The Colgate Scene
Allison Lefrak '96 gives a first hand account of her pro bono work representing a Guantánamo Bay prisoner.
|By Allison Lefrak '96|
Even though he is sitting and dressed in Guantánamo's loose white prison garb, I can tell that Ghanim Al-Harbi is more than six feet tall and physically powerful. He is seated in a well-worn La-Z-Boy sofa chair. There are shackles around his ankles, connected to a thick metal ring fastened on the wooden floor of the makeshift interview room. Ghanim's sandaled feet are firmly anchored. I wonder why both feet need to be shackled. Surely, one is sufficient restraint.
It is January 2007, and although I have been working on Ghanim's case almost every day for six months now, I have not yet met him — this is my first trip to Guantánamo. As we enter the room, his lips immediately part and form a welcoming smile that spreads upwards to his eyes. He stands to greet us with arms outstretched. Doug Spaulding, my colleague at our Washington, D.C., law firm, Reed Smith, smiles warmly as he walks toward our client. "It is so nice to see you again," Doug says as the two men shake hands and embrace each other loosely. Mahmoud Khatib, our Arabic interpreter, similarly greets Ghanim. In deference to Ghanim's religion, I have covered my hair with a scarf. I have not yet gotten used to it and reach up to adjust it. I extend my hand to Ghanim as Doug introduces me and Mahmoud simultaneously translates. Ghanim refuses my hand, crosses his arms over his chest, and bows his head slightly. I retract my hand, confused. Ghanim asks Mahmoud to please explain to me that he is not permitted to touch a woman who is not a family member as it will render him unclean for prayer. He intends to pray during the lunch break, and he is not certain the guards will allow him to wash before doing so. This is why he cannot shake my hand. He begs me not to take offense. Even delivered through Mahmoud, the sincerity of Ghanim's apology is evident.
Doug, Mahmoud, and I settle on the couch and chair next to Ghanim with Mahmoud seated closest to Ghanim. Before we begin, we share news from Ghanim's younger brother, Mohammed — his wife recently gave birth to a baby girl. Ghanim understands what we've told him even before Mahmoud translates. His eyes fill and he smiles and asks the name of his new and unseen niece. Mohammed did not tell us her name, but we promise to find out. Ghanim says in English, "This news you have given me — this has made me a happy man today. My tears are of happiness." I wonder how that must feel after nearly five years of isolation and imprisonment to receive news from home that forces you to imagine your family carrying on, as surely they must, in your absence — babies are born, friends get married, parents fall ill, children become teenagers . . . all in your absence.
In 2004, when the Supreme Court decided in Rasul v. Bush that the Great Writ of Habeas Corpus extended to detainees at Guantánamo, Doug watched as the detainees' habeas petitions appeared on the docket of new cases at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. When he decided that he wanted to take on one of the cases on a pro bono basis, I asked to assist him in what I viewed as a unique opportunity to represent people who had been denied their legal rights for far too long. Undoubtedly, the work would be completely different from any of my other cases. As an associate in a commercial litigation practice group at a large international law firm, my clients are generally big corporations involved in complicated disputes where it is usually difficult to say that there is objectively a "bad guy" and a "good guy." My prior pro bono efforts had primarily been focused on representing children — in many respects, the most sympathetic of clients. The men detained at Guantánamo were being accused of terrible acts of aggression against the United States, and I had to prepare myself for the possibility that my clients could potentially be guilty of heinous crimes.
In a letter dated April 27, 2006, Ghanim eagerly wrote to his new legal team, "I am happy that you all are interested in representing me in front of the federal court and that you are trying to gain permission for a visit so that you may meet me. I await your visit." It was not until October 2006, that Doug and Bernie Casey, a law partner and close friend of Doug's, were able to obtain their security clearances and make arrangements for an initial meeting with Ghanim. At that first meeting, Ghanim told Doug and Bernie about his life before Guantánamo — a life to which he optimistically believed he would return.
