(Inter Press Service)
“My name is Ahmed Mohammed,” she told police after her arrest outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington in January. Last Thursday, in a courtroom in Washington, DC, she has—at her own insistence—been charged under that name, although her real one is Sherrill Hogen.
"Torture is a product of a sick society, of leaders bloated with power and fear, and is the antithesis of human goodness, compassion and love,” Hogen told the DC Superior Court, “I don’t think I have a choice about where to put my energies."
Hogen, a 69-year-old retired social worker, was arrested in front of the Supreme Court building while protesting against the indefinite detention of the alleged terror suspects at the U.S. military base in the Cuban territory of Guantanamo Bay.
Like 34 other activists who took part in the protest on the doorstep of the Supreme Court building on January 11, Hogen is now facing trial on minor criminal charges ranging from "unlawful free speech" to disorderly conduct.
"We came to the Supreme Court building because it has jurisdiction over the [primary] issue about which we knew there were violations of justice," she said to the judge last Thursday. "[That is] the denial of habeas corpus to the prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo."
Ashley Casale, a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, expressed the same sentiments.
"I am 19—the youngest person in this courtroom—and I come on behalf of all the prisoners at Guantanamo who were younger than I am now when they were detained," she said in her statement before the court.
"According to the U.S. Constitution," she went on, "we have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and Guantanamo Bay prison is beyond grievous."
Michael Foley, a professor at the City University of New York, who teaches students about the U.S. Constitution, said: "[If] you told me that the defendants would be arrested for ‘unlawful free speech’ just 20 feet from where the justices decide First Amendment cases, I’d say you were crazy."
During the trial, 13 of the 35 activists had dressed in orange jumpsuits to express their solidarity with the Guantanamo prisoners, who have been denied their own day in court.
All the activists are representing themselves at the Superior Court trial, which began last Tuesday.
On January 11, a day that marked the start of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay some six years ago, Matthew Daloisio, one of the defendants, gave his name as Yasser Al Zahrani, a 22-year-old Yemeni national who was picked up at the age of 17 and held in a Guantanamo prison cell. Zahrani was never charged nor tried; in desperation, he apparently killed himself on June 10, 2006.
Daloisio and many of his colleagues who were detained after the January protest were not carrying identification cards and refused to give their real names, instead using the names of Guantanamo prisoners.
Bill Pickard, 61, a Catholic priest from Scranton, Pennsylvania, is one of those who adopted the name of a Guantanamo prisoner for official record. He will be tried as Faruq Ali Ahmed.
"I went to the Supreme Court to make a simple plea that the inhumane treatment and actual torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay stop," Pickard said. He said he went to bring attention to the name and the humanity of Ahmed, who claimed that he traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 simply to teach the Koran to children and that he had no affiliation with the Taliban or al Qaeda.
"He cannot do it himself," said Pickard, "so I am called by my faith, my respect for the rule of law, and my conscience to do it for him."
In his statement, Daloisio told the judge: "As we stand before you today, we are aware that in the five months since our arrest, we have made it further in the criminal justice system than these men have in over six years," referring to the plight of Guantanamo prisoners.
According to witnesses, the judge began to interrupt Daloisio once, but then let him complete his statement.
"We understand that you, Judge Gardner, are not the reason Guantanamo is still open," Daloisio said. "It may be beyond your power to summon the men whose names appear on this court’s docket from their Guantanamo cells to face their charges and their accuser … to have their day in court.
"We mean no disrespect in our position towards this trial," he added. "But we will not participate."
After reading the statement, Daloisio and 12 other defendants remained silent for the duration of the trial.
Daloisio said he and the others on trial were pro se defendants, and thus declined to be represented by an attorney. "We will not exercise our rights when our country continues to deny the rights of others," he said.
Daloisio, Hogen, and the 33 other activists are facing charges related to "speeches, objectionable language … and assemblages" on Supreme Court grounds. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail, as well as fines and court fees.
Witness Against Torture, a group that organized the January 11 protests, said its campaign has drawn substantial support from a number of faith groups and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
In April, Amnesty launched a unique nationwide campaign for the closure of the Guantanamo prison. Its activists are going city to city with an exhibit depicting actual-sized replicas of the Guantanamo cells. The group said it arranged the prison cell exhibit because most citizens don’t understand the inhumane conditions that prisoners at Guantanamo are enduring while they remain uncertain about any possible trial or release date.
"The government has made it impossible for people to get to Guantanamo to see this, so we wanted to bring a bit of the reality to the public," said Amnesty USA’s executive director, Larry Cox. "To stand inside this cell gives them some sense of the psychological hell of being held in a box for years."
Despite protests by human rights groups and international condemnation, the Bush administration continues to defend indefinite detentions by saying that Guantanamo is outside U.S. territory so constitutional protections do not apply to those held there. That argument has been consistently challenged by U.N. experts and human rights groups at home and abroad.
Currently, there are about 270 inmates being held at the Guantanamo prison. U.S. military authorities say they have plans to prosecute about 80 of them.
Haider Rizvi writes for the Inter Press Service.