Witness Against Torture Trial: Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives

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CommonDreams.org

Witness Against Torture Trial: Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives

by
Joy First

When I talk about my work in nonviolent civil resistance, working for peace and social justice, I always tell people that we are never acquitted by a judge at a bench trial.  No matter what the facts are, judges will always find us guilty.   I tell people that only a jury of our peers will acquit us and we don't often have a jury trial.  I have had two jury trials in 29 arrests and have been acquitted in both of those trials.  However, I will not be able to say that anymore as 24 activists were acquitted during a bench trial with Judge Russell Canan in DC Superior Court on June 14, 2010.  You can definitely expect the unexpected when you go to court.

I have been participating with Witness Against Torture (WAT) (www.witnesstorture.org) for the last several years to close Guantanamo and end torture by the U.S. government in Guantanamo, Bagram, and other black hole sites around the world.  We went to trial on June 14 after being arrested in an action organized by WAT on January 21, 2010, the day by which President Obama had promised that he would close Guantanamo.

In this action 28 activists lined up outside on the steps of our United States Capitol wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods.  They were holding large banners reading "Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives".  These 28 individuals, practicing their First Amendment rights, were arrested for standing in a public space reading the names of the men who are being detained in Guantanamo. 

Inside the rotunda I joined 13 other activists in honoring and memorializing three men who died in Guantanamo in 2006.  After they died in 2006, we were initially told by the military that they committed suicide.  However, evidence came out this past January that they were tortured to death by the military at Guantanamo.  Because of this, we decided that part of the group would go inside the rotunda and hold a prayer service for these three men who were murdered.  We brought with us a banner that we laid on the floor in the center of the rotunda where president's lie in state.  The banner read, "We mourn Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani."  Carmen spoke about the crime to tour groups and staff who were in the rotunda and others gave a short biographical description of the lives of these men who were murdered.  We sang, "Courage Muslim brothers.  You do not walk alone.  We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home."  These men were killed by our government. We were committed to honoring and memorializing these men, in a prayerful and respectful manner. For our action inside the rotunda, 14 of us were arrested. 

Though Obama promised that Guantanamo would be closed by January 21, 2010, it is still open today.  There are about 200 men still being detained in Guantanamo.  Many of them have been cleared for release and they are still being held.  Many of them have not been charged with any crime in eight years of detention and they are still being held.  Some of them are on hunger strikes and they are being force-fed in a manner which amounts to torture.  But it is not only Guantanamo.  The situation has become much worse in Bagram where torture by our government continues, and in other black hole sites around the world.

And so we continue to find ways to get this story out.  We continue to try to hold our government accountable and call on them to end these illegal actions.  We do these actions in the spirit of, and following the principles of nonviolence that have been handed down by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and others.  We do not do these actions to get arrested.  We are exercising our First Amendment rights and following our obligations under Nuremberg.  If we do not speak out as our government continues to be involved in criminal activities, then we are complicit. 

So as we celebrate our acquittal, our spirits are dampened as we remember those still suffering at the hands of our government around the world, and we recognize that this is a small victory.  As Attorney Bill Quigley, legal adviser to the defendants and the Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said after the trial, "With his decision, the judge validated the effort of the demonstrators to condemn the ongoing crime of indefinite detention at Guantanamo."  And we know that we must and that we will continue our struggle for justice.

Since our arrest in January, a number of activists paid a fine rather than go to trial.  At the end we had 24 activists who went to trial on June 14 to defend our First Amendment rights and to shine a light on the continuing torture by our government.  As usual, we would go pro se, meaning we would be defending ourselves.  We do this so that we can speak for ourselves about what we were doing and why.  We had three attorney advisors working with us.  Ann Wilcox has been working with us for a number of years and we deeply appreciate all the hours she has put in.  We were very happy to welcome Mark Goldstone back.  He has been away for about a year and it was good to be working with him again.  We felt very fortunate to have Bill Quigley join our team.  Bill is a nationally known attorney.  He has represented some of the men being illegally detained in Guantanamo and his expertise in this area was invaluable. 

We spend a couple of months preparing for trial through conference calls and email.  Members of the group volunteer for different roles in the trial and we individually work on those pieces.  I volunteered to give the closing statement.  It is a lot of work to get ready for trial.  The final planning session and trial rehearsal was a meeting at St. Stephen's church on Sunday, the day before the trial started.  I flew out to DC early Sunday to be there for the planning meeting.

It was difficult leaving home because I wasn't sure when I was going to be returning to Madison.  There were quite a few people who thought we might get some jail time for this action.  I think that being separated from my husband, Steve, is the most difficult part of this work I am involved in.  I travel to DC several times a year.  But I know how much Steve loves me and I know how committed he is to supporting my work.  And I know that whenever I come home he will be waiting for me with loving and open arms.  His love sustains me.  I also think about the many men still being illegally detained in Guantanamo.  They have been there for over eight years and not only have they not seen their loved ones in that time, but communication through letters and phone calls has been extremely limited, and in some cases nonexistent.

The planning meeting at St. Stephen's on Sunday afternoon and evening was long and intense, but it went very well.  I was tired after getting up at 4:00 am to catch my plane.  We talked about some general trial strategies, and then went through a trial rehearsal step-by-step.  I was able to read my closing statement to the group.  When the meeting was over, I think most people were feeling prepared and committed to continuing our struggle to end torture in the courtroom the next day.

On Monday morning, we met at the Navy Memorial metro stop and formed a procession to the courthouse.  We were all dressed in black.  We carried three black coffins in memory of  Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, the men who were murdered by our government in Guantanamo.  Three members of our group were dressed in orange jumpsuits with black hoods and carried a sign with the name of each of the three men.  Outside the courthouse, we held a press conference with Bill Quigley, Kathy Kelly, and Carmen Trotta speaking to the group.

The trial was scheduled to start at 9:30 am.  Once we were seated in the courtroom, there were some preliminary matters to deal with before the trial started.  Most notably, Bill Quigley argued a motion we had entered for an acquittal, but if we were not acquitted he argued that we would be allowed to use international law and the necessity defense.

I hadn't been feeling too anxious up till then, but when we sat down in the courtroom and the judge began dealing with some of the preliminary matters, I could feel the anxiety rising in my stomach and moving up to my chest.  A couple of defendants had not shown up by the 9:30 start time and we had to deal with that.  Judge Canan had to ask the defendants a series of questions to make sure we understood that by going pro se we were giving up our right to an attorney.

Judge Canan then asked the prosecutors if they had developed their theory of the case and if they understood what it meant to be charging us with breach of the peace, a part of the unlawful assembly statute.  The two young women, who turned out to be very inexperienced and naïve, said they were ready to proceed to trial.  They said that they were not required to prove that we DID cause a breach of the peace, but that we COULD HAVE caused a breach of the peace.  They said that we were loud and boisterous, a key element they pulled from the statute, and that we were blocking others from moving freely. 

Mark Goldstone stood up and told Judge Canan that he believed that under the unlawful assembly charge, the government is required to prove that we DID cause a breach of the peace.

My anxiety melted away when Bill began his arguments on the motion for acquittal and if not acquittal, that we be allowed to use the international law and the necessity defense during the trial.  I was looking forward to hearing Bill as he is a national figure and very well known as the Legal Director for the Center for Constitutional Rights.  His arguments were so eloquent and moving.  He laid the whole thing out brilliantly and really spoke to the essence of what we were doing and why.  When he was done, it seemed like we could just go home because he had said it all.

In his conclusion, Bill said that if we act as if there is the possibility for change, change will come.  He said that we were acting for that possibility for change on January 21st.  Finally, he said that it is a sad fact that in our culture today, we have the tendency to adjust to injustice.  The outrageous and criminal actions that are perpetrated by our government continue.  We, as citizens, become more complacent every day in the face of this malfeasance.  We must show our outrage and demand change so that we are not dragged down into the depths of despair.

