Interpreter Details Detention In 'My Guantanamo' After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan — whose parents are Afghan immigrants — wanted to do something that would help both America and Afghanistan. She became an interpreter for lawyers representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
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Interpreter Details Detention In 'My Guantanamo'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As a law student in Miami, Mahvish Khan, American daughter of Afghan immigrants, wanted to do something to help both her country and her parents' country. So she put her language skills and knowledge of Afghan culture to use as an interpreter for lawyers who represent men held at Guantanamo Bay. After many visits to the prison, Mahvish began to see some detainees as more than numbers. They became her friends, surrogate brothers and fathers, and Guantanamo Bay itself became more than a name in a newspaper story. Gitmo became a place with its own sounds and smells, its own culture and wildlife.

She chronicles all of these in a new book, "My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me." If you have questions about what life is like for detainees and for lawyers at Guantanamo Bay, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later, the new smash hit at the movies purports to pit champions of order and anarchy against each other. We will explore the Dark Knight's nether reaches. But first, as the first war crimes trial gets underway there today: Guantanamo from the inside out. Mahvish Khan joins us now from the studios of Kerry McCall Productions in San Diego, California, and nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. MAHVISH KHAN (Author, "My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we'd like you to introduce us to this place and to these people and begin, if you would, at the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

Ms. KHAN: Well, I began my experiences at Guantanamo as a law student and I was studying the federal torture statutes and how these Washington policymakers were debating the legality of these medieval torture techniques because once upon a time it was Chinese water torture, and today in America it's waterboarding. And I got involved initially as an interpreter.

But it starts at the base when I eventually did get involved at Fort Lauderdale going to the military prison, and we go on these puddle jumper planes that seat about 10 people and there's no restrooms and it takes three hours though Cuba is about 90 miles from the mainland, and you have to go away around the country, around Cuba because we avoid Cuban airspace, and it's often filled with dicey experiences but that's how the trip began.

CONAN: I was fascinated that the one flight you thought would be pretty safely secured, your luggage never got searched. Do you have to take your shoes off to get on this plane?

Ms. KHAN: No, you don't take your shoes off. There's no metal detectors. Nobody searches your bags. And I remember on the first trip to the base, I asked the individuals who were checking us in, you know, why don't they search our bags, at least, and his main concern was dirty laundry and not wanting to touch people's belongings, but they generally just weigh passengers. We hop on the luggage scale and seat you according to your weight distribution so you know, the plane is level according to the weight of the passengers and luggage.

CONAN: Always reassuring when they want to rebalance the plane by moving passengers from one side to the other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KHAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Weather down there could be tricky, too, but nevertheless, I remember you feeling - you wrote that when you got to Guantanamo, you expected some, you know, forbidding kind of a place. Instead, it's an island paradise.

Ms. KHAN: It is a beautiful place at the waters, this green-blue color, and you expect to see hotels and this resort sort of island but instead, there are - I mean, the individuals who work at the base are very friendly but at the same time you see these prison guard towers and detention centers and know that it's not the paradise that it looks like.

CONAN: And one thing I did not understand despite everything I've read about this place, so that - the place where the lawyers stay - they're called habeas lawyers as a group and you're one of their aides as an interpreter - it's separated by water from the area where the prison is.

Ms. KHAN: Exactly. The habeas attorneys are kept on the leeward side of the base. It's about two and a half miles from the windward side. And on the windward side are the detention centers where the detainees are kept in addition to where journalists are kept. The military keeps lawyers and journalists separate and perhaps it's fear that we'll speak together and they don't want more, you know, publicity on this from the attorneys' side, but we're kept completely separate from all of the main operations on Guantanamo Bay.

CONAN: And I just want to ask, one of the things that was curious to me about it was at night, after the work is done, well, there's one sort of restaurant, if you will, called the Clipper, that everybody seems to buy, well, you know, various kinds of things at the grocery store, the Post Exchange. Well, I guess it's a Navy base. It's not a Post Exchange. But - and there's a big barbecue every night for the lawyers.

Ms. KHAN: That's right. The Clipper Club is this greasy spoon where everything is steak or deep-fried, from the pizza to the hotdogs, and it's not the best place to eat so a lot of the attorneys end up going to where a lot of the soldiers and the people stationed on the base shop, the NEX, and we buy steaks and have a cookout every night following our meetings with the detainees.

CONAN: And how long at one stretch might you or any of the other aides or lawyers be there?

Ms. KHAN: It could go anywhere from one day to five, six, ten.

