Friday, April 22, 2011

Seattle church campaigns to free Guantanamo prisoner

Adnan Latif was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Pakistani authorities .arrested him, his supporters say.

Nine years later, it seems he’s still in the wrong place: detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Soldiers there keep him isolated in a psychiatric ward and frequently beat him, according to his lawyer, David Remes. Because Latif joined a hunger strike in 2007, they also continue to force feed him through his nose.

In August 2010, a judge ruled there was no evidence that Latif, originally from Yemen, had ever raised a hand against the United States and ordered his release. But the Obama Administration has appealed the order and is fighting to keep him locked up.

Local activists are now fighting back, hoping to free a man they say is not only innocent but also mentally ill, the result of an earlier accident, or perhaps, incarceration.

“I’m outraged that he’s being so badly treated and there’s no justification for it,” said Betty Blakney, co-chair of University Temple’s social justice committee.

Members of University Temple United Methodist Church have taken up Latif’s cause and started a letter-writing campaign for his release. They also plan to meet with their members of Congress about Latif’s case.

Forty-one church members signed a March 27 letter to Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jim McDermott urging they take action to release Latif, who was 24 at the time of his arrest. They plan to ask other University District churches to do the same.

Political realities

David Remes, Latif’s attorney in Washington, D.C., said he welcomes the effort. But he and Jamie Mayerfeld, a political science professor who teaches a course on Guantanamo Bay at the University of Washington, say political barriers stand between Latif and freedom.

Foremost among them: President Obama has continued the Bush Administration policy of indefinite incarceration without trial, Mayerfeld said.

Of the 779 people who have been incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for suspected terrorism since it opened in 2002, only a half-dozen have been convicted, Mayerfeld said. Today 172 people remain at the prison. Of these, 57 are Yemenis cleared for release by the Obama Administration.

In an email, Lt. Col. Tanya J. Bradsher, a Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed 172 detainees are housed at Guantanamo Bay, approximately half of them hailing from Yemen.

But Latif and his fellow Yemeni prisoners can’t get out because they have nowhere to go and no way to get there. President Obama banned returning any Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Yemen in January, after the Christmas Day incident in which a Yemeni man tried to blow up an airliner. Then Congress passed a law prohibiting the transfer of any Guantanamo Bay prisoner to any country, Remes said.

“Adopting” a prisoner

Latif first came to the attention of the University Temple community after several church members attended a workshop on torture at Garfield High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Professor Mayerfeld led the workshop and raised the idea of churches “adopting” a prisoner by writing letters. University Temple members followed up with Mayerfeld, who suggested Latif because his case is so egregious.

In 1994, at the age of 18, a car accident left Latif with a severe head injury and blindness in one eye. His family was destitute, so the government of Yemen paid to send him to Jordan for an operation, Remes, his lawyer, said.

The operation was only partially successful, however. In 2000, Latif met a man who promised him free medical help in Afghanistan. He was arrested near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan border in 2001 after the U.S. invasion, Remes said, and his life has been a living hell ever since.

As a result of his head injury or his incarceration, Latif is mentally ill and suffers from a number of physical ailments, Remes said. From many hunger strikes, he weighs less than 100 pounds and has to wear what’s called a suicide smock because he’s tried to kill himself so many times.

When he gets out of control, a prison response team in black riot gear beats him until he’s subdued, Remes said. Bradsher, the Pentagon spokesperson, declined to comment on Latif’s condition.

Defining torture

Torture is a loaded term, said Remes, who represents 17 other Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo. But the conditions are clearly cruel, inhumane and degrading violations of the Geneva Conventions.

Latif should be released, he said. The Department of Defense recommended it in 2004, the Bush Administration approved it in 2007, and the judge ordered it last year in response to a habeas corpus petition, Remes said.

“It’s incomprehensible they’re holding this poor man and that [the Obama Administration is] continuing to fight for the right to hold him.”