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Defense counsel for Guantanamo detainees speaks out

By News | Last updated: Apr 21, 2014 - 12:47:02 PM

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‘The public is quite often not given the full picture’

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Sterling Thomas is the defense counselor for Pakistani Ammar al-Baluchi (a 9/11 defendant and high value detainee) and Afghani Abdul Zahir (held for 12 years without trial) at The Guantanamo Bay detention camp (also referred to as Gitmo). 

Lieutenant Colonel Sterling Thomas
It is a United States military prison located within Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in Cuba. He sat down with The Final Call’s Ashahed M. Muhammad recently following a panel titled “Ending the ‘Forever War’ at Home and Abroad” during Amnesty International’s 2014 Human Rights Conference in Chicago. He is the only Black member of the defense team in the Guantanamo 9/11 military commission.

Ashahed M. Muhammad, The Final Call :  Of course there’s a lot of propaganda, there’s a lot of misinformation in the media and I was very happy to hear your representation because quite frankly I didn’t expect it. You kind of get the feeling that everyone who is in the military represents a certain “law and order” view. In your capacity, are you able to give me your opinion on the injustices taking place there?

Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas: Well in my capacity for instance as Abdul Zahir’s attorney, some resolution has to occur. Justice delayed is justice denied as Dr. King said. And here we are talking about—for Abdul Zahir—a commission that has yet to happen and they continue to fail to bring charges or try and resolve his case. So he sits there now twelve years removed from his family, three children and twelve years removed from wife. Unable to tend to his mother’s needs, unable to take care of his family back in Afghanistan and the United States government has failed in its duty to move this case forward.

(FC:) What is probably the biggest misconception the American public has about Guantanamo Bay?

Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas:  Well there is this phrase that one of the prosecutors likes to toss out all too frequently that this is a “fair and transparent proceeding.” I would think that those who just listen to the bullet points, they are being deceived. The public is quite often not given the full picture of what the government is attempting to do with regard to failing to provide all too appropriate evidence or failing to provide witnesses that are required and would just be a matter of course in a normal court. Those sorts of things get shoved under the rug because it is not convenient for the government.

(FC:) Switching up a little bit, you have the militarization of police forces across the United States ramping up their firepower, ramping up their training, learning urban warfare tactics perhaps in preparation for urban unrest. You have many of these individuals—and I think it was alluded to in the panel discussion—who were overseas and in theaters of war who may have seen certain things taking place on certain levels, now they’re coming back to United States becoming involved in law enforcement. What’s to say they’re not going to try some of those things (torture tactics) within some of the police forces across the nation?

Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas:  Well, American law is supposed to prevent that sort of thing from happening and one of the tenets of American military practice is that there shall be no torturing and that we subscribe and fully believe in the Geneva Conventions which say we do not torture and which say we will not allow you to be tortured and we’ll bring you home.  Those are some of the tenets that make a young airman willing to go and risk his life in defense of his country and what we have to do to address these issues from the Guantanamo commission’s perspective and from the perspective of the people who are accused of the crimes of 9/11 is we have to address how we behaved, and how the United States government behaved when these men were taken into custody. Because, there’s this blacked-out period from between 2003 to 2006 and one of the things that we have been able to prove and that is on the record at the military commission is that our client Ammar Al-Baluchi suffered a severe head injury while he was in CIA custody. That sort of treatment, that whole picture has to be brought out for there to be a truth and reconciliation portion to this aspect and that behavior if it is indeed part of how the government has behaved has to be addressed in order for there to be true justice.

(FC:) Do you fear retribution or retaliation as far as your military career is concerned because you are lining up defending the “bad guys” so to speak?

Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas:  It’s a very fair question and a question that some people actually can answer in the affirmative that their careers have been stopped. There is a former JAG (Judge Advocate General’s Corps) now a civilian who could quite pointedly say that because he successfully defended one of the 9/11 detainees, his ability to get promoted was negatively impacted. A lot of folks will worry about that sort of thing and I can’t deny that it has certainly crossed my mind. Will this be held against me at some point? But I think the more important issue is that our principles as a country, as a nation, are important enough that I’m willing to take that risk.

FC: Thank you.

(To keep up to date regarding the latest developments related to Guantanamo Bay hearings and trial proceedings, follow @GitmoWatch on Twitter.)