CONAN: So for a while, this feels like your regular routine.

Ms. KHAN: Exactly, yes.

CONAN: That's very strange. Also, the color of the uniform being worn by the detainees can instantly tell you what category they are.

Ms. KHAN: Right. White often signifies that they're being held in Camp 4, which is a communal setting and they're kept together. It's designated for compliant detainees. And tan or orange is supposed to signify that they are, you know, not as compliant and cooperative with guards.

CONAN: So the guards would instantly be able to tell somebody who might be more of a troublemaker than somebody else. But I was fascinated the number of broken toes you reported among the compliant detainees. Of course, they have access to athletic equipment, including soccer balls.

Ms. KHAN: The - some of the prisoners in Camp 4 do play soccer often. I mean, it varies. Sometimes it's with themselves, kicking a soccer ball against the cage and other times it's with each other, but they would often come to the meeting rooms with these broken toes because they play soccer in flip-flops and that led to some dicey situations in terms of contact athletics. But they are given soccer balls in Camp 4.

CONAN: And the prisoners are rotated around and there are social strata among the prisoners that you write, the Arabs being held there regard themselves as different and somewhat better than the Afghans.

Ms. KHAN: Well, one of the Afghan prisoners expressed that he was at one point held in a block of a camp. The camps are categorized in different blocks but he was held in a predominantly Arab block and felt some level of discrimination. That's not to speak for all of the Arabs, but this is one individual's experience and he experienced that, yes.

CONAN: Also, that there is a Gitmo library for some of the detainees?

Ms. KHAN: Well, one of the prisoners described the library as a military guard coming around with either a cart or a box of books and the detainees are allowed to pick books from that selection. It's often the same books over and over because the habeas attorneys have had difficulty, you know, introducing even "Cinderella" or "Puss in Boots," classic American fairy tales in Arabic or Pashto, and so they often read the same things over and over and get tired of the books. But some of the Afghan prisoners expressed to me that they were tired of reading "Harry Potter" in Pashto to the point where some of them began to memorize "Harry Potter" in Pashto because it gave them something to do. Sounds like an incredibly boring task.

CONAN: Indeed. But the one book, of course, they are allowed access to is the Koran.

Ms. KHAN: That's correct. All of the prisoners who would like have access to the Koran, and ideally it's not tampered with and it's in their cells when they would like it.

CONAN: You note the difficulties that the prisoner are - this legal limbo and various sorts of hearings that you also describe in the book which are varying - well, you could make your own judgments about them. Nevertheless, you do draw the conclusion that the reason the detainees were put on Guantanamo Bay was the belief at that time in the Bush administration that this put them beyond the reach of federal courts. The Supreme Court just decided otherwise, but nevertheless, the prisoners were there because they had no rights under federal law, yet the wildlife had rights under federal law.

Ms. KHAN: That's correct. The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are held outside of U.S. jurisdiction, in Cuba, where they're hidden from the press and from the court and denied the same basic rights that even any alleged rapist or murder in American has. But at the same time, the Iguanas that roam the base are considered, you know, protected by the Endangered Species Act, which is a U.S. federal law and they receive more protections under U.S. law than the prisoners. And that often outrages the detainees because anybody who harms or you know, accidentally runs over anything - any harm done to an Iguana, the individual, whether it's a civilian or a military officer, will be prosecuted and fined up to 10,000 dollars.

CONAN: There were some also orange crabs at various times of the year that weren't so popular.

Ms. KHAN: No. When it rains, these just thousands of these crabs would come out and storm the combined bachelors quarters and that's where a lot of the attorney stay, and they would try to get under the doors and it would just make a very uncomfortable environment.

CONAN: I saw that picture. It was on the bottom part of the - at the drive-in, the attack of the giant crabs.

Ms. KHAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Mahvish Khan, who's a lawyer and the author of the book, "My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me." If you've ever wondered what life is like at this strange American prison facility on the tip of Cuba for the detainees or for those who work with them, the lawyers and the interpreters, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

And Mahvish Khan, I was again fascinated that some of the prisoners regarded their lawyers as - well, little better than grocery clerks.

Ms. KHAN: Than - excuse me, grocery...

CONAN: Clerks.

