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BookBrowse Reviews My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan

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My Guantanamo Diary

The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

by Mahvish Khan

My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan X
My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 320 pages
    Jun 2009, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lesley Marshall
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About this Book



A female lawyer reports from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay

In My Guantanamo Diary, author Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, daughter of Afghan immigrants, takes the reader into the lives of the detainees of Guantanamo Bay. As an interpreter and part of the law team for the detainees, the author's point of view is one of a fact finder, but as she speaks and gets to know the prisoners, it turns into one of sympathetic listener, confidant and friend.

Habeas corpus is the law under which detainees can petition for relief of unlawful imprisonment. The legal teams that represent the prisoners are referred to in the book as habeas counsel. The habeas counsel encountered many hurdles in gaining access and time to defend their clients. On occasion, they were made to stand and wait outside in the full sun for up to two hours before being allowed in to talk with the detainees. In 2004, the lawyers were permitted to visit their clients up to sixty-three hours per week, but as time went on, the number of days and hours per day for client lawyer visits shortened considerably.

The author states that there are dangerous prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, but most of the people she interviewed she believes have been wrongly jailed. Some of these people include:

  • A pediatrician attempting to rebuild the Afghan community
  • A journalist hoping to get a great story
  • A businessman involved in a money matter gone wrong
  • An eighty-year-old grandfather defending his son from being arrested
  • And a rural herdsman who was feuding with his cousin over water.

Soon after the September 11th attacks, the United States posted rewards in Pakistan and Afghanistan offering up to $25,000 for the capture of individuals associated with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.  This created opportunities for shady individuals to make some cash. According to Tom Wilner of Sherman and Sterling law firm, 86% of the detainees he interviewed had been seized in Pakistan and sold into captivity for bounty monies.

The prisoners' stories abound with tales of torture and inhuman treatment. Regular beatings to the head and body, sleep deprivation, extended periods of standing, being stripped naked in front of female soldiers and full cavity searches are reported by many of the detainees. On a daily basis, prisoners' legs were chained to their cell floors, and the men were placed in a seven by eight foot cage or left in solitary confinement with no light or windows for days on end. Many detainees attempted suicide and went on hunger strikes, disheartened by their daily treatment, the lack of justice and the belief that they would never be released.

The author takes a trip to Afghanistan to collect evidence on behalf of the detainees she and the habeas counsel are representing. During her visit, she marvels at the beautiful landscape of the country and the detainees' families treat her with great hospitality. Yet, they are devastated by their loved ones continued unjust imprisonment and in some cases, their untimely deaths.

Throughout the book, facts are given and stories are told. In general, the author seems to be compassionate to many of the Afghan detainees. Only after reading the book, can one mull over the facts, do further reading and decide what really has taken place at Guantanamo Bay.

Habeas corpus (Latin for "you may have the body"), also known as "The Great Writ", is a law that requires a person detained by authorities to be brought to a court of law so that the legality of his detention can be examined. The name is taken from the opening words of the writ (law) in medieval times.  The Habeas Corpus Act was enshrined in British law by Parliament in 1679 but is thought to have been in common law for many years before, possibly as far back as the pre-Norman conquest Anglo-Saxon era.  It's original use was as a writ to bring a prisoner into court to testify in a trial.  What began as a weapon for the king and courts now offers protection to the individual against arbitrary detention by the state.

The right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus is one of the fundamental safeguards of individual liberty but, in most countries, the procedures of habeas corpus can be suspended in time of national emergency.  The November 2001 Presidential Military Order gave the US President the power to detain terrorist suspects as unlawful combatants, who could be held indefinitely without charges being filed and without entitlement to a legal consultant. Many legal and constitutional scholars contended and still contend that this is in direct opposition to habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights.

In June 2008, the Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush recognized habeas corpus rights for the Guantanamo prisoners.  However, just a few weeks later, the 4th Circuit Court gave the President the power to arrest and detain U.S. citizens on native soil indefinitely.

The Guantanamo Bay Military Prison
Since the beginning of the current war in Afghanistan, it is estimated that about 775 detainees have been brought to the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; of which approximately 420 have been released without charge.

Some US officials have claimed that some of the released prisoners returned to the battlefield having tricked their detainees into believing they were innocent villagers.  One released detainee, Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi, did commit a successful suicide attack in Mosul in 2008.  In January 2009, The Pentagon said that it had evidence that 18 former detainees had direct involvement in terrorist activities and a further 43 had plausible links; but according to CNN analyst Peter Bergen, some of those 'suspected' of returning to terrorism are so categorized because they publicly made anti-American statements, "something that's not surprising if you've been locked up in a U.S. prison camp for several years."

On January 22, 2009 the White House announced that President Barack Obama had signed an order that would shut down the prison in Guantanamo Bay within a year.  The challenge now facing the US is where to house the long-term prisoners who are genuinely dangerous, and how to find homes for the prisoners who have been cleared of charges but who cannot be returned to their own countries for fear of ill-treatment.  About 50 of the remaining 240 prisoners fall into this category, including the Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs), a Muslim ethnic minority who were cleared for release in 2004 but cannot return to their home in the far west of China.  The men were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan but they claim they were never enemies of the US but were simply fleeing Chinese oppression (a valid concern in the light of this week's violence, some might say massacre in Urumqi). Last month, four Uighurs were resettled in the British territory of Bermuda, and the Pacific island nation of Palau has agreed to take the remaining thirteen.

For a brief history of the Guantanamo Bay military base, see the sidebar to Dan Fesperman's The Prisoner of Guantanamo Bay.

Reviewed by Lesley Marshall

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2008, and has been updated for the July 2009 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Afghan Culture and Customs

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