A Passion to Restore the Rule of Law: Guantanamo Lawyer Seeks Justice for Client Accused of War Crimes

By Lloyd, Laura | National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Passion to Restore the Rule of Law: Guantanamo Lawyer Seeks Justice for Client Accused of War Crimes


Lloyd, Laura, National Catholic Reporter


Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden's former driver, remains incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay and is set to be tried for war crimes. His defense attorney, working pro bono, is retired Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

"I've told Hamdan I'm going to stay with him until the end," Mr. Swift said a few days before making one of his periodic trips to Guantanamo. "Right now, he is my No. 1 hobby."

Mr. Swift isn't lighthearted very often about the Hamdan case, which he was assigned to in 2004 when he was a U.S. Navy attorney. He sees the terms of the struggle to defend Salim Ahmed Hamdan as nothing less than resurrecting the rule of law in American justice. He won the first round by convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that military tribunals set up by the Bush administration violated the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a seminal case that earned accolades for the defense attorney, wasn't, however, the happy ending many legal minds expected.

"This administration has shown an unwillingness to follow the law," Mr. Swift asserts. Mr. Hamdan and his counsel will be required to face a new round of hearings beginning later in April.

Following the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Swift was passed over for a promotion in the Navy. That meant he had to resign, which he did to become a law professor at Emory. His loyalty to Mr. Hamdan has remained steadfast, however. He makes frequent trips to Guantanamo and is preparing for the next phase of legal proceedings involving the war crimes charge.

In the meantime, Mr. Hamdan cools his heels in solitary confinement, complaining of a variety of symptoms that sound a lot like posttraumatic stress disorder. His everyday life might surprise many well-intentioned Americans. "The guards say there is no law in Guantanamo," Mr. Swift says.

The subject of a profile in Vanity Fair magazine in March 2007, Mr. Swift recounts in the magazine how when he first met his client in January 2004, Mr. Hamdan was brought to him in shackles. Deprived of mail from his family and recently placed in a small room kept cold by air conditioning, the detainee was freezing and asked his lawyer for a pair of socks. It was a small request, but as Mr. Swift told Vanity Fair not only could he not secure his client the basic elements of a fair trial--there was secret and coerced evidence, forced guilty pleas to charges never made public, no right to habeas corpus, no attorney-client privilege--he couldn't even get his client a pair of socks.

Today, despite Mr. Swift's victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfield, Salim Hamdan remains in legal limbo.

A graduate of the Seattle University School of Law, Mr. Swift recently spoke at another Jesuit school, Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., about his role in the Supreme Court case. Legal scholars view the decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfield as one of very few instances in American history when the power of a commander-in-chief was limited during a time of war. …

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