About Witness Against Torture

Witness Against Torture formed in 2005 when 25 Americans went to Guantánamo Bay and attempted to visit the detention facility. Once we returned from that journey, we began to organize more broadly to shut down Guantánamo, working with interfaith, human rights and activists’ organizations.

We have planned a series of nonviolent direct actions to expose and decry the administration’s lawlessness, build awareness about torture and indefinite detention amongst Americans and forge human ties with the prisoners at Guantánamo and their families.

In 2007, we began marking January 11th– the date that the first “war on terror” prisoners arrived at Guantánamo Bay in 2002– as a day of national shame, organizing major demonstrations and civil resistance at sites in Washington, DC and around the country.

January 11, 2007

WAT at the Supreme CourtA day which marked five years of illegal detention, torture and abuse at Guantánamo—we worked with other groups including the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights to organize an international day of action to shut down Guantánamo. From Birmingham, Alabama to Birmingham, UK; from Warsaw to Wichita; in Bahrain and Baltimore; people heeded the call and organized demonstrations to draw attention to the prisoners at Guantánamo.

In Washington, DC, where the largest action took place, nearly 100 people entered the Federal Court House where the cases of Guantánamo detainees should be heard. We read the names of the men who have lost five years of their lives; we read their stories and testimonies of their torture. Most of us did not carry identification—choosing to symbolically and literally walk with a prisoner at Guantánamo through the legal processing once we were arrested.

January 11, 2008

Eighty members of Witness Against Torture were arrested at the Supreme Court demanding that habeas corpus rights be granted the detainees, giving the names of detainees when they were arrested.

In the resulting trial in Washington, D.C. in May 2008, the defendants put Guantánamo itself and Bush’s torture policies on trial.

January 11, 2009

On this date, Witness Against Torture began a nationwide, nine-day fast in protest of Guantánamo and in recognition of the detainees’ hunger strikes there. More than 90 people participated.

We then launched “The 100 Days Campaign to Shut Down Guantánamo and End Torture” on January 22, the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated.

During the 100 Days Campaign, Witness Against Torture activists from all over the U.S. maintained a daily vigil at the White House, brought protest signs to confirmation and other congressional hearings, lobbied lawmakers to change detention policies, and hosted numerous lectures and other public events in the Washington, D.C. area.

January 2010, Fast for Justice from January 11 through January 22

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “under certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness.” In the Summer of 2005, men at Guantánamo began a hunger strike. Were they familiar with that quote? Probably not, but they expressed it fully, pushing against the outer limits of that sentiment as they continued to refuse to eat.

One of the men, Binyam Mohamed, wrote to his lawyer in August 2005, explaining the hunger strike: “we ask only for justice: treat us as promised under the rules of the Geneva Conventions for civilians prisoners while we are held and either treat us fairly for valid criminal charges or set us free.” Binyam Mohamed was 30 when was captured in 2002. He was tortured while in U.S. custody in Morocco, he says, and then brought to Guantánamo in 2004. Binyam Mohamed was released from Guantánamo in February 2009. Upon his return to Britain, he issued a statement: “I have been through an experience that I never thought to encounter in my darkest nightmares. Before this ordeal, torture was an abstract word.”

On the eighth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, Witness Against Torture held a major event at the White House, which coincided with a National Press Club event hosted by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The fast, which involved more than 125 people all over the country began that day and continued through the 22, the date by which President Obama had promised to close Guantánamo. The fasters and allies held daily anti-torture witnesses including “prisoner ghost walks” through the halls of Senate and House office buildings. The days of action culminated on January 21st with a prisoner march from the White House to the Capitol steps where more than thirty orange clad and hooded people unfurled banners that read “Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives” while inside Witness Against Torture activists held a funeral for the men who have died at Guantánamo at the exact place where the bodies of dignitaries are placed for wakes.

Leading up to January 2011, Witness Against Torture engaged in a dialogue with the Department of Justice, meeting with officials on one occasion and then—despite being promised follow up—experiencing stonewalling for months on end. A series of mostly unacknowledged letters followed, leading Witness Against Torture to decide on a concerted focus at the Department of Justice for January 2011.

