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Review: Translator gives an inside view in 'My Guantanamo Diary'

While finishing law school in Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan volunteered as an interpreter for lawyers working on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

They were called "habeas lawyers" because their aim was to uphold the detainees' right to habeas corpus, allowing them to challenge unlawful detention — a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 12.

Khan, an American born to Pashtun parents, didn't know what to expect from the detainees, but her belief in the right of every prisoner to a trial compelled her to do what she could. What Khan found surprised her, and her stories in My Guantanamo Diary shed light on some of the more outrageous abuses of the Bush administration.

Khan found most of the men she met in the prison to be kind, polite, thoughtful and supportive of the American effort to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Many didn't seem to belong there. Instead of being captured on the battlefield, the majority were sold to the American military by Pakistani soldiers, angry family members or political opponents in exchange for the bounties offered.

The government did little to investigate the grounds for the men's detention. Prisoners were given no more than a sham hearing and denied the most basic human rights. The further she looked, the more Khan felt the government had abandoned any semblance of a fair judicial process.

My Guantanamo Diary provides portraits of the men Khan met. There's Ali Shah Mousovi, the pediatrician reading the Koran and his children's letters; Taj Mohammad, the goatherd who taught himself English and failed in several suicide attempts. And there was Haji Nusrat Khan, the paralyzed 80-year-old who referred to his young Pashtun translator as a daughter.

Some of the incidents Khan reports are absurd, such as the written exchange between a lawyer and a military commander trading accusations as to who might have provided several of the detainees with Speedos and "contraband underwear."

Others are more disturbing. One lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, discovered his client in the midst of a suicide attempt, hanging from his cage with a slashed arm. Another, Clive Stafford Smith, was pulled aside, shown a mesh cage and threatened with imprisonment because the military believed he supported the detainees' hunger strikes.

Most troubling are Khan's second-hand accounts of detainee abuse. Prisoners complained of sexual assault, exposure to extreme cold, beatings and other degradations. In one incident, a man said he was held on the floor while a guard smeared her menstrual blood on his body. Another prisoner said his genitals were repeatedly cut with a scalpel.

Lawyers and politicians can argue over the definition of torture and inhumane treatment; readers of My Guantanamo Diary can decide for themselves.

It's hard to pass sweeping judgment on the government's case in Guantanamo, and Khan refuses to roundly condemn the military. She acknowledges that some of the prisoners likely were "the worst of the worst," as the government asserted. While some guards treated the habeas attorneys with contempt, others formed lasting friendships with the lawyers.

But Khan can find little excuse for Guantanamo's prison under the jurisdiction of a country that prides itself on its freedoms. Instead of transparency and care for the truth, secrecy, abuse and lack of judicial safeguards characterize Guantanamo.

Interwoven with the narrative is Khan's struggle over her own identity. Trading cultural viewpoints with the men she met, Khan navigated between East and West. The men couldn't understand why she hadn't yet married; Khan hesitated to tell them she was engaged to an American.

A fact-finding trip to Afghanistan particularly opened Khan's eyes to her heritage, and her descriptions of the country's beautiful landscape and friendly citizens clash with what we've come to expect. In the end, she finds equilibrium, embracing her Pashtun roots while celebrating her American freedoms.

In the midst of a war without end, we have a duty not just to check the impulses of our leaders but to consider our own culpability in their actions. My Guantanamo Diary offers a glimpse into a part of the war on terror intentionally kept in darkness. Reading it will change you. With any luck, it will change the world.

Nathaniel French is a student at Southern Methodist University.

My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

By Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

Public Affairs, 320 pages, $25.95

Review: Translator gives an inside view in 'My Guantanamo Diary' 06/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 21, 2008 4:30am]
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