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Principles, Not money, Power Guantanamo Defense Lawyers


File photo shows a guard at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba, as he talks with a detainee. The 700-odd lawyers defending the suspected foreign terrorists held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay say they share a common mission -- to make amends for the US government's actions in its "war on terror". (AFP/Paul J. Richards)

WASHINGTON - The 700-odd lawyers defending the suspected foreign terrorists held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay say they share a common mission -- to make amends for the US government's actions in its "war on terror".

Some go to work in pinstripe suits, others in crisp military uniforms. Some get paid, others do it for free.

"Nothing else is as important, meaningful and significant as Gitmo cases," said David Remes, 53, a former corporate attorney in Washington who represents 18 mostly Yemeni detainees.

"I couldn't be on the side of the prosecution," agreed Commander Suzanne Lachelier, a US Navy lawyer appointed to defend one of five men accused of participating in the September 11 attacks in 2001.

"It is such fundamental work," Lachelier said. "The damage to our Constitution are wounds that will have to be dealt with for decades to come."

From a variety of backgrounds, the lawyers have come to the legal fore since a US Supreme Court ruling in 2004 that entitled the Guantanamo detainees -- currently numbering around 250, and all held without charge -- to representation.

"Some are experienced, some work in very big firms, some are law professors," said David Cynamon, who is defending four Kuwaitis. "But we have the same goal: to try to make sure our country represents the bases on which it was built."

Cynamon, a Washington partner in a global law firm with three decades of litigation experience, reckons he spends three-quarters of his time on complex cases that, he says, involve defending the Constitution rather than winning ten million dollars.

For his Guantanamo work, his fees are met by the well-to-do Kuwaiti father of a detainee who is convinced of his son's innocence.

Law professor Buz Eisenberg taps into his retirement fund -- shared with his wife -- to cover the cost of representing three detainees. That includes footing his own bill for translators and trips to Guantanamo.

"There is no way to explain it without sounding sanctimonius, but it really is because I took an oath" upon becoming a lawyer to fight injustice, he told the Legal Times website.

"Now that I have been exposed to all this, I can't see how I could ever again be happy litigating a fractious partnership agreement. It just doesn't rise to the level of importance that it used to."

Remes has gone so far as to give up corporate law -- clients at the global law firm where he was a partner included ExxonMobil and IBM -- to devote all his working time to his Guantanamo cases.

"What the Bush administration has done in the last six years is uncontroversially indefensible," he told AFP.

"This is not work you do in order to get paid. This is the type of case that allows lawyers to devote their time not for personal gain, but to vindicate basic principles and values."

More than defending detainees, Remes described he and his fellow lawyers as vital links between their isolated clients and the outside world.

"Between 2002 and 2004, our clients were not able to see a lawyer, and the only people they saw were the military," he explained.

"During that time, the military were able to control the perception of reality of these men, to maintain strict control. We brought them a perception of what was going on in the outside world."

At the same time, Remes added, the defence lawyers have cast a light on "the cruelty, the brutality, the inhumanity of the treatment of the men there".

A specialist in constitutional law, Remes co-drafted a successful application to the Supreme Court earlier this year enabling Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention in civilian courts.

Lachelier vividly recalls her first trip to Guantanamo, situated within an eponymous US Navy base on the eastern tip of Cuba, and condemned by human rights activists for the ill-treatment of detainees and avoidance of due process.

"I was suffocating," she said. "There were so many rules and restrictions -- even for us in uniform -- to have access to a room, to a computer."

"I had this idea that they (the detainees) were the most dangerous criminals in the world," said Brian Mizer, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy who first went to Guantanamo in 2007 to represent Osama bin Laden's driver Salim Ahmed Handan.

"And then I sat down with Salim Hamdan. How divorced is the government's vision of reality," he wondered.


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