January 2011

WAT in front of the DOJJanuary 11, 2011 marks the beginning of the 10th year of confinement, abuse and injustice for the men at Guantánamo. What is the human response to nine years of broken laws, broken promises and broken lives? For 2011, Witness Against Torture sought to put a human face on Guantánamo, to hold up the stories of the men there, to remind people in the United States of the need for justice and mercy. The days of action and fasting began on January 11 with a rally at the White House and procession to the Department of Justice where more than one hundred people blocked entrances to the building for hours, demanding a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder or his representative and saying that the work of the DOJ should be disturbed until the pressing issues of justice at Guantánamo were resolved. The DOJ refused to arrest and after a number of hours, activists marched away.  The fasting community included forty or so friends in Washington, and another 60 or so through the country.

We began a daily presence at the Department of Justice, calling, leafleting, encircling the building to demand a hearing and justice. We even did an overnight vigil in the bitter cold to demonstrate our resolve. We returned to the Department of Justice in large numbers again on January 19. We invited AG Holder to break bread with the fasters and discuss urgent matters of justice and blocked entrances to the building when that invitation went unaccepted. No arrests were made, and our fast was broken on January 21st.

June 2011

Witness Against Torture returned to Washington in June 2011 for the Torture Abolitions and Survivors Support Coalition International annual vigil against torture at the White House. On June 22 we organized a “Walk of Shame” by all of the institutions responsible for the ongoing crime of indefinite detention at Guantánamo and were joined by friends from many other organizations. The following day, we went to the House of Representatives gallery the stood one by one and addressed the men and women elected to represent their interests.

Spread throughout the Gallery, the fourteen were able to complete their statements before being led away by Congressional guards. Many of the Representatives on the floor listened intently, while others jeered derisively. Everyone within hearing range understood that the activists were objecting to the continued abuse and detention of men at Guantánamo—many of whom have been cleared for release under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama and continue to be held largely because of the political cowardice of Congress.

“Today the House of Representative is in the process of contemplating not the passage of a bill but the commission of a crime. Provisions in the proposed Defense Appropriations Bill grant the United States powers over the lives of detained men fitting of a totalitarian state that uses the law itself as an instrument of tyranny. The law would make the prison at Guantánamo permanent by denying funds for the transfer of men to the United States, even for prosecution in civilian courts.”

Trial for the fourteen was set for January 3, 2012 and we began organizing for the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo.

January 2012

It was hard to get motivated again to organize for yet another fast and witness, but the fact that our friends were on trial and that so little had changed (except for the worst) for the men at Guantánamo proved to be inspiration enough. For the tenth anniversary, we decided to bring more attention to Bagram, where more than one thousand are being held and face many of the same legal challenges and harsh treatment as the men at Guantánamo. January 2012: From Guantánamo to Bagram, we say no to torture, we call for accountability for the torturers, and demand justice for the victims of US abuse.
Sunrise at the Cage Vigil

We began on January 2 and fasted through the 12th. More than fifty joined the fasting community in Washington, DC and another 100 or so fasted throughout the country. We had an ambitious plan for our time together: support our friends on trial and help them put Guantánamo on trial, using the courtroom as a platform for education and witness; daily vigils and actions throughout the city; and all the while building momentum for a major day of action with a broad coalition of partners on January 11—including Amnesty International, TASSC and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The trial stretched through the first week and ended in dropped charges for many and suspended jail sentences for four. We began a 24 hour a day vigil at the White House with a Guantánamo “prisoner” in the iconic cage the very next day and held that space through January 11th.  And we had daily marches, vigils and events throughout the second week.

On January 11th, more than one thousand people rallied in the driving rain in front of the White House before beginning a slow procession of shame through the streets of Washington. Lead by 174 people dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods (representing each of the men still at Guantánamo), we ended with a rally at the Supreme Court, where a new case on behalf of men at Guantánamo had been filed that morning.

On January 12, we left the cage on the White House sidewalk and shut down the picture post card zone for more than three hours in an “orange-out” of the city’s top tourist destination. Thirty-five fasters were eventually arrested. Charges against all of them have since been dropped.

And the work continues

Witness Against Torture will carry on in its activities until torture is decisively ended, its victims are fully acknowledged, Guantánamo and similar facilities are closed, and those who ordered and committed torture are held to account.