Written By: Zaid al-Alaya'a
Article Date: Jul 12, 2008 - 3:08:30 AM
David H. Remes is currently in Yemen pushing for the release of his Yemeni clients in Guantanamo.
David H. Remes is an American lawyer representing 15 Yemeni detainees in the United States’ military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He first went to Guantanamo in 2005 and this is his seventh visit to Yemen in an attempt to speak to officials to promote the cause and meet with the families of his clients. He considers himself to be half Yemeni and says that he is proud of it since he deeply appreciates Yemeni culture. He hopes to see an agreement between the United States and Yemen to help release his clients, whom he considers far from being terrorists. The Yemen Observer met with him last week and talked to him about the conditions and situations of his clients.
Yemen Observer (YO): What is your mission and what are your hopes in your seventh visit to Yemen?
David H. Remes:
I have two missions during my seventh visit to Yemen; first to meet the families of the men that I represent in Guantanamo and second, to do what I can to promote the cause of these men. This involves meeting with governmental officials, journalists and anybody that may help. I represent 15 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo who originate from Sana’a, Taiz, Ibb and Aden.
YO: Why do you think Yemeni detainees were not released like other nationals?
I value what the President of Yemen and the Foreign Minister have done to win the release of Yemeni detainees in Guntanamo. It remains a mystery to me why the US and Yemeni governments have not been able to reach an agreement regarding prisoners like other governments have. There are around 270 prisoners in Guantanamo, a third of them are Yemenis – close to a hundred. 90 percent of the Saudi detainees have been returned, Bahrainis have been returned, all Europeans have been returned, and many Afghans have been returned. The population is dwindling to the point where over a third of those remaining are Yemenis. They used to account for a much smaller percentage. So, there is something that is obstructing an agreement between the US and Yemen. Our frustration, mine and my colleagues’ who represent Guantanamo prisoners, is that all sides say the right things. The US Government says “we do not want to be the jailer for the world and we want to close down Guantanamo, we want to send as many men as possible home but we just have to make sure that when they return home they will not become a threat again.” This is what the US Government says is their main concern. This is what they say, but I am not sure about this. On Yemen’s side, they say “we want our men back but the US is imposing intolerable conditions, for instance by putting some of them in jail but without saying why.” The US wants Yemen to monitor them, re-educate them, rehabilitate them and make them see the errors of their ways.
YO: What do you think about the US demands to Yemen in order to release the detainees?
Most of the men in Guantanamo do not need to be educated or rehabilitated because they are not terrorists and they are not ideologically extreme. I say this because I know the men and I know their families. American officials have said that they have got the wrong men and half of the men do not belong here and are only the foot soldiers. I do not dispute that there are some there who may have engaged in very serious acts of terrorism against the US. Crimes against the US would consist of September 11, the attacks on US Embassies and the attacks to the USS Cole. One of my clients is Abdul-Slam al-Hailah. Is he a terrorist? He is a prominent businessman from Sana’a, very influential, very much respected, and well-connected. He was lured to Cairo where he was kidnapped by the Egyptian intelligence services and then turned over to the American services who took him to secret prisons in Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo. This is not a man who belongs in Guantanamo. There is an old man who we represent and that comes from Taiz; he only has one family member: his sister. He went to Afghanistan to simply help the Taliban spread the word of Islam. Americans do not believe that there are innocent explanations like that and forget about the many churches that have thousands of mercenaries preaching Christianity. So there is a double-standard there. We do not think there is something suspicious about a Mormon in Africa, but we think there is something inherently suspicious about a Muslim being in Afghanistan. Some men in Guantanamo went there to help the Taliban defend themselves against the Northern alliance, is that a crime against the US? Of course not. When the US declared the Taliban to be an enemy of the US, these men became enemies of the US by definition but not because of anything they did. They were there for a completely different reason. The same thing goes on for Yemenis and some Arabs who went to Afghanistan to teach the Qur’an.
YO: Do you think that the US policy has helped create a lot of enemies against it?
This administration of George W. Bush has been a disaster for the American people and for the people of the Middle East. Another client of mine is al-Warafi who runs a medical charity in Karachi and supplied medical charity to Afghanistan. He was seized in the middle of the night from his bed and then taken to Guantanamo. His crime was that he donated medicine to an Afghanistan charity that the US defined as a terrorist organization. This endless guilt by association is the reason that most of the men are held in Guantanamo. Bear in mind that US forces have only captured 12 percent of the men in Guantanamo. So in terms of direct knowledge of what the men were doing, there is just a small percentage of them that are known for their activities, the rest of the men were picked up by Afghan bounty hunters and Pakistani border guards. The US claims against these men are based on what these bounty hunters and border guards said. The US was literally pouring money into Afghanistan, millions and millions of dollars in cash. The CIA was driving around with the cash in the back of their trucks. Any Afghan can get at least five thousand dollars if he says that that man is a terrorist or that man was with al-Qaeda or that man was in a guest house that was run by the Taliban. So the US picked these men up indiscriminately, like fish caught in a net. Mr. Remes says that he does not dispute that there are some men there that you can accuse of concrete crimes against the US, but his aim is to find those men and bring them to justice and put them to trial; if they are guilty, then they are guilty. But this notion that the US has the right to tell people how to govern their countries, how to work out their political problems, is an approach that has failed time and time again. It failed for British in India, it failed for US in other countries. It is a neocolonial mentality. American leaders just do not learn from their mistakes.
