Mistreatment: A Top-Down Problem

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.

  • Transcript


Question: Is our mistreatment of detainees a top-down problem?

Mahvish Khan: Absolutely, because the individuals who sent our country to war were not historians who understood the complex history of the region or social, cultural anthropologists who knew the cultural, linguistic and religious issues that were involved and nor were they linguists who understood the language, and I think we went to Afghanistan and trusted locals who had huge financial incentives to gain by turning one another in. And we hadn’t done our research in the area and I don’t believe it was done maliciously. I feel that fear and anger was at its peak in the United States following September 11th because this was a spectacular event where three thousand Americans were killed and we were seeing this on TV day in and day out, fifty times a day, for weeks. So that said, I do believe that with our fear and anger we were ignorant in the regional complexities of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Recorded on: 7/17/08