Exit Second Street to Gitmo ... and beyond
by Stephen Siciliano
Published - 03/02/07 - 08:49 AM | 3715 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It is unlikely that attorney Heather Rogers expected the Second Street/Downtown exit off Interstate 5 would land her in Cuba, or even farther afield, in Yemen, but it did.

Rogers and colleague Stephen Demik work for a unique entity housed in the NBC Building on Broadway known as Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc.

A private, nonprofit advocacy group, it is funded by the federal government to defend people who can't afford to defend themselves from charges by, well, the federal government.

Rogers has spent the past few years defending people being prosecuted in the kind of immigration cases former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was slammed for not prosecuting.

Meanwhile, halfway across the planet, the Bush administration has been prosecuting a "war on terror" producing prisoners it says are the "worst of the worst" and the "most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth."

Approximately 775 of these detainees ended up within the confines of Camp Gitmo, officially known as Naval Base Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba. Through machinations too complicated to discuss here, Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., was assigned four of their cases.

In November 2005, Rogers was given the responsibility of representing three men from Yemen, Demik, one from Afghanistan.

On Feb. 15, the pair recounted their experiences at a symposium on the Thomas Jefferson School of Law campus.

The U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, and the Bush administration are going back and forth on whether detainees classified by the president as "enemy combatants" enjoy protections under U.S. law or the Geneva Conventions.

For now, the legal framework (or lack thereof) in which the attorneys must operate denies their clients the privilege of writ of habeas corpus, the right to an attorney, the right to a speedy trial, the right to confront witnesses and so on.

It has resulted in some not very lawyerly preparation for trials that may never occur.

Last February, Rogers traveled to Yemen with the intention of resolving certain quandaries presented by her unique charge. She returned with anecdotal evidence of a most disturbing kind and a conclusion that "these litigations really defy belief."

Her slide-show presentation included the reproduction of a Central Intelligence Agency poster asking Afghanis for help in identifying Taliban collaborators and promising "enough money to take care of your family, village and tribe for all of your lives."

Said Rogers, "They put a bounty on heads. How could people resist the temptation to turn over foreigners, people they didn't like or the disenfranchised in exchange for these millions?"

A team of attorneys gathered with the Yemeni detainees' families before meeting the detainees themselves. "Their interrogators," she explained, "had already passed themselves off as lawyers, and we hoped the families could inform them of our names, appearances and intentions."

Press conferences were held and solidarity with families and international aid groups cemented, because in Yemen, support for the detainees is equated with dissent. Some have been released through a policy of "rendition" to their home governments and subjected to more interrogation and torture.

"With these press conferences and appearances, we wanted to let the Yemeni government know we were watching them," said Rogers.

"Rendition" is for those luckier than one Rogers client forced, with the threat of violence, to work for a powerful local Afghani thief and then caught in a U.S. dragnet of the same thief's compound. Sent to Guantánamo, the man joined others at "Camp X-Ray" in cages exposed to the tropical sun, like "animals in a zoo," before finally being released.

To date, two clients have been freed, one Afghani and one Yemeni.

Demik focused on conditions under which legal advocates must work as well as those to which detainees are subjected.

Gitmo, he explained, is spread across two sides of Guantánamo Bay, prisoners kept on one side, lawyers alone on the other. "The paperwork and bureaucracy work are dumbfounding," said Demik. "The security clearance takes four months."

Any information gleaned from client interviews becomes property of the U.S. government and cannot be disclosed. All defense attorney notes are confiscated and sent to a "secure facility" in Crystal City, Virginia.

"If you want to look at your notes, you have to fly there. Same for filing petitions or correspondence with your clients," said Demik.

He described the base layout as "surreal," with its Wal-Mart, KFC and McDonalds for U.S. military personnel on the one hand and authoritarian prison complex on the other.

Halliburton, he said, is working on a $30 million "upgrade" of the facility.

Prisoners, Demik said, are forbidden to gather in groups larger than three, blindfolded during any transportation and subject to pepper spraying, sleep deprivation, beatings, mock executions and the infamous "waterboarding." Lights are kept on 24 hours a day.

The administration's policy toward detainees, Rogers concluded, "is a travesty that we should all be angry about. It is only a matter of time before they try to bring it back to the mainland."
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