Ghanim was born in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia near Kuwait in 1978 — the oldest child in a large family. His father was an executive with the Arab American Oil Company — ARAMCO. The al-Harbi family had many American friends — colleagues of Ghanim's father. Ghanim was a young boy when Iraqi forces, under the command of Saddam Hussein, occupied Kuwait and threatened to invade eastern Saudi Arabia. Several of Ghanim's relatives who were living in Kuwait at the time were either killed or taken as prisoners by Iraqi forces. Ghanim's family supported the American mission during the Gulf War that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
After graduating from college, Ghanim became a teacher. Later, he went to work for an Islamic charitable relief organization. In 2000, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia once again fell under the imminent threat of invasion by Saddam Hussein and his forces. With memories of the 1991 occupation still fresh in his mind, Ghanim began to consider obtaining some military training. As he explained, the Koran teaches that the eldest son in the family should be prepared to protect and defend his family. Accordingly, Ghanim sought to fulfill what he viewed as a holy obligation. Ghanim applied to the Saudi Arabian Navy, but did not receive a response. He then sought a civilian facility where he could obtain defense training. Unable to locate anything of the sort in Saudi Arabia, and upon the recommendation of a friend, Ghanim decided to take a three-month leave of absence from work to attend a self-defense program offered by a training camp in Afghanistan. He believed the camp was not affiliated with any political or religious groups, but that it was sponsored and funded by Muslim charitable organizations. Upon his arrival at the camp, he learned that attendees were not permitted to discuss politics or religion.
Just about the time that Ghanim finished his training at the camp and was preparing to return home, a high-profile leader of the Northern Alliance was killed, and the borders to Afghanistan were closed. Ghanim remained hopeful that he would be able to return home as soon as the borders were reopened, but a day later the attacks of September 11 occurred. Shortly thereafter, the Americans began bombing Afghanistan. Ghanim was trapped in a war zone. Eventually, he met up with some other men who were trying to flee to Pakistan through the mountainous border. While they were trying to escape, Ghanim was hit by shrapnel from an American bomb and seriously injured. He was taken to a hospital in Jalalabad which had been taken over by the Northern Alliance when they prevailed over Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ghanim remained at the hospital for six weeks. During that time, he repeatedly asked if he could be taken to Pakistan with the hope that he could get home to Saudi Arabia from there, but he was told this was not possible. Frustrated, and believing that the Americans would help him get home, Ghanim asked to be put in contact with U.S. forces.
Northern Alliance troops sold Ghanim to the Americans for a "bounty" of $5000. To this day, Ghanim does not know what false information Northern Alliance troops gave the Americans in order to secure the bounty. Ghanim was taken to Bagram prison, where he endured severe conditions and harsh interrogations for several months before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay, where he remained for more than five years without ever being charged with a crime.
Ghanim recounts these events without a trace of bitterness towards Americans. I have great difficulty understanding his lack of hostility or resentment towards his captors. But as Ghanim explained in his 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing, "All my thoughts right now, all my thinking is about the future and not the past. I hope to build my future, to [re]build my life from the beginning . . . I do not hold any hatred or any hostility towards Americans or anybody. I am a peaceful person."
In a letter dated November 24, 2006, Ghanim wrote to his legal team shortly after the first meeting. "I give you my thanks and appreciation for the great efforts you have exerted on my behalf and that manifest the generosity and morals of the American people and their love for humanity, as well as their efforts to see justice and democracy realized."
Ghanim is a model detainee. He cooperates every time he is interrogated — which he estimates to be well over 100 times at Guantánamo. Ghanim has nothing to hide and he answers all of the questions honestly. Eventually, the interrogation questions become more general in nature and Ghanim suspects that he was never being used as a source of "actionable intelligence," but rather as a source of information about Saudi culture and the Muslim religion. He jokes that the Americans should be paying him for the cultural information he is providing them during the interrogation sessions. Ghanim is rewarded by being help in Camp 4 with the other compliant detainees. In Camp 4, detainees can eat communally, go outside for two hours each day, check out books from the prison library, and enjoy other privileges that the non-compliant detainees are denied. However, after more than five years in Guantánamo and shortly before our January meeting, Ghanim decides that he will no longer answer any of the interrogators' questions. He worries that by continuing to provide them with useful information of any sort, he will be held longer. We warn Ghanim that he might suffer ramifications of some sort — possibly removal from Camp 4 — for his refusal to cooperate. He thanks us for our concern, but tells us firmly that his decision is final.
During the meeting, I am charged with explaining the American judicial system to Ghanim. Although I am skeptical as to how interested he will be in the topic, I arrive with a diagram of the various courts forming a pyramid leading up to the Supreme Court. When the time comes, Ghanim leans forward in his chair to see the diagram. He takes notes as I discuss the relationship between the various courts, the Congress, and the executive branch. It is clear that Ghanim understands the significance of what we are discussing and how it relates to his habeas corpus case. When Doug tells Ghanim that the Supreme Court will be hearing a case in the fall of 2007 — a challenge to the Bush Administration's claim that prisoners at Guantánamo can be denied the constitutional right of habeas corpus, Ghanim politely interrupts and asks us to please show him where the right of habeas is provided for in the U.S. Constitution. He shuffles through his papers and pulls out a copy of the Constitution. Doug reaches for the document to find Article I, Section 9, but stares at it blankly. I lean over and see that the U.S. Constitution has been translated into Arabic. Ghanim tells us that a fellow detainee's attorney had the Constitution translated for him. Realizing his limitations, Doug passes the document to Mahmoud and together, they locate the provision for Ghanim to read.
