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Ellison Describes Visit to Guantanamo Bay

JANUARY 25, 2008 — U.S. Representative Keith Ellison had just returned home the previous evening from a tour of the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when he spoke at the Law School Friday morning, January 25. In a nutshell, he said, conditions were better but due process was worse than he expected.

The approximately 275 prisoners being held, most of them captured in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and believed to have ties to terrorists, are not living in filth, Ellison reported. The camp shown in earlier reports that looked like a “dog kennel” is gone, and conditions resemble what most observers would expect in a state prison. The camp has medical facilities, and detainees get at least two hours of recreation and 5,000 calories of food a day.

What they don’t have is legal rights or a legal process to change their situation. Ellison was not allowed to talk to detainees to hear directly what they think of their treatment and conditions. While their lawyers can talk to the prisoners, they cannot do so in private.

Most of the prisoners are simply in “legal limbo,” waiting for their case to be reviewed, with no way of disputing their detention.

In the spotlight
Ellison, a 1990 graduate of the Law School and Representative of Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives, is a member of the Judiciary Committee that has oversight on judicial and Constitutional matters. The congressional visit to Guantanamo Bay was at the invitation of the Department of Defense.

While the conditions in camp seem okay, it’s what he doesn’t know that bothers him, Ellison said. The prison is not transparent, as has been touted. The atmosphere there is “intelligence dominated,” he said, with the intention of preventing possible future crimes rather than ensuring speedy adjudication based on a prisoner’s guilt or innocence.

He gave the example of Sami Al Hajj, a Sudanese reporter for Al-Jazeera assigned to Pakistan and Afghanistan, who has been imprisoned for five years and interviewed 30 to 40 times. What interrogators expect to learn from him and why he is still being detained are unclear, Ellison said, speculating that the man’s occupation might be the problem. “What we know of the war on terror comes from reporters,” Ellison said, “so when they have to worry, it should worry you and me.”

Still, he hesitates to say Guantanamo Bay should be closed down. Undoubtedly, some of the detainees belong in prison, he said, but some have no history of violent acts. It might be better to “keep the light beaming down” on the camp until due process is ensured. He is wrestling with specific issues and solutions at the camp, he said, but one thing is certain: “Democracy cannot function in the dark.”

America’s response to 9/11 should be tailored so it is “measured, humane, and respects human rights and dignity,” Ellison told the audience, made up largely of law students and professors. A nation founded on the principle of equal rights has an obligation to “balance our security interests with our commitment to equal rights.”

Message to volunteers
Ellison’s keynote address, “The King Lessons: From Selma to Guantanamo,” kicked off the Law School’s Martin Luther King Raise the Bar event, which includes the February 2-4 Weekend of Service at eight nonprofit organizations across the Twin Cities. More than 100 volunteers from the Law School community typically turn out for the event, which includes painting at the organizations’ facilities, packing canned goods for the hungry, and packing backpacks with supplies for kindergarteners.

Ellison encouraged audience members to volunteer and, while packing food and backpacks, to think about the larger ramifications of food deprivation and lack of education. Martin Luther King week is a particularly appropriate time to look at the greater social issues that make a Weekend of Service necessary, he said, and to contemplate what justice means in 2008.

Challenges to justice and equal rights in the world today are as great as they were in 1965, Ellison said. Airport checks of people on the basis of their appearance or name are creating a community of “others,” Americans made to feel alienated in their own country. Instead, America should embrace its multiculturalism, which is one of its biggest assets.

“No one should be hungry in America,” the richest country in the world, Ellison said. Volunteer your time and talents to set things right, he encouraged audience members. “Use whatever you have to improve the conditions of the world.”

Congressman Ellison spoke to a packed auditorium for the MLK Raise the Bar kickoff event.


Video of Congressman Ellison's speech can now be viewed online.

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Ellison speaks