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April 13, 2016
When Deborah Alejandra Popowski, J.D.’08, was just beginning her studies at Harvard Law School (HLS), she learned a powerful lesson about the value and import of the law.
An American attorney representing a Guantanamo detainee spoke at an HLS event. The lawyer told of her client, a Saudi citizen in his early 20s, and of the regimen of inhuman treatment that he endured at the hands of U.S. military forces. For Popowski, the lawyer’s testimony brought home the human dimension of torture.
“Everybody in law school was talking about concepts and the rule of law regarding torture,” Popowski said. “That was the first time that I had ever heard somebody talking about people.”
Ever since, she has tried to follow that example and tend the people.
Since 2009, when Popowski began working as a fellow at the HLS International Human Rights Clinic, she has advocated for torture survivors as part of a movement to seek accountability for U.S. torture through both state and international courts.
Popowski, who became an HLS clinical instructor in 2011, has focused on the role that psychologists played in the U.S. torture program authorized by the Bush administration and implemented as part of its “war on terror.”
As is widely known, psychologists helped design the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included water-boarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and religious and sexual humiliation of Muslim men and boys detained by U.S. intelligence and military agencies. Psychologists also participated in interrogations as advisers.
Popowski recalled an internal military report that documented an interrogation session in which a detainee was repeatedly slammed onto the floor and ended up spitting up blood, with a loose tooth, bruises, and rib pain.
“The psychiatrist who was present didn’t say, ‘You shouldn’t be slamming him at all.’ He recommended the slamming,” said Popowski. His “protection” of the man, she said, was to tell the interrogator to move chairs out of the way before slamming him again.
Examining the controversial participation of psychologists in the U.S. torture program, Popowski will take part in a panel on Wednesday with David Luban of Georgetown University Law Center.
“The official narrative was that psychologists were there to keep interrogations safe and ethical,” Popowski said. “But they were there not to protect detainees; they were there to calibrate harm.”
Widespread public criticism of the American Psychological Association (APA) for endorsing the U.S. program led the group last summer to prohibit its members from taking part in interrogations by military or intelligence services. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon announced the withdrawal of psychologists from Guantanamo Bay.
For Popowski, both decisions are reasons to celebrate because they represent a landmark in the movement for reform and prevention within the association, whose call is to heal and do no harm.
An independent report last year commissioned by the APA concluded that the association had colluded with the Department of Defense inappropriately by aligning its ethics policies with military directives to protect the role of psychologists during interrogations they had reason to know were abusive. According to Popowski, this collusion enabled torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of human rights and humanitarian law.
Although the report validated Popowski’s position, she still worries about what she calls the U.S. government’s unwillingness to hold accountable the military and civilian officials who were responsible for the program. She represented a group of Ohio residents — including psychologists, lawyers, a minister, and a veteran — who filed a complaint with that state’s licensing board against Dr. Larry James for his role in Guantanamo. Other advocates presented evidence relating to Dr. James and other psychologists, alleging their involvement in torture, to licensing boards in Texas, New York, Louisiana, and Alabama.
In no case did a state board bring formal charges. Popowski said they offered “opaque, implausible, or seemingly pretextual justifications for their decisions” and “seemed to turn a blind eye” to credible evidence. All this, she said, highlights the lack of accountability for those who designed and implemented policies condoning torture. So for Popowski, the struggle is not over.
In her HLS classes and clinic, Popowski strives to teach students the effects of the legal practice on people’s lives, an aspect that she believes is somewhat overlooked in law schools across the country. As part of the International Human Rights Clinic, she took students to Geneva, where they, along with Trudy Bond, a psychologist from Toledo, Ohio, presented the UN Committee Against Torture with the 2014 shadow report that they helped write. The committee concluded that the U.S. government should investigate senior officials, lawyers and other civilians responsible for their role in the program.
Students also participated in litigation and in other advocacy work that accompanied the legal action.
