My Guantanamo Diary

Mahvish Khan, a daughter of two Afghan immigrants, was a young law student when she first heard of the illegal detainment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.  Appalled that these men were being denied their most fundamental right – their right to a fair trial – she volunteered to serve as a translator for the prisoners. Her fluency in Pashto and a familiarity with Afghan cultures and customs granted her insights into their lives that no other “habeas” lawyer with security clearance had.  Over time, Khan began to question whether Guantanamo truly held, as Donal Rumsfeld famously said, ” the worst of the worst” – and why the prisoners were being detained in the first place.  My Guantanamo Diary is an extraordinary tale of one woman’s courage and commitment to justice, and an affirmation of the value of our civil liberties.

This heartbreaking book outlines the horror that hundreds of men suffer at Guantanamo Bay, the infamous “terrorist” prison of America.  As Mahvish meets each man as a translator for habeas lawyers, and offering counsel herself under the supervision of a practicing lawyer, she begins to understand that while there may be a few terrorists lodged in Guantanamo, a staggering amount of the men are innocent.  And they have been held as prisoners without any legal rights… even those afforded to POW’s under the Geneva Convention.

Fighting to understand and help free these men, Mahvish tells us of her sense of betrayal in her country.  As she becomes closer to the men, it becomes harder to help them.  Mahvish is threatened with losing her access to the prisoners over things as simple as not wearing close toed shoes, a rule that was implemented on one of her trips without anyone having told her.  She tells the stories of other lawyers who the government has tried to stop from coming to Guantanamo…. even going as far as accusing one lawyer of supplying his clients with Under Armour military underwear.

A must read for anyone with interest in Guantanamo.  As the St. Petersburg Times said, “Reading it will change you.  With any luck, it will change the world.”

Why I liked it:

Mahvish’s narration of her time at Guantanamo, and her description of the prisoners and their treatment is profound.  To know that this type of treatment happens in a “civilized” world is appalling.   Mahvish makes sure that readers understand her role clearly and the role of other habeas counsellors who spend their time and money trying to help these men to even get a fair trial.

It is important to know that this doesn’t really go into the history of Guantanamo.  This is strictly a book about the people who have been forced to live there.  As someone who does not really know much about Guantanamo, I would suggest checking out other sources.


Haji Nusrat Khan, detainee No. 1009, is Guantanamo Bay’s oldest prisoner.  Except he’s not sure exactly how old he is: no one recorded births back when he was born.  “I do not know the year,” he told me.  “But I am eighty.  Or perhaps I am seventy-eight.”  Who knows?

When I first met him at Camp Echo, I found it hard to imagine how this old man could be a threat to U.S. national security or a global terrorist.  A stroke fifteen years earlier had left him paralyzed and bedridden; he was still unable to stand up without assistance.  when he needed to go to the bathroom, he hobbled slowly, leaning heavily on a walker.

His hugely swollen legs and feet were tightly cuffed and shackled to the floor… He didn’t want to die in prison, he sighed, for a crime he had not committed.

Nusrat’s troubles began in early 2003, a few days after he went to the U.S. authorities to complain about the arrest of his son Izatullah (also detained at Guantanamo).  The Americans had accused his son of having ties to al-Qaeda and for harboring a cache of weapons.  When Nusrat complained that his son had done nothing wrong and should be released, U.S. soldiers paid a visit to his home.

Here is a talk that Mahvish Khan gave for Authors@Google in 2008


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Filed under Non-Fiction Reviews, Uncategorized

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