Young Activist Fights For Detainee Rights At Guantanamo

Recent Columbia graduate has been exposed to the 'incredible injustice that's happening down there.'

Imagine imprisonment without being charged, without being told of the evidence against you, without being able to stand trial, and with no end in sight to your detention. Add to this the fact that you spend up to 23 hours a day in total isolation and rarely see daylight. Right now, this is the situation of nearly 400 men at the United States' Guantánamo Bay detention center on the coast of Cuba.

Guantánamo has been an American military base since the early 1900s. After 9/11, the U.S. began to use the location as a detention center for terror suspects, initially shipping 20 men from Afghanistan to the base in January 2002. These men were kept outdoors in large cages, in a temporary facility called Camp X-Ray, where they were often made to wear goggles, breathing masks and noise-canceling headphones. Classified by the Bush administration as "enemy combatants" rather than "prisoners of war," detainees are considered to have none of the basic human rights outlined under the Geneva Convention. They are also being denied the fundamental right, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, of habeas corpus — the right to challenge your imprisonment in a court of law.

Not until 2004, after pressure from advocates — and, in particular, the nonprofit legal organization the Center for Constitutional Rights — were lawyers allowed into Guantánamo to meet with detainees. Created during the civil-rights movement in the '60s, the CCR is now very active in the fight for international human rights and coordinates some 500 attorneys around the country to provide legal representation for about 300 of the men remaining at Guantánamo.

MTV News followed CCR paralegal and recent Columbia graduate Susan Hu, 22, through her average workday on behalf of the Guantánamo detainees. A self-confessed "big science nerd," Hu became hooked on the Guantánamo project after interning with the CCR her senior year. "I wasn't born politically conscious," she said. "It was just this chance encounter with the CCR that really opened my eyes to the incredible injustice that's happening down there."

(Watch Susan Hu talk about what she discovered at Guantánamo Bay and why she's fighting for detainee rights.)

While Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2002 that the detainees are "the worst of a very bad lot ... devoted to killing millions of Americans," evidence has yet to back up his claim. In fact, many of the men were brought in during a period immediately after 9/11 when the U.S. was offering a $5,000 bounty to anyone who could turn over a suspected terrorist — clearly a large sum for villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, only 8 percent of the detainees captured have been labeled as al Qaeda fighters by the government, and officials have stated that less than one in four has any intelligence value.

After more than five years, only 10 detainees have ever been charged and none have been tried.

In spite of how inefficient and controversial the system has been proven to be, the Bush administration does not plan to shut down Guantánamo anytime soon: As recently as January, a new wing called "Camp Six" was added. According to attorneys who have visited the premises, conditions at the camp include such extremes of isolation that they meet the international community's definition of torture.

"Really the only people these men communicate with are the guards who put the food through the slots in their cells three times a day," CCR attorney Wells Dixon said. "Then, when they're taken out for recreation once a day, oftentimes at night, they're taken to a very small area where they can essentially pace around by themselves. They never see the sun. There are tremendous mental-health risks."

For the Guantánamo detainees, their only link to the outside world is through attorney meetings. "That's the reason why it's so important to keep up these visits," Hu said. "Because going into their sixth year of detention, these men lose hope of what the U.S. court system can really do for them. So part of working at CCR is being a social worker, being able to go down there and just talk to them."

Beyond legal counsel, the lawyers are their only chance at news of family members — "It is amazing if you're able to bring down a photograph of a child of one of the men that they've never seen before," Hu said. Dixon, for one, makes an effort to bring food to his client meetings — Turkish delight sweets for the older men, and pizza and Coke for the younger detainees, some of whom were as young as 15 when they were first captured.

Dixon says the very fact that the U.S. is detaining men without charges and hope of a fair trial is damaging to the country. "Guantánamo is literally a rallying cry for al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq," he said. "Even in friendlier nations in Europe, they point to Guantánamo and say, 'The U.S. can no longer be revered for its human-rights record and its commitment to the rule of law — look at Guantánamo.' "

So what is the solution? According to the CCR — and numerous critics abroad — the detention center must be shut down.

"Guantánamo is a failed institution," Dixon said. "It has not succeeded to our knowledge in preventing any terrorist attacks and it stands only as a symbol in the world of mismanagement in the war on terror. There's no reason why the U.S. can't take that small population of detainees that has actually done something wrong and put them on trial in the U.S. There's no reason to deny them fair trial, to deny them access to counsel. It's really a simple question about what kind of nation we are, what kind of people we are. Are we the sort of nation that really does live up to those values that we cherish — the rule of law, democracy, fair dealing? Do we hold those values simply as ideals, or do we really mean it? And if we mean it, do we mean it for everybody?"

As for Hu, who recently made her very first trip down to Guantánamo to meet with five detainees, she will continue her work on the project. "I never thought that I would be doing all that I'm doing now," she said. "I never considered myself political — I never felt I could hold my own in my politics classes debating about this stuff! But I've come to realize that if there's one issue that's important to you, you really need to pursue it."

Go here to read Susan Hu's day-by-day journal of her first visit to Guantánamo.

Go here for more on Hu and her work with the CCR.

Go here for more on the CCR and its Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative.