NEW YORK - Thirty-five anti-torture activists charged with minor crimes after a protest at the U.S. Supreme Court have entered their names before a Washington, DC court as those of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"I am here on behalf of Yasser Al Zahrani," Matthew Daloisio told a Superior Court judge in his defense Tuesday. "Through our actions on Jan. 11 at the Supreme Court and then this continuation through the trial we hope to chart a course for the men at Guantanamo that is straight and clear."
Thirteen of the 35 activists appearing before the Superior Court were 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 Tuesday.
On Jan. 11, a day that marked the start of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay some six years ago, Daloisio was among those protesting in front of the Supreme Court. When arrested, Daloisio 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 Jun. 10, 2006.
Like Daloisio, many others detained at the Supreme Court in January were not carrying identification cards and refused to give their real names, instead using the names of Guantanamo prisoners.
Father 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 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 refused to be represented by an attorney. "We will not exercise our rights when our country continues to deny the rights of others."
Daloisio and the 34 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.
The trial is due to continue through the rest of the week.
Witness Against Torture, a group that organized the Jan. 11 protests, said its campaign has drawn substantial support from a number of faith groups and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
Last month, Amnesty launched a unique nationwide campaign for the closure of the Guantanamo prison. Its activists are going city to city with an exhibit depicting replica Guantanamo cells.
The group said it arranged the prison cell exhibit because most Americans don't understand the inhuman conditions that prisoners at Guantanamo are suffering from while they remain uncertain about any possible trial or release.
"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 the U.S. territory so constitutional protections do not apply to those held there. That argument has been consistently challenged by UN 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.
Amnesty said it hopes the new campaign will help build further pressure on the Bush administration to reconsider its policy on extrajudicial detentions. Recently, the groups' initiatives helped secure the release of Al-Jazeera photojournalist Sami al Hajj.
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