Please tell us about yourself
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.
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.
What do you do?
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.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
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.