Alka Pradhan v. Gitmo: A human rights lawyer's battle for justice

The Galaxy 19 is a communications satellite that orbits over North America, beaming free-to-air programming to hundreds of thousands of households. It also happens to be the way detainees at Guantánamo Bay get their television. The satellite carries a wealth of religious programming, from “Bible Explorations” to “God’s Learning Channel” to “Global Buddhist Network” — not a lineup well tailored to the particular viewing interests of the Gitmo demographic. What detainees tend to be most interested in is current events, and among the news channels that the satellite carries, RT is one of the most popular. So for lawyers who want their Guantánamo clients to see that their interests are being represented, RT is probably the best option. For that reason, in 2014, a young defense lawyer named Alka Pradhan became a frequent guest on the channel. And because Pradhan is technically an employee of the Department of Defense, her appearances constitute one of countless idiosyncrasies of Gitmo: a contractor for the United States military using a Russian propaganda channel while working for Al Qaeda terror suspects.

That was one way she wound up auditioning, unwittingly, for one of the most high-profile detainees still there: Ammar al-Baluchi, the 39-year-old Pakistani man accused of running money for the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2015, when Baluchi won approval to add a new lawyer to his team, he wanted the woman he’d seen on RT, defending his neighbors with so much vigor. Since then, Pradhan’s sole job has been to defend the suspected Qaeda moneyman. The government is trying to execute him, along with four co-defendants, all charged with organizing the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history.

Pradhan’s title is “human rights counsel.” Aside from trying to win a trial that hasn’t yet begun, her job is to remind the tribunals, and as much of the world as she can, that her client is human, that he has rights and that those rights have been brutally violated.

Pradhan was an intern at the United Nations headquarters in 2003 when, 7,000 miles away, a team of Pakistani rangers tracked down Ammar al-Baluchi in Karachi and apprehended him. Pradhan would later spend years trying to find out from the American government exactly what happened next.

From C.I.A. cables, we know that even in the process of being detained, Baluchi was forthcoming. The Pakistanis held him for about a week and found him cooperative. One official used the word “chatty.”

They decided to torture him anyway. The C.I.A. extracted Baluchi from Pakistan’s custody and took him to the Salt Pit, a secret black site near Kabul, according to officials who spoke to The Washington Post in 2014. Detainees there were stripped down, bound with tape and then dragged, naked, up and down the halls, while people punched them. Baluchi says his head was dunked in a tub of ice water, his face held under the surface until he thought he was drowning. His head was shaved, then driven against a wall repeatedly, so forcefully and so many times that he saw sparks of light exploding in front of his eyes, growing in size and intensity until he experienced what felt like a jolt of electricity. His vision went dark, and he passed out.

He came to in a different room, perhaps a different building, maybe even a different country: We know from media reports that several months after the Salt Pit he was taken to a black site in Romania. Impossibly loud heavy-metal music played, intermixed with grating noises that felt to Baluchi as if they were digging into his ears and pounding his brain. He didn’t know how long he’d been unconscious. He was naked. The room was cold and dark. He remembers that he was too weak to stand, but that his hands were suspended above his head in cuffs attached to the ceiling, so as his body slumped, his weight pulled his wrists into the metal, which bore into his skin. When he complained, his wrists were levered higher.

He was kept awake. When he fell asleep, he was punched. His legs throbbed and swelled from standing. Finally, Baluchi saw a doctor approach. The doctor measured the swelling and approved Baluchi for more abuse.

We either don’t know or can’t corroborate all of the techniques that were used on Baluchi, because so much of the program remains classified, withheld even from Pradhan and her co-counsel. (The C.I.A. declined to comment specifically on Baluchi’s claims of torture.) And though Baluchi has written extensively about what happened to him, only a small portion of what he thinks, writes and says makes it through classification review. But we know that he was subjected to the C.I.A.'s rendition program for nearly three years, between his arrest in Pakistan and his arrival at Gitmo. It was a period during which he had no contact with his family but knew that they thought he was dead. In a sense, he was. He goes by Ammar al Baluchi because that name — an alias he had used — was the one the C.I.A. called him during his torture. Baluchi feels his birth name, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, is now foreign to him, that it belongs to a different person, someone who died in custody.

We know that all of it — the movement, the music, the creative administration of pain — was part of the C.I.A.'s attempt to instill in him a sense of “learned helplessness.” We know that “learned helplessness” is a theory developed in the 1960s by psychologists who gave electrical shocks to dogs. And according to the Senate investigation, the program produced no new intelligence from Baluchi or anyone else.