“We want lawyers and advocates who are compassionate and empathetic people,” she said. “They have to be able to understand the tremendous impact their policies, rules, and actions can have on people. It’s an ethical question students have to wrestle with — what responsibilities they have as lawyers.”
Popowski feels optimistic about the future.
A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Popowski was born in Argentina during a military dictatorship. She likes to tell her students that in 1999, when she was writing her bachelor’s thesis on collective memory in Argentina, prospects for justice in cases of torture and human rights violations committed by the military junta were dim. Nearly a decade later, when she came back to HLS, Argentina had become an example of accountability for crimes of torture and forced disappearance.
“That’s the way I like to think about this work,” she said. “You have to be ready to challenge your concept of what’s possible and have a long-term imagination.”
August 20, 2015
Posted by Deborah Popowski
This post was originally published on the Human Rights at Home Blog
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released on August 5th a report denouncing the United States government for unlawfully detaining men in Guantánamo in violation of their human rights and offering recommendations for how the Obama administration should hasten the prison’s closure. It calls for the immediate release of all detainees who will not be charged or tried, and for the use of federal courts instead of military commissions to prosecute those not released.
Personal Integrity and Access to Justice
The 136-page report, “Towards the Closure of Guantánamo,” provides the most recent holistic and independent account of conditions in the prison. The Commission expresses particular concerns about indefinite detention; the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; a discriminatory detention regime; limited or no access to judicial protection; lack of due process; and lack of an adequate defense.
The Commission calls on the US to end the inhumane practice of force-feeding detainees and to ensure that all men receive “adequate medical, psychiatric and psychological care” that respects principles of confidentiality, patient autonomy, and informed consent.
The report also takes on the conditions that contribute to these grave health problems, including prolonged isolation, incommunicado detention, and indefinite detention. On the latter, it notes having “received specialized information on the severe and lasting physiological and psychological damage caused by the detainees’ high degree of uncertainty over whether they will be released and when; or whether they will see their family members again.” It adds that the “continuing state of suffering and uncertainty creates grave consequences such as stress, fear, depression, and anxiety, and affects the central nervous system as well as the cardiovascular and immunological systems” and concludes that the continued, indefinite detention of men in Guantánamo violates their right to humane treatment.
The Commission’s analysis of personal integrity violations underscores that the fulfillment of this right requires providing detainees with meaningful avenues to monitor, challenge, and remedy their treatment and conditions. To this end, it asks the US government to declassify evidence of torture and ill-treatment, disclose conditions in Camp 7, ensure accessible and effective judicial review, and grant access to an independent monitoring body to investigate detention conditions. Additionally, it urges compliance with the UN Committee Against Torture’s recommendations to investigate all abuse allegations, prosecute those responsible, and ensure effective redress for victims of torture and ill-treatment.
An entire chapter is devoted to detailed analysis of the judicial remedies available to detainees post-Boumediene, which the Commission concludes are neither adequate nor effective, citing concerns with the operation of presumptions and burdens of proof. While the report credits the US with positive changes made via the Military Commissions Act of 2009, it ultimately finds that the military commissions system fails to meet the government’s human rights obligations. Its main areas of concern include their “independence and impartiality …, the uncertainty regarding the application of the US Constitution; respect for the right of equality before the law, to confrontation and to a speedy trial; respect for the principle of legality, and the retroactive prosecution of crimes.”
“A Prison for Foreign Muslim Men”
The Commission notes that Guantánamo’s exceptional regime is rendered even more problematic because of its exclusive application to Muslim men of non-U.S. nationalities, “which creates the appearance that it is targeting individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, and religion.” Reports of religious-related abuse also played a role in the Commission’s personal integrity analysis. The report’s conclusions and recommendations remind the US government of its obligations to respect detainees’ rights to freedom of conscience and religion, and specify that these include guaranteeing access both to communal prayer and a Muslim chaplain.
