Two weeks ago, after 24 members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture were cleared of charges of "unlawful entry with disorderly conduct," stemming from demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2010 (the date on which President Obama had promised the closure of Guanta'namo), representatives of Witness Against Torture, other campaigning groups and the Center for Constitutional Rights met with Portia Roberson, the Director of the Office of Public Liaison at the Department of Justice, to discuss their grievances, and to provide suggestions for how the administration might regain the moral ground that it has steadily lost since the President made bold promises to close Guanta'namo and bring torture to an end, which have subsequently been betrayed or compromised, in order to move away from "entrenching policies inimical to the Constitution and American values."
I've cross-posted below a report on that meeting, plus a copy of the letter submitted by Witness Against Torture, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Defending Dissent Foundation, No More Guantana'mos, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International and Voices for Creative Non-Violence, which provides an excellent round-up of the problems with the Obama administration's failure to thoroughly repudiate its predecessor's "War on Terror" policies, and to hold accountable those who committed crimes in the name of national security.
Activists meet with Justice Department official
On Tuesday, June 15th -- a day after the acquittal of Witness Against Torture members in D.C. Superior Court of charges stemming from a January protest -- a coalition of groups and individuals met with Portia Roberson, the head of the Office of Public Liaison at the Department of Justice.Our goal was to express our frustration with detention policies under the Obama administration and articulate steps we'd like to see the Justice Department take. The letter we submitted to DoJ, which outlines those steps, is attached [I've posted it below].
The meeting included Richard Sroczynski, Matt Daloisio, Helen Schietinger, and Jeremy Varon from WAT; Sue Udry from Defending Dissent; Leili Kashani (Education and Outreach Director) and Bill Quigley (Legal Director) from the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Orlando Tizon from the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International.We were honored to have, as late additions to the meeting, Syed Anwar Hashmi and Jeanne Theoharis. Syedis the father of Fahad Hashmi, a student from Queens, NY, who spent over 3 years in severe pre-trial solitary confinement at the MCC prison in New York City. He was accused of housing a suitcase with waterproof socks and rain ponchos that were delivered to a terrorist organization in Pakistan. Fahad continues to be subject to draconian "special administrative measures" (SAMs) that create conditions of detention amounting to torture [Note: Fahad Hashmi received a 15-year sentence for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization on June 10].Jeanne Theoharis, Fahad's academic advisor at Brooklyn College, has done extensive work to publicize Fahad's plight, rally support on his behalf, and expose the unjustifiable brutality of SAMs.
The meeting was both interesting and constructive.Ms. Roberson conveyed repeatedly that she appreciates our disappointment and anger even, and was very intent on learning more about our point of view.She was particularly impressed that we are not, for the most part, professional human rights advocates but instead "everyday people."Her message was that she'd love to advocate, internal to DoJ, on our behalf. She would therefore like from us documentation supporting our position and demands.She also expressed a strong willingness to have a follow-up meeting.
We were both gracious toward Ms. Roberson and honest about our upset. We certainly appreciate the openness to dialogue.We will provide the materials she requested, and pursue additional meetings with her and others in DoJ.That said, actions speak far more loudly than words, and we insist on real changes in policy, not simply expressions of sympathy. We made all this clear, representing our position with both force and dignity.
The most moving portions of the meeting were hearing from Orlando, as a torture survivor, about the need for accountability, and from Mr. Hashmi about the nightmare his son and the entire family have endured.Ms. Roberson appeared personally touched by this.
The consensus in the group was that we should pursue things with DoJ as far as they will take us.Whatever her sympathies, Ms. Roberson does not set policy. Others in the Justice Department have staked out deeply disturbing positions on various matters -- from indefinite detention to the use of Military Commissions -- knowing full well the objections of our community.It will be interesting to see if we will be granted a hearing with those at DoJ responsible for policy, and if any aspect of our demands will be met.
Many thanks, everyone.
Jeremy Varon, Witness Against Torture
Witness Against Torture's Letter to the Department of Justice
Ms. Portia Roberson
Director of the Office of Public Liaison
United States Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001
June 10, 2010
Dear Director Roberson,
We appreciate the discussions with your office over the last months, as well as your agreeing to meet with us on June 15. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department has appeared more open to dialogue than previously, and we value this change. In advance of the meeting, we would like to outline our concerns and the steps we urge the Department of Justice to take.
Who we are:
We represent some among the countless Americans sick at heart at U.S detention policies who are determined to see them change. We have worked at the grassroots level for the closure of the detention camp at Guanta'namo, the release and resettlement of men detained in error, an end to U.S. torture, and accountability for those who designed and carried out torture policies. We have assiduously followed intricate policy and legal debates. We have learned the stories of men detained so as to plead their cases publicly. We have advocated for justice in the face of official hostility and public fear. And we have supported those in government who have sought to end extra-legal detention, immunity for state crimes, and the cruel and degrading treatment of others. Our guiding belief is that lawful and moral detention policies are essential both to U.S. security and to being a good and just society, worthy of its ideals.