YO: What is going to happen if the US continues sending men to Guantanamo?
A Russian philosopher said once “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This can be applied to the US in what happened to them in Vietnam, in Iraq. I never thought that I will live to see other wars like Vietnam but the Bush administration managed to recreate it.
YO: Who can see the detainees in Guantanamo?
Remes: Regarding who can see the detainees in Guantanamo, until 2004 it was only the military and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who cannot disclose any information about their visits.
YO: Can you tell us about what sort of punishment the US military used with the detainees?
Remes: One of the punishments that the US applies to Guantanamo detainees is to take them to a room and shave their beards off to obviously subject them to religious humiliation. I believe that the ICRC persuaded the US to put an end to this practice. This punishment was practiced by the Nazis against Jews in the 1930’s.The methods of interrogation that the US used in Guantanamo originated in communist China during the 1950s, according to US newspapers. Other punishments include deception, freezing temperatures, and forced nudity. It is astonishing that our government adopted the techniques of its bitter enemies that were criticized as torture. They also used brainwashing to get men say things that were false, things that the US government wants to hear. It is astonishing that the US took those tactics and put them to use in Guantanamo and in the CIA secret prisons.
YO: When did people begin to find out about what is happening in Guantanamo and who were the lawyers who went there?
Remes: Up until 2004, the only thing that the world knew about the men in Guantanamo was what the military chose to tell. The US government and the military in particular controlled the narrative. In the summer of 2004, the US Supreme Court issued a decision ordering the government to allow lawyers to represent prisoners in Guantanamo and bring their cases into federal courts to win the freedom of the men. My colleague Marc Falkoff was among the first lawyers who went to Guantanamo in the fall of 2004. I first went in February 2005. Since the lawyers started going to Guantanamo, we have been the only people from the outside world who have met the men, who got to know and understand the spirit and experiences of the men, and who can now provide an alternative presentation to that of the government. Providing counter-narratives to the government and lawyers becomes an opening for the world into Guantanamo so the world can hear about it and understand the outrageous crimes that were committed.
YO: What do Americans know and say about prisoners in Guantanamo? Remes: Americans do not know the men held in Guantanamo, and as far as Americans are concerned the men are vicious, barbaric terrorists. Well, we know the men and they are not. The US has constantly said that these are worst of the worst and will slaughter your throat if you let them out; this is simply untrue. We are the only ones who know the men and know what is in their files, we met their families and spent some time in some Arab countries and have much greater sensitivity to Arab culture and each of their national cultures. I consider myself half Yemeni as a result of being here seven times and I am proud of it. The people are wonderful, the land is beautiful and the food is delicious. So we have a view of the men, their families and the culture they have emerged from that gives us an understanding of the situation that very few other people have because they have never met the men. All that they know about the men is what the government has said about them.
YO: What do you personally think about the conditions that the US imposed on Yemen to release Yemeni detainees?
Remes: The conditions that the US has put on Yemen to release detainees should not be applied to most Yemenis as they have done nothing that will justify putting them under surveillance or re-education programs. Yemen objects to the terms the US put for the release as it goes against the Yemeni constitution.
YO: What advice would you give to the US and the Yemeni governments to solve the Guantanamo issue?
Remes: The piece of advice I can give to the US government is to separate the Guantanamo issue from all the other issues between the US and Yemen. I strongly believe that part of the problem in reaching an agreement is that other factors are involved. For example whether the Yemeni Government is cooperating with the US Government in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing, whether the Yemeni Government is doing enough internally to deal with al-Qaeda. The Guantanamo issue should be separated as we are talking about some 92 lives. The second thing about the US is that it must not impose conditions that will require the Yemeni government violate its own constitution. Yemen is a very poor country and the US is a very rich country. Figuratively speaking, the US probably spends more in two days of war in Iraq than what it would cost to fund ten years of security in Yemen. I would say that Yemen should not be quite proud of its deals with the US, not stand on ceremony. I say that nothing should stand in the way of reaching an agreement between the US and Yemen because the Yemeni detainees are paying the price. My conviction is that negotiation should not be difficult; we are talking about 92 lives, 92 families. I again believe that half of the reasons why it is so hard to resolve this issue, is that the Guantanamo issue is tied up with other issues between the US and Yemen. The question we should ask here is whether the US is to play the role of the world’s policemen. One of my clients is a Pakistani who is a green card holder in the US and met his wife in 1979; she also has a green card. He became a businessman and ran a TV station in Urdu for the Pakistani population in the US and he also has a travel agency. He went into partnership with an American businessman. He is a very educated man. He was lured to Bangkok and arrested, ending up in Guantanamo because he was dealing with some people who the US considered as enemies. During the trial he told so to the court, and when they say that they are fighting a global war on terror he simply responded that you – the US – are not the master of the earth.
YO: What is your motivation for doing this work?
Remes: I want to say that we are doing this work without any compensation and I am not saying that to make us look like saints; this work we do comes from pure conviction, pure commitment to the problem of our clients.
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