The Commission calls on the US to allow transfers for trial, emergency medical treatment, and also for release and settlement in the cases of cleared men who cannot return to their home countries and are unwilling or unable to settle elsewhere. To that end, it asks Congress to repeal the National Defense Authorization Act provisions that restrict transfers of Guantánamo detainees to the United States, and urges the executive to interpret the NDAA requirements “in a flexible manner” so as to meet its rights obligations. The report also highlights other necessary measures within the executive’s power, such as expediting the Periodic Review process, stepping up diplomatic negotiations, accelerating transfers to countries of origin or third countries, and ensuring that Yemeni detainees cases receive individualized reviews.
Finally, it calls upon other member states to accept detainees for resettlement. Given the Commission’s influence in the region, advocates are hopeful that this report, with its detailed and unequivocal critique of the regime’s unlawfulness, will significantly help efforts to resettle some of the cleared men in Latin America.
July 23, 2015
Posted by Mindy Roseman
In the last few weeks, the public’s attention has been drawn to the relationship between the American Psychological Association’s (APA) leadership and US military and intelligence operations in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New York Times first revealed the findings of the APA’s commissioned inquiry into its own activities. The Hoffman report, as this investigation is known, found that APA officials colluded with government officials to enable psychologists to participate in torture.
APA Ethics Director Stephen Behnke was fired shortly before the the report was released to the public. He has since retained as counsel former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who issued a statement rejecting the investigation’s findings. Behnke is a lawyer-psychologist and former instructor in Harvard Medical School’s department of psychiatry.
Earlier this week, The Boston Globe reported on the Harvard ties of two former APA presidents implicated in the report: Gerald Koocher, a psychologist at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, and Ronald Levant, who taught at Harvard and Boston University.
Most recently, Russ Newman, whose actions as chief of the APA’s practice directorate also came under scrutiny in the Hoffman report, resigned as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Alliant International in San Diego.
That there is renewed focus on this issue and finally some recognition of responsibility is testament to the persistent and incisive efforts of a national grassroots movement to hold psychologists accountable for their complicity in torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, in violation of international and US domestic law and codes of ethics. For years, our colleague, Deborah Popowski, Clinical Instructor, has played a critical role in that movement, alongside her clients, Trudy Bond, Josie Setzler, Michael Reese and Colin Bossen. Read more about their work together here and here.
September 13, 2012
Posted by Deborah Popowski
Adnan Latif died on Saturday. He died in Guantánamo. The Pentagon says he was 32 years old. David Remes, one of his lawyers, says that his documents show that he was 35 or 36 years old. Given the U.S. government’s dismal track record in getting its facts straight on the people they have rendered, tortured and detained for years without charge, I’ll go with David’s assessment.
Either way, Adnan and I were close in age.
Of all the things I could write about, this is what I keep coming back to. I’m trying to figure out what it is about this particular piece of horror news that is making me cry. This is a question worth asking when reading horror news is a big part of what you do for a living, and the things that once made you cry – the things that you imagined would make everyone cry – stop doing so as regularly, probably because crying all the time, every day, would be too hard.
Last night, I taught my first class of the semester, and today, the mad, exhilarating rush of project work begins, but all I can think about is how long a decade is. I’ve been thinking about how when Adnan was 25, or maybe 24, my government bought Adnan from the Pakistanis for $5000, and flew him, shackled and drugged, to Guantánamo. And how it was around the same time that this same government flew me to Niger to serve in the Peace Corps, where I explained to Muslims that, never mind what they heard on the radio, my country was not at war with Islam.
The series of images flickers by, our decades in review in split-screen, the realization that for the last ten years, while I made my way through nine homes and a dozen countries; while I explored two other careers before applying to, attending, graduating from and coming back to teach law school; while I was meeting, befriending, falling in love with and marrying my husband—Adnan was sitting, pacing, writing, and fighting in a cell, ill and far from his loved ones.
His lawyer David, who spent the better part of the last few years fighting alongside Adnan for justice, released this statement about him:
“Slightly built and gentle, he was a father and husband. He was a talented poet and was devoutly religious. He never posed a threat to the United States, and he never should have been brought to Guantanamo. The military has not stated a cause of death. However Adnan died, it was Guantanamo that killed him. His death is a reminder of the human cost of the government’s Guantanamo detention policy and underscores the urgency of releasing detainees the government does not intend to prosecute.”
