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Lawyer speaks on behalf of Guantanamo prisoners

The World Today - Tuesday, 9 September , 2008 12:38:00

Reporter: Eleanor Hall

ELEANOR HALL: At its height, the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba held hundreds of
Afghan prisoners, most of whom weren't charged and many of whom have now been released.

But until an Afghan-American US law student decided to offer to translate for them, they were left
languishing for years without any way to communicate with the lawyers they were finally allowed to
see.

That law student is Mahvish Rukhsana Khan and she has now written a book about her experiences
called My Guantanamo Diary. She joined me earlier in the World Today Studio.

(to Mahvish Rukhsana Khan) Mahvish Khan, you decided that as an Afghan-American and as a law
student you could play a role with the prisoners at Guantanamo. You became a translator; what did
the Afghan prisoners do before you arrived?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: They were not able to meet to with their attorneys, because there was nobody
who spoke Pushtu, which is the primary language in Afghanistan and so there was no communication
between attorneys and their Afghan clients before I got involved.

ELEANOR HALL: So how many years was that?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: Attorneys got involved at Guantanamo in 2004 and I got involved in 2006, so
two years.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, tell us about that first day that you walked into the US detention centre in
Cuba. You weren't given access to the highest security prisoners, but what were you expecting when
you went to meet your first accused terrorist?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: I was expecting to meet a terrorist, somebody who, you know, liked to blow
things up and didn't like women and I was scared and I was nervous. I remember walking into the
meeting room and I'd covered my hair because I didn't know who I would be meeting and a man who
looked just as nervous as I was, but the more I learned about him, the more I realised that I'd
come in with some biases.

ELEANOR HALL: What sort of biases?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: Well I went in expecting to meet a terrorist or somebody who was Taliban and
wouldn't necessarily get along with me, and I walk into the meeting room and the guy smiles at me,
and I smile back and gave him the universal Islamic greeting which translates to 'may peace be upon
you', and he responded and we shook hands and I found out he was a paediatrician. He worked for the
United Nations, his wife was an economist and he was a Shi'ite Muslim, which were a persecuted
minority under the Taliban.

And so this paediatrician, Dr Ali Ashad (phonetic), was actually fleeing the Taliban to Ian for the
entire Taliban's regime and yet there he was being, accused of working with the Taliban.

So it just made no sense of why he was there, and he was never charged with anything, and so I was
surprised and just felt a little deceived by what I had expected coming in and what I met.

ELEANOR HALL: How freely were you able to talk to the Afghan prisoners?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: Freely, like conversationally.

ELEANOR HALL: And did they tell you that they had been tortured?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN : Dr Ali Ashad told me that he had been beaten, paraded naked, abused, sleep
deprivation, stress positions. The second prisoner I met was an 80-year-old man who was paralysed
by two strokes that he suffered about 15 years before he was brought to Guantanamo on a stretcher.
And he also spoke about beatings and he had his arm broken in one of these incidents.

ELEANOR HALL: Now you say that you felt deceived; you quickly formed the view that the prisoners
you met were fairly ordinary Afghans and that something must have gone wrong in the system for them
to be there. Tell us about what you then found out about the role that money played in the capture
of many Afghans.

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: Well I went in under the assumption that they must have done something wrong
to have gotten there, and when I learnt about the bounty system and the leaflets I understood how
these mistakes were made.

The US military air dropped thousands of leaflets all across Afghanistan, offering up to about
$25,000 or sometimes $5-million per Taliban or al-Qaeda member, and that kind of money is like
winning the super lotto jackpot in Afghanistan because the average Afghan makes about 80 cents a
day, which is like $300 a year, and added to that Afghanistan is a very poor country riddled with
tribal, political, ethnic feuds, and people turned their enemies in.

These conflicts go back generations, and when we added this money into the mix, it created this
black market for people to turn one another in and the US military failed to investigate what
locals were saying about one another.

ELEANOR HALL: Did it surprise you that the US military didn't go further, once it had captured
people through this system?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: It did surprise me, it shocked me. Because we have such great intelligence
and so many resources, it surprised me that investigations weren't conducted.

ELEANOR HALL: You were able to help many of these prisoners; you visited some of them when they
returned to Afghanistan. Were you surprised when you went there that they weren't particularly
hostile to the US soldiers that were in Afghanistan?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: I was, because if I had been in their position, I might have been less
forgiving for what I had experienced, but a lot of the men were simply just so happy to be home.
Haji Nusrat, the 80-year-old was released and the first thing he asked was whether I could help him
get a visa to come to the United States for medical treatment, and I was surprised that he wanted
to return to the US, and he quickly said that he didn't believe that the US had acted maliciously
and that it was probably a local who had turned him for money.

ELEANOR HALL: There's a common view that the US treatment of Muslim prisoners has fuelled anti-US
sentiment and even terrorism, but the prisoners, if they are coming out with stories like that that
they didn't blame the US, they blame local Afghans, does that mean that the whole US prisoner
torture scandal may not end up being as damaging for the US as many have feared?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: I don't know exactly how that will play out, I am sure that it has fuelled
anger against the United States for what they've done to so many people. My personal anecdotal
experience with these men is that they are generally happy to have been released.

It surprises me a lot, because they had been picked up from their country, taken to this lawless
black hole and held their for years, away from their families, not knowing whether they would every
go home, and when they were released, a lot of them were angry. And it shocked me.

ELEANOR HALL: You say that they were very relieved to be home, but these are prisoners that have
been away from home for many years. Tell us about the doctor again, was he not angry that he'd
missed his eight-year-old daughter, as she was, when he left her growing up?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: He was depressed, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder now, he
sleeps in the foetal position. I didn't see his anger. Perhaps he deals with it privately. He has
opened up a clinic and he practices medicine again, he is a paediatrician. I didn't see an anger in
the sense of you know taking arms or hostilities but I am sure he deals with that, and he
definitely is suffering with his experiences at Guantanamo.

ELEANOR HALL: How has the whole experience of meeting these people affected you?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: It has affected me profoundly in that these men, they were such dignified
people in the most deprecating environment, and they were hopeful and often had senses of humour,
and it taught me a lot about the human spirit.

ELEANOR HALL: Why do you think they had hope?

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN: I guess not to have hope is probably a hard thing, I mean, they clung to it,
they clung to anything from home, you know, photographs, and it was their way of persevering, I
believe.

And, you know, when you pick somebody up from their home and imprison them for seven years and then
release them without ever charging them or trying them, it damages them and I've never advocated
that I believe everybody at Guantanamo is innocent, although innocent is a strange word because
when you don't charge somebody of anything, what are they innocent of?

And yet only a fair trial can separate the good from the bad, and I've simply advocated that giving
them a fair trial and treating them humanely is the way to proceed.

ELEANOR HALL: Mahvish Khan thanks very much for joining us.

MAHVISH RUKHSANA KHAN : Thanks for having me.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's Afghan-American, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan; her book about her experiences
with Afghan prisoners is called My Guantanamo Diary.