Ms. KHAN: Right. Well, a lot of the attorneys, some of them, anyway, feel as though their efforts in federal court are - sometimes feel the detainees don't always believe that attorneys are able to influence their release and so they often, you know, come out of their meetings with these long grocery lists of things to bring them, whether it's Klondike bars and Pizza Hut pizza to bring me traditional Afghan food. And you know, they make a list of things that they want. Some of the ones aren't as bashful as others but it varies between prisoners, but yes, social worker and waiter is sometimes how some of the attorneys have expressed that they've felt.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Mahvish Khan in just a moment. Her book, again, is titled, "My Guantanamo Bay: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's The Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Mahvish Khan has traveled more than 30 times to Guantanamo Bay to work as an interpreter with a number of - with a lawyer who represents a number of detainees. A new lawyer herself, she now represents one of them, as well. You can read about the first time she met a detainee in Guantanamo in an excerpt from her book, "My Guantanamo Diary," at our Web site, npr.org. And if you have questions about what life is like for detainees and lawyers at Guantanamo Bay, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and let's get Kristen(ph) on the line, Kristen with us from St Louis in Missouri.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Kristen.

KRISTEN: Hi, Mahvish. Nice to talk to both of you. I just have a quick question about the detainees' feelings towards the Bush administration and also towards the American people. Do they generalizes us as, you know, the guards there, you know, some are possibly more - I don't know, aggressive than others, and how do they view people, you know, just normal Americans and the Bush administration?

Ms. KHAN: Well, my experience has been that the opinions of the prisoners of Americans at large, it varies a lot. Some of them feel that the guards shouldn't be generalized because there are guards who treat them very humanely and there are other individual in the military who don't. And some of the prisoners, especially after I've met them in Afghanistan after they've been released, have never expressed anger towards in the Americans as individuals and have wanted, in fact, to come to the United States, whether it was for medical treatment or for - you know, for other reasons.

But they - a lot them, from my personal experienced, didn't lump everybody in the same category of abuse and misfortune and they understood that they were being hidden in Guantanamo Bay and that the public was not aware of who they were and, you know, what they were being held for because that was largely unknown even to them themselves.

CONAN: Thanks, Kristen.

KRISTEN: Thank you very much. I can't wait to read the book. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

Ms. KHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get Rich(ph) on the line. Rich is calling us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

RICH (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing today?

CONAN: OK. Very well. Thank you.

RICH: I don't understand the sympathy for prisoners of war. It doesn't make sense to me why there's so much sympathy for these people who are terrorists and they are prisoners of war. It doesn't make sense to me.

Ms. KHAN: Well, the fundamental flaw is to assume that they are all terrorists and that was the assumption that I made when I went to Guantanamo initially on my first trip to the base two years ago. I was scared that I was going to meet somebody who is Taliban or a member of al-Qaeda who wouldn't want to sit down next to me because I'm a woman and would not want to look at me. And the first individual that I met was a pediatrician who worked for the United Nations to support the American-led democracy in Afghanistan. And the second was, you know, a paraplegic who couldn't walk and couldn't see very well because he had cataracts and he was brought to Guantanamo on a stretcher and it was claimed that he was fighting on a battlefield.

And I made the same assumptions that you did, that these were terrorists and they must have done something wrong and a lot of them were sold for bounties given by the U.S. military. And all of those things are unknown to the U.S. and to the world at large about who's out there and the general assumption is that they must have done something wrong. And certainly some of them have, but without a trial and without process it's hard to separate...

RICH: But they're not U.S. citizens. They don't deserve a trial. They're not U.S. citizens. Why do they deserve the same rights as an American citizen when they're not an American citizen?

Ms. KHAN: Even in Gulf War I and the initial Vietnam War we had Geneva Convention Article 5 hearings where we were able to designate and give them hearings and, you know, distinguish whether they were in fact fighting on a battlefield or not, and we didn't have that in Afghanistan. A lot of these men were swept up because locals have this huge incentive to gain by - you know, the U.S. military air-dropped leaflets offering up to 25,000 dollars per head and never investigated following. And whether they're U.S. citizens or not, when you don't have a system of process and you're just believing what locals are saying and gaining this huge amount of money, it leads to a lot of mistakes happening and that's what happened at Guantanamo.

And you know, if they are terrorists, give them a public trial because that's what we did in the first World Trade Center bombings. We have systems of trying terrorists on U.S. soil and then lock them up if we can prove that they have done something wrong. But in the current system, we have not only damaged our reputation all around the world but you know, imprisoned good people who have not done anything wrong - and I'm not speaking broadly about everybody at Guantanamo because certainly there are the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's and 9/11 masterminds. But Guantanamo at inception had 800 people and the U.S. military has released a vast majority of them and we have 200 and about 50 left.

