As a lawyer, Beth Jacob has represented both victims of the 9/11 attacks and the men imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay suspected of committing terrorism against the United States. A New Yorker now living in Washington, D.C., her Guantánamo clients have ranged from artists who make delicately crafted model ships, like Moath al-Alwi, and writers who have produced acclaimed memoirs, like Mansoor Adayfi.
She spoke with PassBlue in September about her 15 years working for a private law firm while representing nine men, four of whom have been released, and the “Alice in Wonderland” and “Kafkaesque” world, as she described it, of the prison and the legal system that sustains it. There are 39 detainees left, only 12 of whom have been charged with a crime in a prison that once held 780 prisoners and Amnesty International has called as “the gulag of our time.”
An estimated 150 or these men have been resettled in third countries, because of concerns about insecurity in their own homelands, such as Jacob’s client Adayfi, a Yemeni writer who now lives in Serbia; and others like Ravil Mingazov, a Russian Tatar, whose case PassBlue reported on in July, who remains imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates.
Jacob has been instrumental in showing a more human side of Guantánamo through collecting the artwork of her clients and collaborating with curators to have them exhibited in New York City. She organized the pages of the first draft of Adayfi’s memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo,” which he sent to her through legal mail from the prison. She sees the art and writing of her clients as a way for them to challenge the perception that they are “worst of the worst,” as she put it.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
PassBlue: How did you come to represent Guantánamo detainees?
Jacob: When the [US] Supreme Court ruled that Guantánamo detainees could have habeas [corpus] lawyers, the Center for Constitutional Rights started reaching out to the bar — the corporate bar and the bar of New York and other cities — asking people to volunteer and assist in representing people who were detained at Guantánamo. It seemed a necessary and proper thing to do, and at that point we thought we would be able to uphold their rights under the US Constitution and give them due process and all those good things that lead to justice that they still have not gotten.
PassBlue: What would you say is the most challenging part of representing the Gitmo detainees?
Jacob: I think the challenging part and the most frustrating — there are so many — is the Alice in Wonderland or Kafkaesque situation, where you don’t really have what I would consider to be a real court process, where both sides know what the claims and charges are and the lawyers are able to discuss them with their client. We’re sitting here pretty much blindfolded without knowing a lot about what is going on. The other is just the difficulty of being able to communicate with your clients.
PassBlue: Is communication difficult because of Covid-19 or are you being restricted in other ways?
Jacob: In order to meet with them, we obviously have to go down to Guantánamo [in Cuba]; we need to get permission, and there is a whole bureaucracy you have to go through — access is restricted, sometimes they can’t accommodate a visit when we want to come, the planes now only fly twice a week, so the schedule can be quite difficult. If you have phone calls, they are limited in time; again, you must give two weeks’ notice. If it’s a nonsecure call, in other words, you can take it from home, someone is listening to make sure that you don’t stray to inappropriate topics. For secure calls, you have to take them in a facility [government building]. If you write a letter, it must go through a circuitous process to make sure you are not sending any contraband, like a staple. The couriers go only every two weeks, so it can take a month or more to have an exchange of letters. And when you do meet with your client in person, he is chained to the floor.
PassBlue: What was your first trip to Guantánamo like? What do you remember about it?
Jacob: When you arrive, it is like a village and most of the people there are not involved in the detention camp — there is a school, there is a store, there is a McDonald’s, there are beaches, there is a sense of normality. Then there is this beautiful ocean and then these awful camps. It reminds me of a closed bridge that I saw in Venice as a child on holidays, that the guide told us condemned prisoners had to walk across before they were executed. I found out later that our guys detained at Guantánamo were not even allowed to look out at the sea most of the time from their cell windows.
PassBlue: What are the biggest challenges your clients face when they are released?
Jacob: I think being able to figure out how to live a normal life with the Guantánamo stigma and after lengthy incarceration. To some extent, it depends on where they go. It’s especially hard for the men who are not sent home but are sent to a place which is completely foreign, where he doesn’t know the language or the culture and doesn’t even know how to live in a city if he came from a village. Then you have this great big stigma blazoned on your forehead because in a weird way, it’s a compliment to the United States that a lot of people still feel that despite all the information to the contrary, if the United States imprisoned somebody there must have been a reason. Then there is just psychological damage that has been exacerbated by the torture, and survivors of torture can have difficulties adjusting to normal life.
PassBlue: The stigma of having been a detainee remains?
Jacob: I think so. If you try to get a job, if you meet somebody, what do you say when someone asks you what have you been doing for the last 10 or 20 years? There is really no way around it, particularly if you are in a country where you stand out because of your nationality or your language. And then you have a lot of people like Mansoor [the writer], where the place where they are sent insists on treating them as a threat. So even if you can make a relationship, the secret police or the government comes in and investigates the people you talk to.
PassBlue: What could the US do with these last detainees to make it easier for them to reintegrate if and when they are released?