While Baluchi was being escorted through the C.I.A.'s rendition program, Pradhan was collecting degrees from America’s finest academic institutions. Her grandfather worked for the United Nations, so she saw international relations as glamorous. She hybridized the two interests: a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s in international law from Johns Hopkins, a law degree from Columbia and a master of laws with a focus on human rights from the London School of Economics.

After three years at the law firm White & Case in New York, angling to get on every foreign assignment she could, she quit and began working for a series of nonprofit groups, refocusing on what she figured to be the most grievous violation of international law that her country was actively carrying out — the detentions at Guantánamo Bay. In 2013, she began working for Reprieve, an organization that helped defend detainees there. One of her first clients was Emad Hassan, a genial young man with an easy sense of humor, held at Gitmo because of a translation error.

When the team defending one of the suspected Sept. 11 plotters, by then in his 12th year of United States custody, won approval to hire a new lawyer to focus on human rights, he wanted the woman who looked as if she could be his sister. He wanted Pradhan.

When Pradhan flies down to Gitmo, which she does every month or two, her conversations with her client often have less to do with proving his innocence than with what has happened to him since his suspected crimes. So on a morning of brutal January weather, two days after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, Pradhan, who turned 36 this month, left her husband and young daughter at home in Washington and boarded a plane at Andrews Air Force Base to put herself between her government and a man accused of helping arrange the murder of 2,973 people.

I was not allowed to meet Baluchi — he can’t meet anyone besides his lawyers — so what I know about Pradhan’s visits with her client at Camp Echo comes from members of the legal team. They won’t share direct quotes from him, because other Gitmo lawyers have had their clearances suspended or revoked for sharing too much from their client.

Pradhan had important coming motions to discuss with Baluchi about N.S.A. surveillance, about trying to access Red Cross records that might shed light on his torture and one about improving the conditions of his detention.

In the case against Baluchi and his four co-defendants, the United States has leveled charges that include conspiracy, terrorism, hijacking and 2,973 counts of murder. The government is seeking the death penalty for all of them. But more than 16 years have elapsed since the attacks, and the actual trial is probably still a long way off. There are years of pretrial motions to be argued, because, though this may be the most significant trial of our lifetimes, it is also a legal experiment. And it’s a legal experiment with a few false starts already.

Karen Greenberg, who is the founder and director of Fordham University Law School’s Center on National Security and who has published books about Guantánamo and the terror courts, says the commissions are essentially doomed. What’s really happening here, she says, is just “perpetual detention with the patina of a court process.” One of the most likely scenarios is that the defendants just die at Guantánamo, never having been sentenced.

To convict Baluchi in particular, and to secure a death sentence against him, the prosecution has to prove not just that Baluchi was involved in the Sept. 11 plot but that he knew he was involved. Pradhan doesn’t think they can.

Altogether, he wired about $150,000 to people involved in the plot all around the world, according to the government. He was asked at an early hearing about his contact with Marwan al Shehhi, who flew American Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. “Did you wire transfer over $100,000 in separate transactions to al Shehhi? Do you admit to that?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“What was the purpose of that money?”

“I don’t know.”

According to Terry McDermott, one of the authors of “The Hunt for K.S.M.” and the foremost civilian authority on Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, it is plausible that Baluchi didn’t know what exactly he was involved with before the attacks. His uncle was fastidious about operational security. Mohammad used dozens of SIM cards and aliases, practiced compartmentalization and used multiple vehicles when traveling to and from meetings. It would have been out of character to jeopardize a mission by letting anyone know what the plan was. And Mohammad, for what it’s worth, does not deny his own involvement in the attacks; he proclaims it. He maintains that his nephew knew nothing.

McDermott, however, believes Baluchi willingly participated, even if he didn’t know specifically what he was participating in. The C.I.A. reported that even after Sept. 11, Baluchi was involved in plots against Western targets in Pakistan, including the United States Consulate in Karachi. And the agency says that when Mohammad was arrested in 2003, his plans for another spectacular operation fell from uncle to nephew.

But the C.I.A. learned of these plots from Mohammad after its operatives began waterboarding him, which they did at least 183 times. Much of what he said during that period has since been proved false. Mohammad later retracted those statements, even as he continued to boast of his own involvement in Sept. 11.

The day after the meeting with Baluchi at Camp Echo was a hearing day.