And when you don't have trials and due process, not only are you potentially letting bad guys go and keeping good ones in but it just it breaks down what our country was principled and founded upon and what we're celebrated for.

RICH: I don't think they should be sympathized, though, like what they're being portrayed. I mean, you went down there and you spoke with these people. You could go to an American prison and speak to the people there and you're going to get the same kind of comment and reaction as what you got from down there.

Ms. KHAN: I completely agree with you. However...

RICH: The prisoners are going to talk about how horrible the conditions are and how poorly they're treated and yeah, it sucks to be stuck in a eight-by-ten cell and whah, whah, whah. I'm sorry, I don't feel any sympathy for these people down there. I don't think they should have any sympathy. They're terrorists.

CONAN: All of them are terrorists, Rich? Even the 500 that United States decided to let go?

RICH: OK, maybe those aren't, no.

CONAN: That would be the majority, then.

RICH: The people down there, they - I just - I don't feel that the sympathy should be given towards them.

Ms. KHAN: But the base - Rich...

CONAN: Let me follow up your point, Rich, if you'll forgive me just a minute and talk with Mahvish Khan about one of the prisoners that she got to know pretty well, a man named Taj Mohammad, a man with an extraordinary command of the English language, a man who said to you that he was a simple goatherd.

Ms. KHAN: That's correct. Taj Mohammad spoke about being a simple goat herder. He, you know, developed this great command of English while he was at Guantanamo Bay and he - there was never any evidence to suggest that he was anything to do with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. His cousin worked with the U.S. military to set up these waterlines in his village of Kunar, Afghanistan, and his family didn't get water in their house and that created a feud between the two of them and they got into a physical altercation. And because his cousin had access to the U.S. military and was working with individuals, he publicly, you know, he told Taj, you know, I'm going to have you turned in and you're going to end up at Guantanamo.

And didn't believe it but that's what ended up happening and it was brought up even in his military transcripts, where the presiding officer stated, you know, Taj, you should stay away from your cousin, Ishmael(ph), because he got you into this mess. And Taj was released, and there's mistake after mistake of basic - really, you know, fundamental flaws based on a complete lack of investigation on the part of the U.S. military. And I understand...

CONAN: You also wrote that you did not buy into this goatherd story.

Ms. KHAN: Right. Personally, I mean, he spoke fluently in English and his command of English was so great that I didn't personally believe that he was a goatherd, and there were individuals who sometimes I didn't believe their stories and were entirely truthful, but that side he was never accused of being al-Qaeda or Taliban. He was never charged and you know, it...

CONAN: Well, he was accused of firing rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. military base in Kunar in exchange for a pair of tennis shoes, you wrote.

Ms. KHAN: These were allegations made by the U.S. military without anything substantiated, and this man was never charged with anything. He was released without being charged with anything and it goes on and on from detainee to detainee like that, and often the allegations that the U.S. military makes are outrageous and have been dropped subsequently.

There was one individual who allegedly worked in, you know, Kashmir to support the separatist movement between Indian and Pakistan and yet it was a complete case of mistaken identity because the Abdullah Mujahid who in fact was involved in those activities had died while the Abdullah Mujahid who was an Afghan detainee at Guantanamo was still imprisoned there. And the military subsequently dropped that allegation as they do with so many others, and it goes from that...

CONAN: And without advocacy situations, where you can go to trial and challenge these things? These mistakes can be perpetuated for years, which is exactly your point about Taj. He might have been a smuggler. Who knows? He might have been Taliban. The fact is there's no evidence against him. If it's not tried out in court, you'll never know.

Ms. KHAN: That's precisely the point of the book, and when you don't have trials and process that it leads to those sorts of mistakes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Abaddis(ph), and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly and calling from Saudi Arabia.

ABADDIS (Caller): Yes, of the summit. First I would like to say good evening and As-salaam alaikum.

Atty. KHAN: Walaikum as-salaam.

ABADDIS: I just want to know what are the medical facilities available to the prisoners and the detainees and even the lawyers who are visiting? I'll take the answer offline.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the phone call.

Ms. KHAN: Regarding the medical facilities, my understanding is that the prisoners request medical attention. There was one individual who was 80 years old, Hadji Nazareth(ph). He was a paraplegic and he was constantly in pain of his various ailments and whether it was his eyes, he was given incorrect - an incorrect prescription, so it didn't really make a difference. And I suppose it varies a lot. I can't speak consistently of all prisoners who've been seen by a doctor. In terms of attorneys, there haven't been any attorneys that I worked with who have sought out medical care from the facilities. But, yeah.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we can Carol with us. Carol is on the line from San Mateo in California.

