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.

H. Can­dace Gor­man is a civ­il rights attor­ney in Chica­go. She blogs reg­u­lar­ly about legal issues sur­round­ing Guan­tanamo detainees at The Guan­tanamo Blog.
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