Baluchi sat down and slipped off the basketball sneakers he was wearing; he would follow the proceedings in socks. There weren’t enough chairs at Baluchi’s table, so Pradhan knelt beside him as they waited for the judge. Even if Pradhan and Baluchi had been speaking above a whisper, the few people (including me) watching from the gallery and those watching via satellite feed probably wouldn’t have been able to hear what they were saying. All that observers — generally press, family members and nongovernment-organization workers — can hear is the sound loud enough to be picked up by microphones and piped out on a 45-second delay.

When the hearing finally began and Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the lead prosecutor, got up to speak, Pradhan’s body language changed. She looked coiled and alert. “Good morning, your honor,” he said. “Present in the back of the courtroom, James Fitzgerald and Brianna Hearn of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Pradhan didn’t know why the F.B.I. sat there, but she says they’re always there. The judge asked each legal team which of their members were present and then recounted recent developments.

“The issue before me right now is whether or not we can continue with the case for these sessions scheduled for the next eight days in the absence of Ms. Bormann,” Judge Pohl said.

One of Pradhan’s colleagues, Cheryl Bormann, a lawyer for Walid bin Attash, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and a suspected Sept. 11 planner, had fallen and broken her wrist just before the trip. She had to have emergency surgery and couldn’t come to Gitmo for the hearings. Because she’s the one “learned counsel,” for bin Attash, meaning the one lawyer experienced in capital murder cases, bin Attash now lacked proper representation.

After a few hours of arguments, the judge made his decision: The deposition would go forward. The first testimony in the Sept. 11 trial would be given while one of the accused lacked a capital-qualified lawyer. Pradhan was stunned.

Alka Pradhan v. Gitmo: A human rights lawyer's battle for justice

From the outside looking in, it’s not obvious why Pradhan even bothers. The amount of time and work it’s going to take before a jury will decide on guilt or innocence, let alone a sentence, if any of that even ever happens, is oppressive. “So damn far away,” she said, when I asked when she thought the actual trial might start. And when I asked if she was confident it would happen at all, she said, “I honestly have no idea.”

She can argue why she believes Baluchi can beat the charges if it ever gets to that, but it’s still hard to see him ever walking free. It looks more and more like the prosecution and defense are all working impossibly long hours for men whose fates are, if forestalled, still inevitable. It’s hard to see how it isn’t, as Karen Greenberg said, just “perpetual detention.” In a sense, the lawyers and their clients are all trapped together, invested in a process that may not end until the accused find another way to die.

But what became clear over the time I spent with Pradhan is that there’s another reason she spends so much energy on him, and it goes beyond her belief that a favorable outcome is possible if they work hard enough. Pradhan believes the trial provides a kind of therapy. Not the kind of therapy a trial is ostensibly supposed to bring — the closure, the healing for victims — but instead healing for the accused.

Early on in our conversations, Pradhan began to articulate an idea I found surprising. “At this point,” she said, “Ammar has been in custody for 13 years. He has very real struggles stemming from his torture.” She has watched him participate in the case, and she has begun to see his work as an antidote for the learned helplessness taught to him by the C.I.A. It was a way to move toward something, to quiet the part of his mind where the heavy-metal music hasn’t stopped, the part that nudges him awake every 45 minutes, every night to prepare for more beatings. Working with Pradhan on his trial for mass murder is what she thinks keeps him going.

It’s why when she sits on the floor of the trailer at Camp Echo to prepare for a hearing, no matter how much the team has to get through, no matter how important tomorrow’s motions are, it’s the suspected terrorist who sets the agenda. And it’s why when she kneels beside him in the courtroom, even though she thinks her job — and maybe her career, and maybe her purpose in life — is to be a loud and unreserved voice for the voiceless, she tries, in those moments, to listen as much as she speaks.

But when she does, she finds that there’s always so much he wants to know about her before he’s ready to talk about his defense. When they meet at Camp Echo, Baluchi, without fail, asks about her family. Mostly, he wants to know about her daughter; Pradhan once took her there, to Gitmo, “to see where Mama works.” And though they couldn’t see Baluchi together, they went shopping for him together. That started a tradition: Pradhan brings him berries from the Navy Exchange, saying she’s delivering them on orders from the 5-year-old. Now whenever Pradhan walks in, Baluchi wants to know how the girl is doing, how her French is coming along. And it’s only afterward — after Pradhan tells Baluchi the latest about this friend he’ll never meet, sitting on a floor cluttered with McDonald’s cups and foam clamshells — that they finally get down to the endless task of keeping him alive.

(Jeffrey E. Stern is an investigative journalist and the author of two books, “The Last Thousand” and “The 15:17 to Paris.”)

— The New York Times

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