Diary of a Guantánamo Attorney

Article excerpt

I FELL INTO THE world of Guantánamo in October 2005. The Chicago Council of Lawyers had organized a luncheon discussion on the legal issues surrounding the infamous detention facility at the U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba. I received an e-mail thanking me for my attendance (I should have gone but didn't) and asking for volunteers to represent the nearly 200 known unrepresented prisoners at the base.

I had assumed that I was well-informed about our criminal president and his assault on the rule of law; it never occurred to me that four years after being captured (and more than one year after the Supreme Court affirmed their right to hearing and counsel) individuals were still being held without legal representation. I replied to the e-mail, offering my services.

During a conference call for volunteer lawyers, I got a sense of what the job might entail. For example, attorneys are required to turn their client notes over to the government after visiting prisoners. I naively asked, "What about attorney-client privilege?" This, like so many other protections and legal principles, doesn't apply to Guantánamo. Attorneys often return from the base with urgent news, but have to wait weeks for the government to clear their notes. The government rarely, if ever, classifies the content; this procedure simply delays and encumbers our work.

At a workshop for volunteer lawyers organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), I came to learn of the horrific particulars of prisoner life in Guantánamo: the hunger strikes, the suicide attempts and the dubious circumstances under which prisoners had been captured. The vast majority of Guantánamo's inmates were apprehended in Afghanistan and elsewhere by third party forces, after the United States promised enormous bounties for "murderers and terrorists."

That December, I was assigned a detainee by CCR; his name was Abdul Al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan who had been living in Afghanistan before his capture. Another prisoner had written a letter identifying Al-Ghizzawi as someone who desired an attorney. Because the government would not release the names of detainees, prisoners often reached lawyers through such indirect means. I got to work preparing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus-a petition that challenges the legality of a prisoner's detention and requests that the court order the authorities to either release the individual or justify his imprisonment with formal charges.

It has been a year since I filed the petition, and Al-Ghizzawi is still languishing in Guantánamo. Initially, the government did everything possible to delay and obstruct access to my client. …