They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.
Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?
Excerpt from a poem by Adnan Latif
Mark Falkoff, ed., Poems from Guantanamo, University of Iowa Press, 2007.
The man who wrote this poem died Sept. 10 in his prison cell at Guantanamo at the age of 36 of causes as yet unknown.
As I write this column, I have just read the announcement of his death on the wire services. I cannot get him out of my mind. I recognize this man’s name; I know his face, his story, and even his poetry.
His story has been featured for several years on the website of Witness Against Torture.
I’ve stood with fellow WAT activists in Lafayette Park in front of the White House while we read his poem, one of many written by men imprisoned in Guantanamo and published through the efforts of pro bono attorneys who represent them.
We have asked the public: Is this man your enemy?
Eleven years ago Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif was picked up by Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border and turned over to the US for a $5,000 bounty.
Like hundreds of others picked up in the chaos as people fled bombs at the start of the Afghanistan War, Latif was flown thousands of miles away to Guantanamo without examination of any evidence for his detention.
He spent nearly three years in isolation, interrogated hundreds of times before he got his first status hearing in 2004. The Department of Defense determined that Latif was “not known to have participated in combatant/terrorist training.” Still he was held.
In both 2006 and 2008 the military recommended that he be released. Yet again, in 2009, a detainee task force under President Barack Obama approved him for transfer. Still he was held.
In 2010, Judge Henry Kennedy granted his habeas corpus petition. The Justice Department appealed, however, and in 2011 the D.C. Circuit Court overturned the ruling. In June of this year the Supreme Court declined to hear his case.
And now Adnan Latif is dead.
How did Latif, who is from Yemen, come to be in Afghanistan in 2001?
Latif sustained a serious head injury in a car accident in 1994. After the Yemeni government paid for him to receive treatment in Jordan, he was left with continuing sight problems and hearing damage.
His doctors recommended that he return to Jordan for tests and surgery at his own expense. Because he did not have the means to pay, he decided to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan where he heard of a charity that could help him.
When the U.S. led invasion began in 2001, he fled to the border and entered Pakistan. He was arrested with about 30 other Arabic-looking men. He later learned that each of them had been turned over to the U.S. military for a $5,000 bounty -- a small fortune in the impoverished mountain area at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In his habeas decision, Judge Kennedy cited “undisputed” evidence of Latif’s injury and quest for treatment, evidence that had been suppressed in earlier military hearings. He called the evidence against Latif “hearsay” and found no corroboration for the government’s allegations.
Yet when the divided Circuit Court panel later overturned Kennedy’s decision, it maintained that the government’s statements were entitled to a “presumption of regularity,” an interpretation that effectively gutted the detainees’ habeas corpus rights -- rights which had been upheld by the 2008 Supreme Court Boumediene decision.
Much has been written about the legal battles over Latif’s case, battles that carry ramifications for the many prisoners still held at Guantanamo even though the government has no intentions to prosecute most of them. But the question that rises above all of this with the news of Latif’s death is well put by Sabin Willett, an attorney who represents several other Guantanamo detainees:
“[W]hat good came to us by Latif’s imprisonment and death? Surely not security. He was either, as the trial judge found, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, or as the government contended, briefly a footsoldier of little competence and no consequence, more than a decade ago. The government does not allege that Latif ever committed a crime, engaged in an act of terror or planned to. So far as the public record shows, Adnan Latif never hurt another human being.”
Huge amounts of money and effort have been and continue to be squandered in a quest for security that is both elusive and illusive.
It may be the moral toll, however, that is deepest. We have imprisoned for more than 10 years a man who had a brain injury, who made multiple attempts to commit suicide, and who was held in isolation for long periods of time.
This is a man who became so desperate for justice that he went on hunger strikes as the only free response left to him, and he endured painful force feedings as a consequence.
It is this man who lost in Federal Court a plea to get a blanket and mattress in his cell. The judge in the case wrote that “while the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene gives [Latif] the right to challenge the fact of his confinement, it says nothing of his right to challenge the conditions of his confinement.”
It is this man who died in his cell on Sept. 10 with his case still unresolved.
Moral analysis of indefinite detention at Guantanamo requires looking closely at its effect on the human person.
Catholic social teaching’s first and most fundamental principle cites the importance of human dignity.
Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor cites as “intrinsically evil” acts that “radically contradict the good of the person made in [God’s] image.” In Paragraph 80, the pope names as intrinsically evil “whatever violates the integrity of the human person” and includes “physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit” among his examples. He cites as well “whatever is offensive to human dignity,” naming arbitrary imprisonment among the evils.
The paragraph ends with a familiar papal admonition that the perpetrators of evil will suffer moral harm along with their victims.
The Pope states that “all these [examples of intrinsic evil] and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.”
Adnan Latif is dead. With his death we are called to enter his experience and contemplate his lifeless body in the hope that by recognizing his dignity, we will save our own.
Nearly 90 detainees are still held, as Latif was, in Guantanamo despite the fact that they have been cleared for release. May Latif’s death move us to speak for these men and for all who are victims of arbitrary imprisonment.