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Freedom detained 

Atlanta lawyers fight to gain rights for those held in Guantanamo

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In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration quietly decided that the old rules no longer applied. Even before the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, the White House engaged in a high-level, behind-the-scenes legal debate.

Hard-liners such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted a free hand in dealing with prisoners captured during and following the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The top lawyers within each branch of the military, on the other hand, told the administration that it must follow long-standing rules against torture and coercive interrogation. If it did otherwise, they warned, the administration would risk subjecting American soldiers to the same kinds of torture from the enemy. The United States would also face the scorn of the world.

The Bush administration went hard-line, contending that extraordinary measures were warranted in order to protect the United States from further attack. It decided that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters represented a new class of foe, "unlawful enemy combatants," who could be held indefinitely without trial and be kept beyond the reach of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. courts. Secretly, it also decided that long-held international rules that prohibited torture were, in the words of soon-to-be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, "quaint" and "obsolete."

Guantanamo Bay, a no-man's land outside any recognized national boundaries, was chosen as the perfect site for what was hoped would be a legal black hole. For more than four years, the administration refused even to confirm the names of the more than 650 men who have been held there.

The uneasy status quo was ruptured in June 2004 when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the notion that Guantanamo Bay was an island unto itself. In a habeas lawsuit brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of several detainees, the Justices ruled that the Guantanamo Bay prison was within the jurisdiction of federal courts.

Chandler, 62, serves as chairman of the litigation division at Sutherland, where he oversees cases that involve deep-pocketed corporations that sue each other. At the time of the ruling, he was also in charge of a local pro bono committee to find cases for volunteer attorneys and was contacted during the CCR's national search for attorneys to represent the more than 450 men still imprisoned in Cuba. He agreed to handle the cases of five Yemeni detainees, and recruited Wilhelm and several others to join what has become known in legal circles as the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association.

Like Wilhelm, Chandler hadn't set out to get involved in representing suspected terrorists. But when he began to grasp the extent of the threat posed to the American legal system by the administration's actions, he realized he had to take the case.

"Guantanamo will someday be considered in the same way as the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II," he says. "What we did to the Japanese-Americans was terrible, but this is much worse. It's atrocious."

click to enlarge NECESSARY EVIL: President Bush is the first president to suspend habeas corpus since Lincoln. He argued it was necessary to protect the country against terrorists. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • NECESSARY EVIL: President Bush is the first president to suspend habeas corpus since Lincoln. He argued it was necessary to protect the country against terrorists.

WEARING A SCARF over her head and a long skirt carefully pinned "so as not to show any leg," Wilhelm followed Chandler into a series of trailers inside the Camp Echo compound. They were made to wait in a comfortably decorated room, equipped with a Muslim prayer rug and a Quran, that's been dubbed the "show cell" because it's where visiting congressmen are taken.

They were then led to an unremarkable double-wide, its one large room furnished only with cheap plastic chairs and a table the size of a nightstand. Mohammed Al Adahi, known officially as Detainee No. 33, sat in the middle of the room. Dressed in the orange jumpsuit given to uncooperative prisoners, he was wearing handcuffs and leg irons, with one ankle chained to the floor.

After more than three years of confinement at Guantanamo, the 43-year-old Yemeni seemed delighted to see faces that didn't belong to the military. Chandler and Wilhelm introduced themselves through an Arabic translator. They were here, they explained, not to defend him against criminal charges, but to secure him a court hearing to determine whether the U.S. government could legally hold him in custody.

There was a degree of urgency to the meeting. Under the court order stemming from the Supreme Court's habeas ruling, Chandler and Wilhelm had two chances to persuade their prospective clients to accept their legal help; if they hadn't won over the men by the end of a second visit, they would not be allowed to return. So, unless the detainees agreed to be represented during this initial trip, the plan was to fly to Yemen next to persuade their families to lobby the detainees on their behalf.

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