Steven Macpherson Watt, the lawyer battling the Bush administration over the detainment of ‘enemy combatants’ at Guantanamo Bay, speaks about his uphill fight for justice.
The view from Steven Macpherson Watt’s lower Manhattan office doesn’t compare to the rural idyll of his former home just north of Inverness, Scotland – but he doesn’t have time to gaze out of the window anyway.
For the past two-and-a-half years Watt has worked at the cramped offices of the scrappy left-leaning public-interest group, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, in New York.
Based in Lower Manhattan, the firm is a far cry from the super-sized law giants that take up the skyscrapers looming opposite.
Yet the small but dedicated team and their attempts to navigate the complex legal maze surrounding the rights of Guantanamo detainees has given the Bush administration one headache after another.
Two weeks ago the organisation was celebrating a breakthrough victory – a landmark Supreme Court ruling that appeared to give the remaining 595 remaining detainees or “enemy combatants” at the US naval base the right to a hearing in a US court. But just days later the familiar frustrations set back in when the administration designated nine more prisoners as being eligible for trial before a military commission, including yet another of their clients.
Thirty-seven-year-old Watt, who has been based in America since shortly after the September 11 attacks, says the adminis tration has already had to release about 140 detainees, admitting they were “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time” when they were picked up.
“Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has publicly admitted this,” explains the Scot. “While other statements from US officials have cited one in three detainees could offer no useful information. It’s been incredibly frustrating for us”.
It was on the back of statistics like these, not to mention fundamental human rights, that Watt and his colleagues challenged America’s right to detain these so-called “terrorists” without charge or access to independent legal representation.
“Let the US government present their information to the courts about what these people are supposed to have done,” he says. “If they are guilty of anything then there will be a basis for their detention and the courts won’t let them go, if there’s no basis they should be released.
“We don’t even want a trial, just a fair hearing so they can put forward their claims and those claims assessed by a neutral tribunal in a federal court so the evidence can be weighed accordingly and a judge, not the executive, can decide whether or not these guys should remain in Guantanamo.”
According to Watt, most of the inform ation held by human rights organisations about detainees, including their version of events, is derived from family members and months-old, heavily-censored letters from the detainees themselves.
Indeed, Watt was so frustrated by the lack of detail that he went to Yemen in March to meet 34 families of Yemeni nationals being held at the base.
“When I met the families in Yemen, I found myself apologising for the behaviour of the US administration,” he says.
“I asked them what they thought of us. They told me that before their relatives had been taken by the Americans and incarcerated they had held every respect for the US and had aspirations to travel there and be part of the country.
“Now they have no time for America or what it stands for. They can’t point to the US as being a bastion of human rights when what’s happened to their relatives would not have happened back in their home country.”
Watt says the ongoing episode has left a mark in the minds of many in the Arab world and believes this anti-American sentiment is likely to affect successive US administrations down the line for many years to come.
“I saw cartoons in the newspapers in Yemen showing the West crushing the Arab world and Abu Ghraib-like images featuring detainees inside Guantanamo. It has done untold damage to us. I can’t and don’t want to imagine what would happen if the US executed a detainee after a military tribunal.”
There are people from many different countries and hailing from all walks of life at Guantamo. However the jobs, backgrounds and nationalities of those picked up around the world and imprisoned at Guantanamo seem to hold little sway with the US administration or its decision to hold them, Watt says.
“There are 12 Kuwaitis in Guantanamo who US forces picked up as they were doing relief work in Afghanistan. It’s part of their culture that if you come from a wealthy Muslim country you go and help your poorer neighbours by doing humanitarian work for a year or so – that’s what they were doing, but they got caught up in the fog of war.
“Kuwait has influence with America, but the US has no favoured nations when it comes to reviewing the status of detainees – see Britain’s example. Other countries have appeared to simply wash their hands of their nationals at Guantanamo, like Australia, which has two citizens there.”
At the end of June it was reported that three prisoners have been charged and last week it was announced a fourth suspect is also to stand trial. Yet Watt says the prisoners are “hardly the worst of the worst”. Of the first three he says: “They were Osama Bin Laden’s chauffeur, someone who made bad videos [an alleged ‘communications director’ for the al-Qaeda network] and Australian citizen David Hicks who was involved in a conspiracy charge. Looking at the charge sheet, it’s debatable whether this it even constitutes an offence under the laws of war.
“You would have thought they’d present the worst of the worst first. In Iraq, the first person in front of a tribunal is Saddam Hussein. But, in Guantanamo, the US is putting up David Hicks, a foot soldier from Australia with someone who drove Osama bin Laden around in his car. It’s like putting Hitler’s secretary up as the first person at the Nuremburg trials.”
The threat posed by many of the prisoners at Guantanamo and the danger they pose if released is in the main part negligible, argues Watt.
“I sat in an interview room with Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal [two of the British detainees] for an hour in Oxford in March and it was a real pleasure – I didn’t have any fears while sitting with them.
“It was a very emotional meeting because for two-and-a-half years I had only seen pictures of them. It was so sad – here are two guys in their mid-20s who have had over two years of their lives taken from them as they sat rotting in a jail cell in Guantanamo Bay.”
Did the reasons they’d given for being in Afghanistan warrant their detention during the conflict? Watt appears to sidestep the question, replying: “Nobody deserves to be treated like that.”
He continues: “At the very least, the detainees could have been given prisoner of war rights under the Geneva convention.
“The Britons who have been released shouldn’t have been treated as members of any armed force, they were quite clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“If they had been given access to a court within weeks of their detention as they should have been permitted, I think any judge would have found they should not have been detained in the manner they were, and released them.”
Some groups advocating on behalf of Muslims since September 11 have been threatened with violence by US nationals. While Watt admits to having been targeted, he is quick to cast off his detractors’ prejudices off as “misguided”.
“When we first filed these cases we had hundreds of hate-filled e-mails and telephone calls – diatribes on how we can call ourselves Americans and we can represent ‘those terrorists down there who flew planes into the World Trade Centre’ interspersed with expletives, expletives and more expletives.
“But we have seen a decrease in the quantity of those sorts of e-mails over the past two years as citizens have become better-informed. We’ve had a lot of com plimentary e-mails too – not just from law professors or academics – but also from people on the street saying ‘Thank you for taking this or that case’.”
Watt says the blame for the current situation lies squarely on the Bush administration’s flagrant disregard of the law, rather than within the US public’s attitude.
“This is a great country. When the system of checks and balances is in place and referred to as it should be, you couldn’t hope to be in a better place. The recent decision of the Supreme Court and the reassertion of the rule of law shows this is not another government dictatorship and that’s enormously encouraging. There are a large number of people in this country who support that proposition.
“As for us, we’re just trying to make sure everyone who deserves a chance gets it.”