Jacob: First, state more clearly that a lot of people who were at Guantánamo were there by mistake and even the ones who are still there are there by mistake. But they are never going to say that because supposedly each case has been reviewed. They would have to admit error and most governments don’t do that, and I don’t see my government doing that. I would say the biggest need is a sense of stability and safety, which means ensuring you will never want for a place to stay, you will never want for food, you will never want for clothing.
PassBlue: Detainees were offered art classes at Gitmo, and their artwork was exhibited many years ago, but how did you get involved personally in helping to show their work?
Jacob: I represented Muhammad Ansi, who has now been released to Oman. When I was asked to represent him for his board hearing [Periodic Review Board], on our first meeting he showed up with a lot of his artwork; it was beautiful. We spent a lot of time talking about the art, not so much talking about what we needed to do for the hearing. I thought this was something that should be exhibited, and he was very eager to have his work exhibited. My cousin Gail Rothschild, a professional artist, put me in contact with Prof. Erin Thompson at John Jay [College of Criminal Justice, in New York City] who was very interested.
PassBlue: What was the process to get the artwork out?
Jacob: Everything an imprisoned man at Guantánamo says is presumptively classified — it must be reviewed to see if it’s a classified secret or whether it can be public. The art was reviewed by the military, the Joint Task Force; I have no idea who or exactly how, to make sure there were no secret messages, I guess; the ships were X-rayed [laughs]. So my client would give me some of his art in the meeting, I would leave the meeting, I would hand it over to the guards with paperwork so it could be tracked, it would be reviewed by whatever detention group or Joint Task Force had to review it for security, and then it would be handed back to me with stamps on it, saying that it was O.K. to take out of Guantánamo. If the review process took too long, I would pick it up the next time I was there or if another lawyer was willing to do it.
PassBlue: Given how arduous it is to get people and things out of Guantánamo, why was it work that you chose to do? And how was the art important?
Jacob: I think it’s important for the men to have a voice, and this is their way of speaking to the outside world. This is good art, and it also is a way of giving people who have spent 15 to 20 years being told they are worthless — to show that they are able to create art, beauty.
PassBlue: The artwork has stopped coming out — why?
Jacob: The government hasn’t given any reasons — they’ve just said no. They have never, as far as I know, said it was a question of security. But they don’t have to give a reason, they just say that it is not coming out, it’s no longer allowed out. The closest thing to a reason is that they say the artwork belongs to the government because it was made at Guantánamo with government-provided material, although a lot of the art supplies or material used in the sculptures were given by the lawyers. What can you do about it? Nothing really, except hope that somebody changes their mind — but why would they? What do they care?
PassBlue: How meaningful have the cases you have worked on been in terms of your legal career?
Jacob: I worked for a private law firm for most of my career, so these pro bono cases did not affect my career in a traditional sense. But I think the Guantánamo work has turned out to be the most significant legal work I have done, not only because I’ve been doing it for almost 15 years. Guantánamo is such a corrosive injustice, and as a lawyer you like to feel you have the skills to make something right or at least to get someone compensated, and here you can’t. Between the way the laws have developed, the way the courts have decided, the way Congress has acted, the way the executive branch has acted, there’s really no effective way to right the wrong or bring justice. In terms of what work I have done that mattered the most, that had a moral and ethical right and wrong, as opposed to a correct under the law vs. incorrect, it’s the Guantánamo work.
Jacob: Do you think you will ever see Guantánamo closed?
I cannot believe that when my grandchildren are my age [laughs], that we are still going to have Guantánamo. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, the men who are not charged with any crimes will be released, and this is most of the men still there. I think that President Biden means it when he says that this is part of a chapter that we need to close and move forward from — not forgetting it obviously and not giving up on protections, but we can’t still be fighting the battles of 2001. But then again, I think Obama also meant it when he promised to close the Guantánamo prison at the very beginning, and then realities hit and then they don’t have the political will or stamina to carry it through.
PassBlue: How do you think that future generations will look at Guantánamo?
Jacob: I think they’ll look at it how current generations look back at conduct by a country or a person you are deeply, deeply ashamed of and you recognize is wrong. Not that I am equating different wrongs, but I think it will be looked on the way we look back at the Japanese internment camps, the way that many people, unfortunately not all, look on slavery.
There is a lot that has been leaked on Guantánamo and I cannot address anything specifically, but people should remember how most of the information gathered was through torture, and that there was a lot of panic in terms of the interpretations of information. I think there has been some recognition that some mistakes were made. Not so long ago, the United States was saying that we had avoided another attack on the airport in Kabul because a car full of explosives had been taken out by a drone strike and we had saved how many lives? And now in a quite short turnaround, it turns out that was not the case, instead it was a car driven by an aid worker and 10 innocent people, including seven children, were killed.
Reporting for this story was supported by a fellowship from the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.