Gitanjali Gutierrez, pictured here at a Press Conference in Berlin, hopes to highlight how Bermudians can face up to their country’s own human rights abuses through “humanity and empathy”. *AFP photo by John MacDougall
Gitanjali Gutierrez, pictured here at a Press Conference in Berlin, hopes to highlight how Bermudians can face up to their country’s own human rights abuses through “humanity and empathy”. *AFP photo by John MacDougall
A human rights lawyer for Guantanamo detainees is to speak in Bermuda this weekend on abuses within our own society.

Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) will speak at the inaugural TEDx Bermuda conference, on how citizens can hold governments accountable for human rights.

Ms Gutierrez represents Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al Qahtani, the alleged ‘20th hijacker’ of al Qaeda’s 9/11 US terrorist attacks.

She was also part of the legal team to challenge the US government in the groundbreaking human rights cases Rasul V. Bush (2004) and Boumediene v. Bush (2008).

In these cases, the Supreme Court ruled War on Terror suspects had the right to habeas corpus, enabling them to challenge their detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Ms Gutierrez was also the first reported attorney to visit the US military facility in Cuba in September 2004.

Although she specialises in post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies, unlawful detention and torture, Ms Gutierrez will discuss the relevance of her experiences to our own society this weekend.

The US attorney told the Bermuda Sun she hopes to highlight how Bermudians can face up to their country’s own human rights abuses through “humanity and empathy”.

She explained: “Right now I’m working on issues dealing with Guantanamo Bay and much of the work is focused on holding governments accountable for abuses of power. It involves legal challenges, protest or campaign.

“At TEDx I’m going to be talking about the role of humanity and empathy in challenging injustices and dehumanization, which often leads to abuse.

“Even in a wealthy, affluent society like Bermuda you have issues of abuse.

“Bermuda has issues of prejudice in equality of sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender.

“I will talk about my work at Guantanamo, and some of the lessons I learned about challenging a government’s discrimination or mistreatment of a group of people.

“I was surprised by what I learned there, about the need to make connections across differences, and the role that played in my own work to hold the US accountable.

“It’s a lesson which is relevant to any community dealing with issues of inequality.”

Since 2004 she has made “about 30” visits to the controversial prison camp, meeting 40 detainees captured in the War on Terror.

“I’ve had some profound experiences in meeting with these men and working at Guantanamo Bay,” she said.

Due to the controversial nature of her work, she has faced animosity from US citizens.

“I have received a hostile reaction from people within the US but I’ve also received a lot of support.

“Some members of the military at Guantanamo were very supportive of my work, so that was surprising to me.”

Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi citizen, has been imprisoned since 2002.

In intercepted phone calls, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, one of the 9/11 organizers, referred to Qahtani as “the last one” to “complete the group”.

Qahtani arrived at Orlando International Airport, Florida, on August 4, 2001, but was denied entry to the US due to suspicions he was trying to immigrate.

He was captured near the Pakistan and Afghanistan border in December 2001 and sent to Guantanamo.

In February 2008 he was charged with war crimes and murder but the charges were dropped three months later.

Ms Gutierrez challenged the validity of the evidence, arguing it was obtained through the ‘war crime’ of torture.

The Bush administration admitted in 2008 to subjecting Qahtani to techniques such as isolation, sleep deprivation and nudity.

Ms Gutierrez said of her defence of Qahtani: “Western countries have had legal systems based on fairness and equality for centuries, and individuals who have been accused of crimes — including terrorism — have been put on trials which have been transparent.

“But what is happening now is that prejudice and stereotypes are getting in the way of an impartial and fair system being allowed to continue.

“Without recognizing the humanity of every person and understanding that we are all equal human beings, we can’t begin to talk about controversial issues — whether Guantanamo or equality of sexual orientation, dealing with domestic violence or other types of abuse.

“While something like the situation of the men detained at Guantanamo may seem very distant to Bermuda, the path the US took to get there is something a country like Bermuda could also go down when dealing with the rights of people who are different.

“It is easy for people to use their prejudices when making decisions.”

The Bermuda Sun asked Ms Gutierrez for her views on the way the relocation of the Uyghurs was handled in June 2009.

Former Premier Ewart Brown described the resettlement of the four former Guantanamo Bay detainees as “a humanitarian act”.

But he failed to consult the UK, the Bermuda Government, the Opposition and citizens over the move, leading to protests by Bermudians and a Motion of No Confidence in his leadership — which was voted down.

Ms Gutierrez said: “I realize there was a great deal of controversy in Bermuda about the decision-making process.

“But what was missing from a lot of that debate was the understanding of the human aspect. The experiences of those men did not receive much attention in Bermuda at the time.

“It is important that, in reflecting on that process, people should put it in the larger global context, of what happened at Guantanamo.

“I hope to add to the understanding of Bermuda’s place in that history.”

Ms Gutierrez is optimistic the TEDx Bermuda conference will bring a new era of open discussion and exchange of ideas to the island.

“It’s a very exciting development for Bermuda. In the US these events have been incredible ways for communities to learn and engage,” she said.

“TEDx fills a gap in Bermuda for people interested in engaging in ideas and in putting ideas into action. I am very excited to be a part of this.”