Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, is the founder and director of Witness to Guantanamo, a project that works to document the realities of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Since the project began in 2008, Honigsberg and his team have visited 20 countries and interviewed 136 people, including prison guards, interrogators, medical personnel, lawyers, military and government officials, chaplains, relatives and 50 detainees.
Last month, Honigsberg spoke about his project at a talk hosted by the Duke Human Rights Center and the Rubenstein Library. The Chronicle’s David Wohlever spoke with Honigsberg about Witness to Guantanamo, human rights and the possibility of the camp being closed.
The Chronicle: What is Witness to Guantanamo, and why do you think it matters in today’s national discussion?
Peter Honigsberg: We want to document Guantanamo Bay through the voices of the people who were there, who worked there, who lived there and who were otherwise involved. It is important that the world know what happened in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, especially the human rights abuses and rule of law violations. Unless we can document the abuses and violations from the voices of people who were there, people will never know exactly what occurred.
TC: In the interviews and the information that you’ve uncovered, what are some of the most striking things that you’ve learned about Guantanamo?
PH: For many of [the detainees], the psychological horror and psychological torture that they experienced were far more severe and long lasting than any physical beatings. Psychological torture includes long-term isolation and something called the frequent flyer [program]. In the frequent flyer program, officials would move the detainees from cell to cell every two to three hours, for a period of two to three weeks.
These abusive treatments, along with sleep deprivation—where detainees were kept awake 20 hours at a time—were all done to break the prisoners. Detainees often told us that even though they did not have any physical scars on them when they were released, they would carry psychological scars with them for the rest of their lives.
In my research and interviews, we have also discovered that many of the men who were released were not doing well in the countries where they were transferred. Many of them were not really having productive lives—they were not getting counseling, health services, psychological services. In addition, they often were not familiar with the culture or the language.
TC: Do you think there is anything the American people might not understand about Guantanamo?
PH: I think people should know that 85-90 percent of the men in Guantanamo were purchased by the U.S. military. The people were captured by Afghan and Pakistani soldiers, and then sold to the Americans for somewhere between $3,000 and $30,000 each. Studies using U.S. data have shown that nearly all the people in Guantanamo were either not a threat at all or low-level soldiers. The few people in Guantanamo who are serious threats were brought to Guantanamo later on, so the image that people have of Guantanamo is often very different from what actually existed in the prison.
TC: What do think that this project can do to educate the public or influence policy change?
PH: Well I hate to say this, but many people—most people from what I can gather—either think Guantanamo is closed, do not care about Guantanamo, or do not think about it. Hence, politicians do not have any interest in addressing the issues. I think journalists need to reach out to the public and have them understand that the rest of the world points to Guantanamo as a blight on the American system. If that message is heard, people will think differently and will try to convince their representatives to shut down Guantanamo. We are a small project in San Francisco, and do not have the financial backing we need to be able to get that message to the public.
I think that if you want to make changes in policy, you need people who are able to reach the media and encourage the media to pay attention to the damage that Guantanamo has caused to America’s image. Other organizations like the ACLU and Amnesty International—they are large human rights organizations. They have impact with the media, and when they bring up issues the media often listens. But even there, if they bring up issues on Guantanamo, the media often does not pay attention. Guantanamo is just not an important issue to the media.
TC: What do you make of President [Barack] Obama’s efforts to shut down Guantanamo, and are you at all optimistic about the possibility of Guantanamo being shut down in the near future?
PH: Initially, [Obama] could have closed the detention center because he had a Democratic Congress behind him. Unfortunately, there was some resistance from the military and there was resistance elsewhere, and Obama did not stand up to the resistance. I think in the last few years he has been much more active in trying to make a difference. He released 13 people in the last month, all transferred to other countries. He is pushing in the last two years to close Guantanamo, more so than he has done in the past.
Whether he’ll succeed, I do not think so because there’s still too many people in Guantanamo that cannot be transferred out to other countries, and the U.S. Congress does not want him to transfer the people into the U.S. He also only has a few months left in his tenure, so I don’t think it is going to happen. But he is certainly trying, and I give him credit for that. And if he can get Congress to agree to move approximately 50 men to prisons in the U.S., then he will be able to close Guantanamo. I just don’t know if he can do that.
I should also add that in 2008, when Obama was running for office, both President George [W.] Bush and Republican candidate John McCain advocated that Guantanamo should be closed down. So it was pretty universal among both parties that Guantanamo should be closed, and then politics changed that later on.
TC: Do you think that closing Guantanamo should be a policy priority for future leaders?
PH: From our research, we have learned that many people around the world see Guantanamo as a black stain on America, and they point to Guantanamo when we criticize human rights in other countries. Along those lines, I will add that a number of the detainees we interviewed told us that when they were first sold to the U.S., they were thrilled. They thought that they would get their day in court. They believed that they would get due process. They understood from what they knew about America that America would treat them well, according to the rule of law.
They were shocked to find that America did not provide them due process, and instead kept them incarcerated for years, sometimes for 14 years, without charges. When they found that America would not seriously review their cases and consider whether they should be released or not, they were very disappointed in America. I think the world has always seen the U.S. as a beacon of human rights and an adherent of the rule of law. As long as Guantanamo Bay remains open, we are not that beacon.