Diary of a Guantánamo Attorney

H. Candace Gorman

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. 

Attorneys often return from the base with urgent news, but have to wait weeks for the government to clear their notes.

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. I knew only that my client was ill, that he wanted an attorney and that the government opposed entering the protective order that would allow me to visit and communicate with him. 

Shortly after I filed the habeas petition, in a false gesture of munificence, the government invited my input into the Justice Department’s review of Al-Ghizzawi’s status. What could I possibly say? As I wrote the review board, Without knowing the reasons for Mr. Al-Ghizzawi’s detention, it is impossible to address those reasons or the factual basis for continuing to detain him.” I added that I would supplement the submission once I had had a chance to meet and interview him.

Eventually, after what then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would call a long hard slog,” the protective order was entered. In July, eight months after filing the habeas petition, I was finally allowed to go to Guantánamo and meet with my client, a sick and visibly jaundiced man who pined for his wife and young daughter.

Al-Ghizzawi was a shopkeeper who sold bread, honey and other goods in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. When the American bombs started falling, he took his wife and daughter to the village where his in-laws lived. He then became one of those unlucky foreigners captured and turned in for a bounty. According to the Bush administration, all of the detainees were apprehended on the battlefield” – in this case, the quiet home of Al-Ghizzawi’s in-laws.

My ultimate aim is to release Al-Ghizzawi and reunite him with his family. However, my immediate goal is to keep him alive. The medical staff at Guantánamo have diagnosed Al-Ghizzawi with tuberculosis and hepatitis B but failed to inform or treat him for either condition. I have been fighting for access to Al-Ghizzawi’s medical records, but a D.C. district judge ruled that we had not demonstrated that he would suffer irreparable harm” in being denied his records. Imagine, I need his records in order to prove that he will suffer irreparable harm,” but cannot access them without first proving irreparable harm.” (I have appealed that ruling.) 

This is just one example. As I will relate in this space in the coming months, there is no rhyme or reason to the world of Guantánamo – only a cruel inhumanity.

Adrian Bleifuss Prados, the author’s law clerk, contributed to this column.

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H. Candace Gorman is a civil rights attorney in Chicago. She blogs regularly about legal issues surrounding Guantanamo detainees at The Guantanamo Blog.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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