Guantanamo: Representing the Unseen

On October 10, students at William and Mary packed room 124 to hear Jeff Colman, a lawyer at Jenner & Block, speak about his experiences representing clients at Guantanamo Bay. January 11, 2007 was the five-year anniversary of the first man being placed in Guantanamo. Colman, a lawyer with 35 years of legal experience, has done all manner of pro-bono work. He’s assisted with death-penalty matters in California, Georgia, and Illinois. But none of his experiences prepared him for Guantanamo.” As Colman put it, the work was “the most challenging, the most depressing, and in some ways, the most fulfilling work I’ve done.”

By June 2004, about 800 men were imprisoned at Guantanamo, isolated from lawyers, families, and the world around them. In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have a right to hear Habeas Corpus claims of the Guantanamo prisoners. After the ruling came down, Colman and other members of his firm took the cases of four men after reading a call for volunteers. In 2006, the firm took on sixteen more clients. So far, ten have been released from Guantanamo. Throughout his involvement, Colman has worked with lawyers from across the country, Democrats as well as Republicans, all of whom believe strongly in their work and their clients.

Colman stated that, for him, the work wasn’t about politics, or about making a statement. It was “about doing a lawyer’s professional responsibility, representing people who need legal assistance.”

Unfortunately, says Colman, there has been a concerted effort to thwart the attorney/client relationship. Every step of the process has been made more difficult by the government: how lawyers meet with clients, how lawyers correspond with their clients, how lawyers view evidence. Colman pointed to a quote by Cully Stimson, the then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs. Stimson was quoted as saying,

“I think when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms…”

Thankfully, says Colman, Stimson was forced to resign and his comments were repudiated. But, says Colman, comments like Stimson’s abound. President Bush has called the men in Guantanamo the worst of the worst. Alberto Gonzales has called them killers. Members of the military have described them as men caught of the battlefield. According to Colman, these statements are demonstrably false. The data shows that about 5% of the men at Guantanamo were actually arrested on the battlefield, and less than 20% have any involvement with Al Qaeda.

As of today, 460 men have been released from Guantanamo. Would the government actually released 460 men if they were responsible for 9/11, if they were the worst of the worst, if they were killers caught on the battlefield, Colman asked. A large group of men in Guantanamo were put their due to the U.S. policy of paying $5,000 to $20,000 bounties to Pakistanis to turn in “enemies of the United States.”

Many of the men had some affiliation with the Taliban when it was the ruling party in Afghanistan. “True,” says Colman, “many of these men may not be innocent, but we need processes to bring them to justice in a fair way.” “I deplore terrorism as deeply as anyone, but you can still believe this and uphold the rule of law.” To Colman, the courts should be permitted to make an impartial decision if these men can be held, and people must work to ensure that Habeas Corpus survives the attempts of some in power to trample that right, and the rule of law.

Guantanamo isn’t technically a prison, because no one has been charged with a crime, except for 10 men who had been charged before military tribunals. We call it a detention facility. Yet the physical conditions at Guantanamo today are not very different from those of a maximum security prison, with three major differences. First, according to Colman, is the isolation. In America, prisons have religious services, television, newspapers, and visits from family. At Guantanamo, there are none of those things. Second, in America, people in prison have some ability to get hope from the legal system. But at Guantanamo, people had no hope that our system would provide them any relief. Third, there is no diversity in the prison makeup. The entire population is 100% Muslim men. “With no intent to make any analogy to Nazi Germany,” Colman says, “this is a concentration camp. We are taking people solely because of their religious or ethnic background and putting them in a camp.”

Colman also took some time to describe a few of his clients. One of his was 19 years old when he was taken. He had completed one semester of college when a professor encouraged him to join a training camp to fight for Muslims in Chechnya or Kashmir. He spent four years, five months in Guantanamo before being released in May 2006. Another client is a 38 year old father of six. In October 2001, the man heard about killings in Afghanistan, and went to work for an orphanage. He was taken there; the only allegation against him was that the orphanage was funded by an Al Qaeda-related humanitarian organization. It would be almost five years before the man was released.

One of the hardest parts of the job, and in Colman’s career, was developing a relationship with these men. He spoke about his initial meeting with his 38 year old client. After meeting with Colman, the man originally did not want representation, but to repay Colman the man asked if he could talk to Colman about Allah. After speaking for about an hour, the man asked Colman if he would like to convert to Islam. To buy some time, Colman asked if he could think over the offer during lunch. When Colman returned, he spoke to the man again and thanked the man for the offer. “I don’t know much about your faith or your God,” Colman said to him. “But is it possible that God wanted you to have a lawyer to help you, and that this is why I’m here.” Colman said the man thought about the words for a moment, and then began to smile. “It’s a possibility,” the man told Colman.

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Published in: on October 12, 2007 at 9:52 am Comments Off on Guantanamo: Representing the Unseen

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