Inside America’s Gulag

A Guantánamo lawyer reports from a parallel legal universe

H. Candace Gorman

According to the U.S. government, Guantánamo Bay is leased to Uncle Sam by the Cuban government. However, Cuba does not recognize U.S. claims to the Bay and has not accepted lease payments for decades. Therefore, while Guantánamo is officially Cuban territory, it is effectively a fiefdom of the United States military. Guantánamo’s bizarre political status makes it a perfect haven for the parallel legal universe the Bush administration has created for enemy combatants.”

This parallel legal universe is populated by the likes of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. On January 17, Gonzales shocked the Senate Judiciary Committee with his statement that the Constitution doesn’t say, every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas. It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended.” Gonzales wasn’t trying to have a philosophical discussion with the Senate; he isn’t the philosophical type. No, it was more sinister than that, and we must now wait to find out how this novel theory ties in with whatever illegality the administration currently has up its collective sleeve. 

Couple that with the menacing remarks made on January 11, the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, by another denizen of this twilight world, attorney Cully Stimson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. Stimson was yucking it up on Federal News Radio about the uproar that he was sure would ensue when the media reported which corporate law firms were representing Guantánamo detainees. 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,” he said. Stimson does not seem to realize that it is unethical for an attorney to retaliate against opposing counsel by exerting financial pressure. And I can tell you unequivocally that, contrary to Stimson’s claim, my client is not a terrorist, and neither are the vast majority of prisoners locked up at Guantánamo. But with legal geniuses like these running our country, is it any wonder that the men in Guantánamo have languished for five years?

My client, Abdul Al Ghizzawi, has been held in Guantánamo Bay since 2002. On Dec. 9, 2005, I filed a petition for habeas corpus on his behalf but I had to clear a daunting series of bureaucratic hurdles before the government would allow me to meet with him. In order to see our clients, attorneys representing Guantánamo detainees must receive a security clearance and have a protective order entered by the court. The protective order outlines the rules for habeas counsel. I applied for my security clearance in January 2006. In February, I received news that my client’s health was deteriorating and I filed an emergency motion to have the protective order entered. The Justice Department opposed the order and the judge subsequently denied my motion, saying that I didn’t show anything concrete” or any impending irreparable harm.” The judge did not explain exactly how I was to show something concrete when I was not allowed to communicate with my client. 

In early June I received an email from another attorney whose notes were cleared” from his last visit to the base. He told me that his client was concerned because Al Ghizzawi was ill with liver disease. I filed another emergency motion and this time the judge relented. Since I had now received my security clearance I was granted permission to see my client. 

I arrived at Guantánamo on July 15 on a small plane owned by a cargo airline. The 14-seater takes three hours from Ft. Lauderdale because the plane must circle around Cuban airspace. As I flew in to the small military airport I was surprised at how arid and dismal this part of the island looked. The base, home to 8,500 servicemen, is divided in two parts, separated by the bay. The main part of the military installation is on the windward side of the bay. Attorneys are housed on the leewardside at a dumpy military hotel called the Combined Bachelor Quarters. There is one restaurant on that side, a dive called The Captain’s Galley. Everything is deep fried. 

The morning routine for habeas counsel is to take the 7:40 bus to the ferry and the 8:00 ferry to the windward side where the prison camp is located. While the leeward side is ramshackle and barren, the windward side is surreal. There is (of course) a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a combined Subway-Pizza Hut, a Wal-Mart-like big box store called the Nex and a gift shop … yes, Guantánamo has a gift shop that sells Guantánamo key chains, shot glasses, t-shirts and shell tchotckes. Fillipino and Haitian workers staff all the establishments. And in the distance, beyond these icons of American consumption, is the gulag.”

After eight months of delays and obstruction, and after a great deal of effort both on his part and mine, I was finally allowed to meet Al-Ghizzawi at the gulag.” My briefcase and papers were examined in a cursory way. (On later trips, these searches resulted in letters to my client being confiscated on the grounds that they made oblique reference to world events.”) I was then ushered by my escort behind a chain-link fence, through three gates into a sweltering cinderblock hut at Camp Echo. I was a little nervous going into that first meeting. I knew little about Al Ghizzawi and it seemed plausible to me that he might be the worst of the worst” – which is what our government claims Guantánamo is holding. However, when I entered the tiny windowless room, I met a frail, bearded, jaundiced man of about 45, wearing a khaki jump suit and flip flops with his feet shackled to a ring on the floor. In time, I learned this member of the worst of the worst” had been the owner of a spice shop and bakery in Jalalabad when, in December 2002, he was turned in to the Americans for a bounty – typically $5,000. He was initially held at Bagram Airforce Base before being sent to Guantánamo in March 2002. Initially our military determined he was a non-enemy combatant but this determination was mysteriously overturned by a second tribunal in Washington (five weeks after the first tribunal) because the military claimed it had new evidence against him. My security clearance allowed me to see the top secret new evidence” and although I cannot disclose the contents, I can assure the readers of In These Times that there was nothing new presented to the second tribunal – nothing whatsoever. 

If my client had a fair habeas hearing today, a basic right in our legal tradition, (that is, until Attorney General Gonzales announced it was never part of our constitution), he would be a free man. But for now, Al Ghizzawi enters his sixth year, languishing in Guantánamo.

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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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