Imran Ahmad (a pseudonym), a 29 year-old Pakistani computer scientist who can see the Statue of Liberty from his studio apartment in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, says he no longer believes in the symbol of freedom cast in copper. “Freedom is relative. It depends on things like where you’re from and what you look like” says Ahmad. He reached this conclusion, he says, because of what happened to him as a orange-uniformed detainee held for more than 3 years in numerous federal detention facilities: the denial of habeas corpus (his constitutional right to plead his case before a judge), facing growling dogs, watching friends languish and die while in custody, the “subtle torture” of living for months in a tiny, windowless white room while a nearby TV set blared American Idol or “24.”
After a fellow detainee died under mysterious circumstances, which were covered up by detention facility authorities, Ahmad says he was threatened with lines like “We don’t want you to tell or speak to anyone about this” and “We have cameras and people [detainees] who are watching you, monitoring you.” Though Ahmad was released, he is still in deportation proceedings.
Ahmad’s story will not shock anyone familiar with stories of death, violence and other abuse coming out of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other offshore military detention facilities holding men in orange prison uniforms. But what makes his story noteworthy is that it reflects how many of these same offshore practices are now being perpetrated against detainees held within the borders of the United States: the hundreds of thousands of immigrants held in one of the growing number of detention facilities run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), the most militarized branch of the U.S. government besides the Pentagon.
To protest what they consider the increasingly cruel and inhuman conditions and practices in the ICE detention facilities, Ahmad and thousands of activists are organizing the Night of 1000 Conversations, a series of vigils, town halls, house meetings and other events which will take place in over 250 towns and cities across the country on June 19th .
Among the principal concerns to be discussed during the nationwide events are what critics say, is nothing less than a “Guantanamization” of migrant detention within the borders of the United States: death, abuse and neglect at the hands of detention facility guards (many of whom are former military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan); the prolonged and indefinite detention of thousands including children and families denied due process and other fundamental rights as they languish in filthy, overcrowded and extremely unhealthy facilities; orange-uniformed detainees sedated with psychotropic drugs, attacked by growling dogs and physically and sexually abused by guards; multi-million government contracts for prison construction and management given to high-powered, military industrial and prison industrial giants like Halliburton and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, whose former director set up the infamous Abu Ghraib detention facility.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Division of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is currently at Guantanamo, outside one of the notorious Military Commission hearings created as a result of the recently rescinded (but still being implemented) law that denied the right to habeas corpus to both military and immigrant facility detainees. Dakwar sees clearly how detention practices on the island have now crept onto detention facilities on the mainland. “The general lack of accountability and oversight, the secrecy, the lack of respect for human dignity for persons held in military and immigration facilities, the lack of legally binding standards regulating treatment of persons in both (military and immigrant) facilities—all of this leads to the abuses we’re now seeing in both” said Dakwar, adding, “In cases of people who die while in custody, for example, the government makes it extremely difficult to impossible to find out who is responsible for conditions that lead to the killing or other loss of life.”
For her part, Dakwar’s ALCU colleague, Amrit Singh, a staff attorney who has worked on different cases involving people detained by the Pentagon in Guantanamo and people held in ICE detention facilities believes that “Noncitizen detainees at home and abroad are part of the same continuum of mistreatment. The dogs used on detainees in the New Jersey [immigrant] detention facilities look very similar to the dogs used on detainees in Abu Ghraib and Iraq.”
In the case of both the military and immigrant detention facilities, says Singh, the Bush Administration has used national security imperatives to deny many of the Freedom of Information Act requests she and her colleagues have filed in their efforts to find out things like how people are being treated in detention, under what conditions did detainees die and what kind of medical treatment they are receiving. Asked about progress towards answering these and other questions, Singh responded, “The answer to these questions are still not being made available to us.”
The connections between abuse and death in military and immigration facilities has also caught the eye of the international community. Singh, Darwit and some of the groups and individuals participating in the Night of 1000 Conversations, will be submitting testimony to a United Nations Special Rapporteur who, in the next two weeks, will visit several U.S. cities as he investigates deaths in both overseas detention facilities and in U.S. prisons and immigration detention facilities.
And, as he prepares to take part in the Night of 1000 Conversations, former detainee Ahmad says he will raise his voice to educate people about what he sees as the primary cause of the abuses he saw while in detention, “Creating guilty people and detention are all about war. I will tell people about how all those arrests, all that abuse are all about war, a war on immigrants.”