The judge was very interested in what Bill had to say and asked a lot of questions of Bill throughout his presentation.  The judge seemed to lack a real understanding of the issues and was willing and anxious to learn from the expert standing before him.

Art gave a stirring follow-up to Bill's arguments.  He said that any treaty is the supreme law of the land according to the constitution.  What is at stake is people's lives.  People have died.  He reminded the judge that we were acting on behalf of these prisoners who have not had their day in court after being held for over eight years.  We have the legal as well as the moral right to present evidence on international law. 

Others also spoke to this motion, but after listening to everyone, and after taking a short break to consider the arguments, Judge Canan denied the motion.  It was a blow to hear his decision, but not unexpected.

The trial began and after the opening statement by the prosecution, the government attorney's called several police officers as witnesses to provide evidence for their case.  The officers recounted what happened on January 21, but it was clear by the end of their testimony that they could not prove we were loud and boisterous, a key element needed for us to be found guilty.  Malachy and Claire were the pro se defendants who did most of the cross examination of the prosecution witnesses and they did an excellent job.  A couple of the officers specifically stated that we were not loud and boisterous.

When the prosecution rested their case, Beth and Paki made a motion for judgment of acquittal  They said that the government did not prove their case and so we should be acquitted at this point.  We've never been granted a motion for judgment of acquittal at this point in the trial.  We have always had to present our case, and I didn't expect anything different this time.

But this time Judge Canan began to quiz the prosecutors.  He said that he had asked them what their theory was at the beginning of the trial and what it meant to charge us with breach of the peace.  He said that now it is an issue because the prosecution did not prove that we had breached the peace.  The judge said that according to case law, in a breach of the peace individuals use words that could incite violence.

Judge Canan reminded the prosecutors that in the original charging statement we were charged with unlawful assembly, but the government only used part of the unlawful assembly statute in the charging statement.  This was the section on breach of the peace and being loud and boisterous.

After the judge and the prosecutors argued back and forth several times the government said they wanted to use the whole statute at this point.  This was absolutely ludicrous that they would ask for a change in the charging statement AFTER they had rested their case.

After giving the prosecution several chances to try to state how they could save their case, Judge Canan said that he would give them one more chance.  After one more attempt by the prosecutor, the judge said that we were not properly charged and he would grant the motion for judgment of acquittal.

We were stunned.  This kind of victory was unprecedented for us.  There was speculation that the judge wanted to acquit us after Bill Quigley's passionate argument before the trial began.  We thought maybe the judge was just looking for a good excuse to acquit us.  And of course we will never really know what was going on in the judge's mind, but we were all very happy to win for a change. 

I thought I would be in DC for at least a week, but the trial was over in one day.  I stayed an extra day to make a visit to Rep. Tammy Baldwin's office and talk to a senior aide about several matters, including upcoming supplemental funding for the war, and asking what she could do in the wake of the Israeli armies attack on the Gaza freedom flotilla.

I flew home on Wednesday morning, and today I am sitting in my garden writing this report, rather than sitting in jail.  As happy as I am to have my freedom, I think about the men who are still in Guantanamo and have been illegally detained without being charged with any crime, and without having their day in court for over eight years.  What will our next step be in continuing the struggle for their freedom?

My grandchildren are the light of my life.  I would do anything for them.  But as the years pass, and as I continue this work in nonviolent civil resistance, I realize more and more strongly that as a grandmother I must reach my arms wide to embrace all the children of the world.  And so as I think of my own grandchildren and what kind of a world this will be when they grow up, I also think of the children whose fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and uncles are in Guantanamo.  What is it like for these children who have not seen the men who love them for eight long years?  I think of the children of Iraq whose lives have been devastated by the illegal and immoral war of aggression that we have been waging on their country.  I think of the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan who don't even feel safe in their own beds at night as they lie there listening for the drones that could destroy their lives.  I think of all these children and know that I must do everything I can to try to make the world a better place for them.  I will not be deterred - and so our struggle continues.

Joy First, PhD, is a long-time peace activist. She is convener of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance. She is also affiliated with Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice and Madison Pledge of Resistance.

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