is all he has ever wanted.”

Former Guantanamo detainee Murat Kurnaz spoke via video of the troubles he faced as a prisoner with no government initially advocating for his release. Documents show the U.S. knew he was innocent and kept him for five years. A German resident of Turkish parents, he was virtually abandoned by both Germany and Turkey until a new German administration began to press for his release. Like the refugees still imprisoned, Mr. Kurnaz’s prolonged imprisonment was a result of politics. He recently released a book chronicling his experiences, Five Years of My Life. Mr. Kurnaz will be available for comment after the hearing.

Lt. Colonel Stephen Abraham, U.S. Army, Reserve (Ret.), was the first member of the military directly involved in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals to come forward and speak about their political nature and the fact that they are designed to get the results desired by the Department of Defense. He sat on a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that classified a detainee as a non-enemy combatant, yet was ordered to reconvene the tribunal for a “do-over.” He refused and never served on another tribunal. The detainee who he classified as a non-enemy combatant remains imprisoned at Guantánamo today after more than six years of imprisonment. Lt. Col. Abraham is widely credited with encouraging the Supreme Court to reverse itself to hear the most recent Guantanamo case challenging the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act and its stripping of the right to habeas corpus.

Others testifying today included:

• Mark P. Denbeaux, Esq., Professor of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law, author of numerous reports on Guantanamo;

• Clive Stafford Smith, Esq., Director, Reprieve, attorney for many detainees; and

• P. Sabin Willett, Esq., Partner, Bingham McCutchen, attorney for a number of Uyghur detainees who are refugees imprisoned at Guantánamo because no country has accepted them within its borders.

This is the second Congressional hearing on this issue and was called by the Subcommittee Chair Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA).

“The damage from Guantanamo goes well beyond the pain and suffering of these individuals and their families. It has dealt a severe blow to America’s image in the world that will take decades to overcome,” Rep. Delahunt said. “It is time for our government to correct these mistakes and design a system that reflects our values and embraces the rule of law.”

Detailed profiles of Guantanamo’s refugees, testimony and further information can be found at the CCR Guantanamo refugee page.

CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for the last six years – sending the first ever habeas attorney to the base and sending the first attorney to meet with a former CIA “ghost detainee.” CCR has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country in order to represent the men at Guantanamo, ensuring that nearly all have the option of legal representation. CCR represented the detainees with co-counsel in the most recent argument before the Supreme Court on December 5, 2007.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.