CAROL (Caller): Hello, and thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CAROL: I'm calling from the perspective of a fellow interpreter. I'm an interpreter in Superior Court in the state of California and I'm at the beginning stages of writing a book about some of my interpreting experiences. However, my concern is that the conversations that I interpret are largely protected under attorney-client privilege, and I'm wondering how did you get past that privilege when you were publishing a book about that? Did you have to get permission from each attorney, each client? How did you handle that logistical part of your book?

Ms. KHAN: Great question. First of all, I began as an interpreter and I do represent one client now under supervision by a corporate law firm that I work with. However, all conversations that take place within Guantanamo are protected by the attorney-client privilege, as well as the information that I get from individual prisoners is deemed classified. Once the attorney - once the client, the detainee, leaves Guantanamo Bay, it's another issue. And they control the attorney-client privilege.

However, most of the attorneys that I worked with were incredibly supportive and helped me get my notes declassified. Everything that I submitted for my book was presented to the Department of Defense and anything that was returned unclassified largely was published. There were some bits of information that were considered classified and they were never published. But it went through this back and forth process, and I worked with a large number of attorneys who were very supportive of publicly getting the voices of these men to the American public because the American public does not know these men as individuals.

CONAN: Carol, good luck with your book.

CAROL: OK. Thank you very much.

Ms. KHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Mahvish Khan, a lawyer and the author of the new book, "My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me." You're listening to Talk of The Nation from NPR News. Let's get Chris on the line, Chris with us from Columbus, Ohio.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. I have a two-prong question. I'll get to them very quickly. I was wondering about the time periods involved with the detainees, just exactly who's been there the longest and the average length of stay? And one other presumptive question that she might be able to answer would be exactly what kind of a situation would she find working with either perhaps a McCain or Obama administration and what she might consider to be friendlier - more friendly to the detainees' - shall we call it, plight? And I'll take my answer off the line and thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Chris. Go ahead.

Ms. KHAN: Regarding the second question, I believe both presidential candidates have stated that they are in favor of closing the base. And I do believe that, you know, the Obama campaign has expressed that they would like to see the base closed, whereas the McCain campaign has said similar - has expressed similar sentiments however has also, you know, called them the worst of the worst. And it's unknown largely who these men are without a trial and that's the fundamental aspect of the book and please excuse me, but I can't remember the first segment of the question.

CONAN: How long are people typically held at Guantanamo Bay and who's been there longest?

Ms. KHAN: Oh, on average - you know, I've seen individuals - Dr. Ali Shah, the pediatrician. He was the first individual I ever met there. He was imprisoned at Guantanamo for a little over three years before he was released without ever having been charged. And then there's also individuals like Sami al-Haj, who - Al Jazeera journalist who was also never charged but released approximately seven years afterwards. And so - and there are hundreds of prisoners who are still being held there going on seven, eight years.

CONAN: Are they getting fresh prisoners at Guantanamo Bay after that importation of what - the 12 of the 15 high-profiled cases?

Ms. KHAN: Well, the high-value detainees were largely brought in on Guantanamo's fifth anniversary, paraded before the press and America learned that, hey, we do have bad guys here. But other than those 15 high-valued detainees who were brought on the fifth anniversary, the military base does not see new imports. That stopped in 2004 after the first Supreme Court decision allowing lawyers to come to Guantanamo, and Guantanamo is really the face of a much larger organ, a problem - you know, there are CIA detention centers and prisons all across the world, in Europe and Afghanistan and Africa. Bagram Air Base north of Kabul holds approximately, it's speculated, about a thousand prisoners and a lot of prisoners never make it to Guantanamo following the attorney's involvement at the base.

CONAN: And hard to believe that many of your detainees described Guantanamo as much better than Bagram Air Base. But...

Ms. KHAN: Well, absolutely. Bagram is located far from the public eye and...

CONAN: And far from lawyers and far from the United States, too. So...

Ms. KHAN: Absolutely. And that's where a predominant amount of torture and abuse has been described.

CONAN: Mahvish Khan, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Ms. KHAN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Mahvish Khan's new book, "My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me."

Coming up, forget Batman, the Joker was the big draw at the movies this weekend. What is it that's so appealing about this character with green hair and white face? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Talk Of The Nation, NPR News.

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