JURIST Special Guest Columnist William Teesdale, an attorney in the Federal Public Defenders Office in Portland, Oregon representing Guantanamo detainee Adel Hamad, a Sudanese national transferred to Guantanamo in early 2003 from Pakistan, says that on the fifth anniversary of the US terror detention camp we should remember that the detainees held there are individual people with names and stories and cases that deserve to be heard by a court of law…
On the fifth anniversary of the first prisoners arriving at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, let me address a question just asked of me yesterday: how many innocent people are there at Guantanamo?
I do not know for sure, but I do know one.
The Federal Public Defenders office in Portland was appointed by the D.C. District Court to represent Guantanamo detainee Adel Hamad in October 2005 as a direct result of a handwritten plea for freedom he had sent the court six months before. Adel wrote to the court as a result of the Supreme Court decision in Rasul v.Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004), which had confirmed the detainee’s right to file federal habeas petitions. At the beginning all we knew about him was that he spoke Arabic and that he was detainee 940, because that was all the Government would agree to tell us.
They would not even tell us what country he was from.
I first learned Adel’s story during the long night of March 3/4, 2006, when I stayed up all night searching through thousands of pages of military tribunal (CSRT) records released by the Department of Defense to find a reference to detainee 940. I read through those first public CSRT records with great excitement. We had been told by the President and his administration that all these detainees are the “worst of the worst.” What I found was entirely different. Adel was from Sudan but had lived with his wife and children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, working for various Muslim charity organizations since 1986. The Government suspected Adel because they didn’t like the groups he worked for, including, most recently, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. WAMY is a major Muslim charity group with some 2,000 employees and a presence in many countries. Adel was arrested at his home in Peshawar, Pakistan, at about 1:30 a.m., along with his downstairs neighbor, a United Nations refugee. Adel spent time in custody in Pakistan and at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo in early 2003. Adel told the military tribunal that he had worked for WAMY since 2000, as a hospital administrator in Chamkani, Afghanistan and then later providing relief supplies to refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, who were fleeing Afghanistan because of the war. Before that he had taught at an elementary school. He didn’t sound like the worst of the worst to me.
After returning from our first Guantanamo visit, the group in our office with security clearances met behind locked doors with curtains closed. I remember Steve Wax and Patrick Ehlers telling me about Adel and their impressions of him as a good man, a strong, honest man with a nice smile.
Steve said that Adel could not let go of his hand when the meeting came to an end; I suppose he could not bear to be parted from the first people to have tried to help him. We talked about how we could find the evidence to present to the court, how we could show that Adel had told the military tribunal the truth. I took the lead role in the international investigation of Adel’s case, with great assistance from many of my colleagues.
Then, in May, 2005, the Government produced the factual return, as ordered by the District Court. We learned something stunning. There was a dissenting voice on the military CSRT panel that declared Adel an Enemy Combatant. An army major, whose name is classified, had the courage to file a dissenting report calling the result in Adel’s case “unconscionable.”
We made contact with Adel’s family in Sudan and confirmed that Adel had left Sudan in 1986 to find better job opportunities. His wife, brother in law, and others confirmed that he had worked as a teacher, then at the hospital and in Peshawar helping refugees. Adel’s wife described the death of their youngest child while Adel has been in custody in Cuba.
It was not easy to find the evidence we needed in Afghanistan and Pakistan; it took many of us a great deal of work. Phone calls in the middle of the night with Zabi Noori, our excellent Pashto interpreter and calls at all hours with Professor Sbait, our wonderful Arabic interpreter. Then finally the breakthrough came, when Zabi, who had made it his personal mission to find someone at the hospital, made contact with Dr. Najib, the former Director of the hospital, an Afghan surgeon living in Kabul, who agreed to meet with me in Kabul, Afghanistan.
During August 2006, I went with Assistant Federal Public Defender Ruben Iniguez and Investigator Martin Caballero from Portland to Kabul, then by road to Jalalabad, and on through the Khyber pass to Peshawar, and then Islamabad in Pakistan. Ruben and Martin were gathering evidence on behalf of another detainee client, Nazar Gul, an Afghan citizen who fled his homeland after the Soviet invasion, who had lived peacefully for 25 years in the refugee village of Doaba and who had recently returned to work under the Karzai government. Nazar was arrested in Gardez, Afghanistan, apparently because of confusion about his name. We worked cooperatively as a group on both cases, filming sworn video interviews with over 20 witnesses. It was an intense, somewhat dangerous, period and the most rewarding experience of my professional life, because we did everything we had set out to do and more on behalf of Mr. Gul and Mr. Hamad – we found the evidence of innocence we had been seeking.
All of the information gathered in this investigation was filed with the court in Mr. Hamad’s case in the form of a motion for summary judgment. On October 17th, 2006 President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which attempts to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear Guantanamo detainee habeas cases. All of our cases are presently stayed pending resolution of this issue.
We have long valued and relied on the Great Writ, yet its very existence in now challenged by the Government. In 1215, King John of England, at Runnymede meadow, was forced to sign the Magna Carta, the first in a series of documents recognizing the right to challenge detention by the king through the great writ of habeas corpus. The American Bar Association built a memorial at that site with a plaque inscribed: “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law.” Today is a very different, less auspicious moment – the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the importance of the fight for justice is just as great.
It is meant to give you a sense of Adel, through me and some of the people who knew him. I hope that you can watch it and see him as I do, a good man, a family man and an innocent man. But his story is only a part of the answer to the question I was asked.
You see the truth is that the detainees are not numbers, they are individual people with names and stories and cases that deserve to be heard by a court of law. So speak with Steve Sady in our office about Abdul Rahim, a young Syrian tortured by the Taliban, speak with Ruben Iniguez and Amy Baggio about Nazar Gul. Speak with Steve Wax and Pat Ehlers and me about Adel Hamad, or Mr. Wax about the other four detainees my office is representing.
On this fifth anniversary of Guantanamo please spare a thought and a prayer for Adel Hamad and all other innocents imprisoned without trial in Cuba, in the hope that the courts and Congress will rise to the occasion and restore in America the right established in that English meadow eight centuries ago, the right of an individual to challenge detention before a court of law.
William Teesdale is an investigator and attorney working with the Federal Public Defenders Office in Portland, Oregon. Mr. Teesdale, a barrister, was raised in England and received his legal training at Leeds University School of Law and the Inns of Court School of Law.