Adam Cohen of The Atlantic summarizes here, with devastating efficiency, the perversity of the system that brought him to this death.
November 14, 2011
November 15, 2011
“Indefinite Detention in the Obama Era”
A Panel Discussion with Gitanjali Gutierrez and P. Sabin Willett
Moderated by Deborah Popowski, Lecturer on Law & Clinical Instructor, Harvard Law School
12:00- 1:00 pm
Please join us for a discussion of the legal, political, and human consequences of the current administration’s detention policies.
Gitanjali S. Gutierrez was the first habeas attorney to visit the U.S. Naval Prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She was formerly with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based human rights organization that has been litigating challenges to the Executive’s post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies. Ms. Gutierrez was a member of the legal team representing detainees held in Guantánamo in U.S. Supreme Court cases Rasul v. Bush (2004) and Boumediene v. Bush (2008). She is currently counsel for Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi citizen still detained in Guantánamo, who was subjected to the “first special interrogation plan,” a regime of torture and inhuman treatment authorized by former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
P. Sabin Willett, JD ’83, is a partner at Bingham McCutchen and has been active in the firm’s representation of Guantánamo detainees since 2005. He led the team that won landmark victories, including the first-ever review of a Guantánamo prisoner’s case under the Detainee Treatment Act in Parhat v. Gates, and the first-ever habeas judgment, ordering prisoners’ immediate release into the United States in Kiyemba v. Bush.
Co- sponsored by the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights, Harvard Human Rights Journal, National Lawyers’ Guild-HLS Chapter.
March 25, 2011
Former GITMO Psychologist Claims to be Named to White House Task Force on “Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family”
Posted by Cara Solomon
UPDATED POST: See comment below.
Larry James, former Guantanamo psychologist and subject of a professional misconduct complaint filed by the International Human Rights Clinic, has claimed he was appointed to a White House Task Force on “Enhancing Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family.”
“That’s just a scary thought,” said Michael Reese, a former U.S. Army private, a member of Disabled American Veterans, and one of the Ohio residents who filed the complaint. “I just don’t trust him.”
In an e-mail to colleagues and students of Wright State University, where Dr. James serves as Dean of the School of Professional Psychology, he announced “with great pride and pleasure” that he had been “appointed by the First Lady,” and that he would be attending the Task Force’s first meeting at the White House, to be hosted next Tuesday by Mrs. Obama and her staff.
In a Salon post today, Glenn Greenwald asks:
“Of all the psychologists to choose from, why would they possibly choose to honor and elevate the former chief psychologist of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at the height of the Bush abuses? More disturbing still, among those most damaged by detainee abuse are the service members forced to participate in it; why would the White House possibly want to put on a task force about the health of military families someone, such as Dr. James, who at the very least is directly associated with policies that so profoundly harmed numerous members of the military and their families?”
Today, Greenwald received an interesting response from the White House in which it disputes some—but not all—of Dr. James’s statements. As a result of this response, we changed the language in the headline from “Named to White House Task Force” to “Claims to Be Named to White House Task Force,” and, in the text, changed the wording of the first paragraph from “reportedly appointed” to “claims he was appointed.” We also included additional quotes from the e-mail circulated by Dr. James to the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology community.
In an update this afternoon, Greenwald wrote:
“In an email to me from the First Lady’s Communications Director, the White House claims:
Several members of the White House staff are convening a meeting with multiple mental health professionals on Tuesday to discuss issues pertaining to the wellness of military families. SAMHSA and the American Psychological Association have both been asked to attend. We understand that Dr. James is involved with these groups and may have been indirectly invited to attend this meeting.
She claims, however, that he now will not be at that meeting, and further states that ‘Dr. James has not been appointed to serve in any capacity with the White House.'”
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