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Mothers of Iran's Detainees Fare Better Than Parents of US Detainees

by Nancy Talanian
Yesterday the mothers of three American hikers, ages 27 to 31, visited their children whom the Iranian government has held for ten months as suspected spies. Press were present at the reunion, and they interviewed both the mothers and the captives, who said they have been treated very well and are able to spend time together every day. Read Los Angeles Times article here. Their mothers hope to take their children home, and I personally hope the mothers get their wish.

But I also want other mothers and family members to get their wishes, too. I'm thinking of nearly 200 men whom the US is currently imprisoning at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, most for more than 8 years. The US is also holding more than 600 men and women in Bagram prison, Afghanistan, with even fewer rights and privileges than their Guantánamo counterparts, and an unknown number held in secret prisons around the world. No family members, friends, or journalists have ever been allowed to visit or interview any of these men and women in US custody, and their detentions have been devastating for their families in other ways. For example, Tina Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network, who has filed cases on behalf of some of the Bagram prisoners without being permitted to meet any of them, reports that many of the Bagram prisoners' children have literally been starving to death while their families' only breadwinners, their fathers, have been in US military custody.

Back to Guantánamo. Its inmates have been as young as 12 and as old as 93. Many of the men have lost parents and other family members while in captivity, and like their Bagram counterparts, sometimes the absence of the family's breadwinner was the cause of death. For example, the youngest child of Guantánamo captive Adel Hamad, born while her father was imprisoned, died because her family could not pay for the medical care she needed. Ironically, her father was working as a hospital administrator at the time of his capture.

Some parents lost loved ones who died in the prison by suicide or other cause. Still other parents hold on to hope that they will see their loved ones held at Guantánamo before they die. Many of the prisoners' families had to wait months or years just to receive any news of their loved ones--whether they were dead or alive and, if alive, where they were.

Unlike the three American hikers who wandered into Iran and are held in that country according to its laws, the men held at Guantánamo never wandered into the US and were sent to Guantánamo, Bagram or secret prisons with a goal of skirting US and international laws--working on the "dark side," as former Vice President Dick Cheney called it. Most Guantánamo detainees have been cleared for transfer, some for many years, and only a handful have ever been charged for any crime, let alone international terrorism. Their wrongful capture and lengthy imprisonment were the result of a series of blunders. For example,

  • The vast majority were sold to the US military for promised bounties of about $5,000 per head--a fortune to poor villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who sold charity workers, visiting doctors, travelers, refugees, and even neighbors and relatives against whom they held grudges, to collect the bounties.
  • The competent battlefield tribunals that the Geneva Conventions require, which are meant to distinguish combatants from innocent bystanders, never took place.
  • When interrogators weren't getting useful intelligence from detainees, most often because the people they were interrogating had no terrorism connections, they adopted so called "enhanced interrogation" methods, labelled "tantamount to torture" by a Red Cross official, which produced false confessions and false accusations that were then used to justify continuing to hold many of the detainees.
  • The Bush administration and Congress prevented the prisoners' challenges under the writ of habeas corpus for more than six years, until the Supreme Court upheld that right in 2008.

The habeas petitions of prisoners already held for more than eight years are finally working their way through the US District Court in Washington, DC. So far, the judges have ordered the government to release 35 of the 48 men whose cases they have reviewed, ruling that the government hasn't enough evidence to meet the low evidentiary hurdle required to justify their continued detention. More than 10 of the 35 men ordered released are still at Guantánamo.

The majority of Americans is certain that everyone the US government has ever held as a terrorist at Guantánamo, Bagram or elsewhere is in fact a terrorist, no questions asked, and wants them held indefinitely--far away from them. Many of them hide their fear with bravado, labeling anyone who supplies information that conflicts with their understanding as fools and denying the prisoners any right to be charged and tried or released.

I ask them to consider, if for no other reason than the safety of Americans, whether they will judge the Iranian government on how they treat three American hikers and their families. Surely the world judges the US government on how it treats its foreign terrorism suspects and their families.

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