Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is an American lawyer, born to immigrant Pashtun parents in Michigan. While persuing a law degree at the University of Miami, she became enraged by the illegal detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Having grown up listening to her mother tell her “Now is not the time to be complacent,” Khan felt compelled to help any way she could. With her fluency in Pashto and a familiarity with Afghan cultures and customs that no other “habeas” lawyer with security clearance had, she was quickly taken on as an interpreter for Afghan detainees. Six months later, in January 2006, Khan was on her way to Guantanamo Bay. Her role with the detainees quickly developed. She began providing supervised legal counsel and traveled to Afghanistan to find exonerating evidence for prisoners.
During more than thirty trips to Guantanamo, Khan unexpectedly connected with the very men that Donald Rumsfeld called “the worst of the worst.” She brought them starbucks chai, the closest available drink to the kind of tea they would drink at home. And they quickly befriended her, offering fatherly advice as well as a uniquely personal insight into their plight, and that of their families thousands of miles away. As time went by Khan began to question whether Guantanamo truly held America’s most dangerous enemies. But regardless of each prisoner’s innocence or guilt, she was determined to preserve their most fundamental right, the right to a fair trial.
For Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, the experience was a validation of her Afghan heritage—as well as her American Freedoms, which allowed her to intervene at Guantanamo purely out of her sense that it was the right thing to do. Her story is challenging, brave, and essential test of who she is—and who we are.
Mahvish Rukhsana Khan is a recent law school graduate and journalist. She has been published in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media. She lives in San Diego.
Question: How do detainees and their families cope with their predicament?
Mahvish Khan: Some of the individuals that I’ve met who have been released suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. I have been told from their families that they sleep in fetal positions and those are the lucky ones who have access to medical care and can... and have the awareness to know that. And others are... The ones that I have had experiences with are genuinely happy to be home. I don’t know the extent of their depression or anger but for the most part when I speak to them on the phone and have seen them they are happy to be with their families again.
Recorded on: 7/17/08