Please Help an Atty Defending Guantanamo Detainees

I enjoy discussion, debate, analysis.  I have deep appreciation for the thoroughness which this community has parsed every issue of our country’s shameful involvement in torture.  Not so my ex-wife.  I was once on the telephone trying to help my brother think his way through a tough patch when Doris called dismissively from the kitchen, “Tell him to bake a black velvet cake.”  While the rest of us passionately debate the role of the new administration in cleaning up the messes of the old, Doris is busy responding to the reality by doing what she can to find justice for her client at Guantanamo, Abdul Aziz Naji.  We all should be so lucky as to have Doris and her partner Ellen as fierce advocates.

I recently received a letter from Doris and Ellen.  My purpose is to share this letter, both for showing the effects of the current climate on those doing the yeoman’s work and for asking for contributions from those who are moved to support the legal defense of one Guantanamo detainee.

Doris Tennant and her partner Ellen Lubell have been representing a Guantanamo detainee pro bono for three years now.  My first diary about their effort, and their need for funds, is here.  The community responded generously with contributions.  In those earlier days of confronting the cruelty and illegality of our own government, the words of encouragement were probably just as significant.  Somewhere along the way, my daughter informs me, the emotional strain lessened as Doris made peace with the fact that she was doing all she humanly could to respond to the system of torture instituted by the U.S. government.  Her angst may have lessened, but I am certain she never let up in the slightest in her near-obsessive commitment to her client’s right to justice.  I am certain of this because I am still recovering my self-respect after having lived for fourteen years with Doris’ relentless, bafflingly efficient energy in pursuit of her ideals, the most passionate of which is social justice.  My recovery started when I began to realize that it’s not just me–nobody works as hard or as effectively as Doris.

Doris and Ellen have spent minimal time asking for help meeting a portion of their expenses.  When I received this most recent appeal for funds, I asked her permission to post it:

President Obama’s Executive Order declaring that Guantanamo would soon be closed gave us great optimism.  We believed that the imprisonment of our client Abdul Aziz Naji and many other innocent men would at last end.  Sadly, the positions taken by the Obama Administration on the detainees’ cases to date have mirrored those of the Bush Administration.  Our client and lawyers who have recently visited their clients report that the approximately 240 men who remain there are losing hope.  These men are largely from countries such as Yemen, Libya, Syria, Algeria (Azis’s home country) that do not have strong diplomatic relationships with the U.S. and whose release has not been negotiated.

Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the files of each detainee to determine the dispositions of their cases, and we have submitted documents for this review on behalf of Aziz.  Unless the review team decides to consider our client’s version of events, however, they will be recycling the same government positions that have kept him imprisoned for seven years.  In June 2008 the Supreme Court ordered speedy habeas corpus hearings for the Guantanamo men, but in most cases the government has sought delay at every turn and refused to turn over relevant documents.

A small number of habeas cases have moved forward.  Of the first six detainee cases heard, a conservative Republican-appointed judge ordered the release of five.  Despite a total of 24 detainees having now been determined to be held illegally and ordered released, all but three remain in Guantanamo, due either to diplomatic barriers between the U.S. and their home countries or because the stain of Guantanamo makes it unsafe for them to return home.

Aziz’s court hearing to challenge his detention has been repeatedly delayed.  We believe he will eventually be deemed eligible for release, but our research into conditions in Algeria and the assessment of human rights experts is that he faces a high likelihood of persecution if he is returned.  We filed a petition for asylum in Switzerland, and traveled there this past November to meet with the Swiss attorney who is handling his asylum case.  Amnesty International arranged meetings for us with government officials to discuss resettlement, and we spoke at three universities presenting Aziz’s case.  While Switzerland and a few other countries have indicated a willingness to consider accepting Guantanamo prisoners, the refusal of the U.S. to accept any prisoners and to acknowledge that many were wrongfully imprisoned are obstacles.  We hope the Obama Administration will break this diplomatic log jam.

Aziz remains in his solitary cell about 22 hours a day.  We last saw him in November and try to stay in touch by letters.  He is feeling very discouraged as he approaches the age of 34 and enters his 8th year in confinement.  Yet, he never writes without expressing thanks for our concern and care and for those who support us.

Each of you has been a vital part of our effort, supporting us with your kind words of encouragement and generous contributions.  We have spent approximately one-third of our professional time over the past three years in our pro bono defense of Aziz.  Your contributions have helped defray the myriad costs-interpretators, translators, and travel to Guantanamo and the “secure facility” in Washington, D.C. where we are required to prepare our court pleadings.

Over the next several months we expect to file final briefs and have a federal court hearing and meetings with State Department officials regarding resettlement, which will require frequent trips to Washington, D.C. and possibly additional visits with Aziz.  We turn to you again for any help you can offer.

With our deepest appreciation,

Ellen Lubell & Doris Tennant

My chief interest here is in giving some support to Doris and Ellen, but I can’t help mentioning one issue which this letter raises:  the effect of the Obama Administration’s actions on those being held illegally at Guantanamo.  While I understand the need to maintain some continuity with the previous administration, in areas in which their actions were criminal, the commitment to continuity delays or negates finding justice for those who have suffered terrible abuse.  Specifically, Obama’s failure to admit publicly that many detainees are innocent of any wrong-doing undermines efforts to redress the considerable grievances of those abused by the Bush/Cheney system of detention.  It is too late to acceptably determine the guilt of innocence of any of the detainees in anything approaching an actual court of law–the evidence and procedures have been hopelessly trampled for far too long.  For many such as Aziz, this probably means not being able to prove his innocence.  For others, it means not being able to prove them guilty.  For those for whom absolutely no evidential basis for suspicion of terrorism exists, the only dignified way forward is to acknowledge the error of our ways and to do what little we can to provide them a chance to move forward.  We need to find countries which will take them and we need to be willing to accept some into our own country.  This may be impossible for practical reasons of prejudice and hate, but we should at least express the theoretical willingness to do so if it would be possible to create conditions in which they had a chance what they can of a normal life.

Thank you for your consideration, and for doing what you can to help.