The families of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Britain, France and other European countries came together with their lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other human rights groups to launch the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission.
The commission is the brainchild of actress Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin Redgrave. It has been launched primarily on behalf of 20 European citizens and five residents of Europe detained at Guantanamo Bay.
But the campaign in aid of the Europeans will be only a test case for securing rights for the rest, says Greg Powell, lawyer acting in support of Ruhel Ahmed’s family.
“The European initiative is not finally on behalf of the European detainees,” Powell told IPS. “The object is to bring the rights of all Guantanamo Bay detainees within a proper legal purview.”
There are now an estimated 660 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay without trial. A court of appeal in London described their condition in November 2002 following a submission on behalf of the prisoners as a “legal black hole”.
Fourteen months later the prisoners remain in the legal black hole, solicitor and professor of law Philippe Sands said at the launch of the human rights commission at Parliament House in London Tuesday.
Many have been held in circumstances similar to those in which Ruhel disappeared. “All we know is that he went to Pakistan to attend a wedding along with three others,” Ahmed’s father Rais told IPS.
“We still do not know how they came to be in U.S. custody. Someone told us they were handed over to the Americans by the Northern Alliance, but we do not know,” he said.
Ruhel was 19 when he was detained two years ago.
Nor does the family know in what state of mind and health Ruhel is in at present. “We have not had any letter from him for the last four months,” he said.
So it is with many other detainees. Azmat Begg, father of Mozzam Begg told media representatives that the family have had no letter from their son for the past six months.
The last time Mozzam wrote to his father, it was to say that he was being kept in isolation, and taken out only for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening, Azmat Begg said at the parliament meeting.
“Our children are crying day and night, his wife cries, his mother cries, I am running everywhere,” Azmat Begg said. And now there was just silence from Guantanamo Bay, he said.
“Clearly this is not a coincidence,” Powell said. “As we are hearing that some of the detainees will be brought to trial, the families are losing contact with the detainees.”
Of the nine British citizens held at Guantanamo Bay, there have been reports that two will be brought to trial. But several conflicting reports have arisen, some suggesting that the United States is considering sending the British detainees back to Britain.
“Our information is that the Americans want to send them back but it is the British government, particularly Home Secretary David Blunkett who does not want them back,” Louise Christian representing Feroz Abbasi, one of the two British detainees who could be brought to trial said at the launch of the commission.
The immediate objective of the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission is to put pressure on the United States to treat the prisoners according to the standards of U.S. and international law. The long-term aim is to end all forms of internment without trial.
The commission is finalising plans for a visit to Washington by the families and lawyers of prisoners, to be hosted by ACLU. The visit due early in March is intended to coincide with the U.S. government filing its brief on the issue.
The ACLU was a part of a broad-based coalition that filed a “friends of the court” brief calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to give an assurance that detainees have access to courts to challenge the legality of their detention. That hearing is scheduled for early March.
“Given the urgent trans-national concerns at stake, the ACLU welcomes the opportunity to work with the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission to ensure that all governments honour the rights of all individuals of all nationalities,” ACLU president and professor of law at New York Law School Nadine Strossen said in a statement issued at the London meeting.