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Charles Benjamin Gittings Jr. dies at 57; activist against abuse of terror prisoners

He launched a website that became an invaluable resource for attorneys in terrorism cases and civil liberties advocates working to try to close Guantanamo.

July 16, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau

Charles Benjamin Gittings Jr., who for nearly nine years ran a website dedicated to stopping prisoner abuse in the war on terrorism, died Wednesday at his home in Fort Bragg, Calif., after a long battle with cancer. He would have been 58 next week.

Though not a lawyer, Gittings had a life-long interest in military tactics and law that led him to become an invaluable resource to some of the nation's greatest experts in the field.

His death prompted an outpouring of tributes from civil liberties attorneys across the nation who worked with him to try to close the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"How very wrong it seems that Charlie is gone and that Guantanamo continues," said Thomas Wilner, a Washington lawyer who represented groups of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and often sought Gittings' advice on their legal rights. "When we finally close that horrible place down, we must put a plaque there commemorating Charlie's contributions."

Eugene Fidell, a professor of military law at Yale Law School, said that "when the history of this era is written, Charlie's contribution and tenacity will be remembered."

Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gittings created the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions, a website he ran from his home that compiled memos, court filings, amicus briefs and other evidence of what he believed were war crimes.

At the time, Gittings was divorced and had lost his job as a computer programmer. His interest in the military had been ignited long before, when he read Homer's epic poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" at age 9. He decided to put his knowledge to work helping the lawyers represent the detainees.

"I was resolved to do whatever I could to help in this crisis," Gittings said in a recent interview. "You can never prove these things, but I do think I made a difference."

His evidentiary material was often used by detainees' attorneys to challenge the George W. Bush administration's justification for harsh treatment and lengthy sentences without trial. After President Obama took office in January 2009, Gittings turned his attention to the new administration.

Gittings, who was born in San Francisco in 1952, is survived by sons Roger of Jackson, Texas, and William of Hurst, Texas; daughter Audra Gittings Villarreal of Hurst; his mother, Mary Jacks Foldenauer of Fort Bragg; and his father, Charles Sr. of Spokane, Wash.

He is to be cremated and his remains buried at a ranch in Boonville, Calif.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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