When the shameful history of the Guantanamo detention center is finally written, one of the few reassuring chapters will be the way lawyers from many US law firms have given pro-bono representation to prisoners who have been denied their Geneva Convention rights. It is especially outrageous that the Pentagon official responsible for detainees has maligned these lawyers and encouraged corporations to take their legal business away from their firms.
In an interview last Thursday, deputy assistant secretary of defense Cully Stimson said he found it “shocking” that lawyers from prestigious firms were representing Guantanamo detainees. “I think, quite honestly,” Stimson said, “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, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.”
Since the right to counsel is a pillar of the US justice system, Stimson’s boss, defense secretary Robert Gates, should go beyond the Pentagon’s pro forma disavowal of these remarks and ensure that Stimson watches this “play out” from someplace other than a job at the Defense Department. Gates might also set the record straight by pointing out that the only inmates at Guantanamo suspected of links to the Sept. 11 attacks were brought there just recently, after long being held in secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons where they had no access to counsel whatsoever.
Twice, the Supreme Court has ruled that Guantanamo detainees’ rights are being denied by the Bush administration in cases brought by the lawyers whom Stimson vilifies. In another case on behalf of Guantanamo detainees in 2005, US District Judge Gladys Kessler said the petitioners’ lawyers are acting “in the very finest tradition of the American legal profession.” It was a tradition established in part by John Adams’s representation of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre of 1770.
Stimson’s remarks came just as critics of US detention policies were noting the fifth anniversary of the use of Guantanamo as a center for indefinite imprisonment of persons captured during the war in Afghanistan, or other fronts in the war on terrorism. The administration should close Guantanamo and try any detainees that it believes responsible for acts of terror or war crimes in US courts.
Congress’s new Democratic majorities should repeal the law passed last year that denies detainees their habeas corpus right to challenge their continued detention. That, like the right to counsel, is another mainstay of the American legal system that must not be a victim of the war on terror.
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