We break for lunch and on the way out of the door, I ask the young guard if Ghanim's legs can be unshackled from the floor when we return for the afternoon session. The guard's brow furrows as he answers, "No mam, procedure is that both of the detainee's legs are shackled during attorney meetings." I ask, "What if only one leg is shackled for the afternoon session?" I immediately worry that my request is out of bounds and that I have needlessly antagonized the guard. But he responds, "I can try to process your request during the lunch break." I thank him as he escorts us out of the camp to the table where three guards are stationed — charged with searching our belongings before we can board the van to go to lunch. That afternoon, Ghanim sits with one leg free to cross over the other if he so desires. This being Guantánamo, this minor concession feels like a major victory.
Shortly after our meeting with Ghanim, Doug receives a letter from Ghanim. "I was very happy to meet you and Ms. Allison on the day of our meeting. You overwhelmed me with your generosity and kindness, and you resurrected in my heart a hope. The meeting was a meeting of friendship and very enjoyable. I was surprised by your efforts which you concern yourselves on my behalf in order to restore to me my freedom which was lost."
In April 2007, Doug and Bernie return to Guantánamo to meet with Ghanim and our other two clients. With our other clients, there is always a sense of uncertainty going into the meetings — their mental or physical state can be dramatically altered from the previous visit only three months earlier. They are held in Camps 5 and 6 where the conditions in are much harsher than the conditions in Camp 4. They are deprived of contact with other detainees and are frequently not allowed outside for weeks on end. While Ghanim maintains hope that he will be returned home, our other clients fear that they are slowly losing their sanity and they begin to doubt that they will ever be released.
Our meetings with Ghanim are consistently positive and the visit in April is no exception. Ghanim listens as Doug and Bernie update him on the legal developments in the case as well as the efforts to apply diplomatic pressure on the Saudi government. As always, Ghanim listens intently and asks pointed questions. During the meeting, the three men discuss their families. During this type of casual conversation, Ghanim does not need Mahmoud to translate. Although he is most comfortable speaking Arabic, Doug and Bernie share pictures of their wives, children, and grandchildren. Ghanim asks questions: Where does your son's family live? How old are your grandchildren? It is a comfortable conversation among men who are forming a friendship. Doug and Bernie leave the meeting with what Ghanim jokingly refers to as "homework assignments" — locate and send a prayer calendar, contact his brother Mohammed and tell him that Ghanim is well, send news of his home country, send copies of the documents we submitted to the Administrative Review Board on his behalf, and send any articles regarding the military commissions.
In July 2007, I return for my second trip to Guantánamo. I am five months pregnant and beginning to show. These will be my last meetings with our clients before I go out on maternity leave. On a day off between client meetings, Doug and I sit in the lounge area of the Combined Bachelor's Quarters conferring with one of our interpreters. The phone rings at the front desk. "Mr. Douglas Spaulding?" the man behind the reception desk asks. Doug looks up from his notes. "Yes?" "There is a telephone call for you." Doug and I exchange curious expressions. Doug gets up and walks over to the desk.
"This is Doug Spaulding."
Doug hangs up the phone. His expression is one of ecstatic shock. "I have some classified information I need to share with Allison," he says. Our interpreter excuses herself. "Ghanim is going to be released!" he tells me. I am stunned. Is it possible? Like children trying to guess what presents will be under the Christmas tree, we often discussed which one of our clients was the most likely to be released. We agreed that surely it would be Ghanim since he is a citizen of a country that is interested in getting its countrymen out of Guantánamo. Given the frustrating slowness of the legal cases we had filed on our clients' behalf, we began to realize that diplomatic pressure was their best hope for release. Still, I am completely caught off guard and simultaneously elated by the news. The fact that we happen to be in Guantánamo and will be able to share this news with Ghanim in person serves as the icing on the cake. I hurry back to my room to get ready as I mentally prepare to deliver the best possible news imaginable to our client.
Within an hour, we are on the ferry to the other side of the island. A military escort will be there to pick us up. We will meet with Ghanim at 2 p.m. and will have exactly one hour to spend with him. It will be our last meeting with him. Ghanim is not yet aware that he is going to be released. At the onset of our representation of Ghanim, we asked the court to require the government to give us 30-days notice of any intention to move him out of Guantánamo. The purpose the order is to allow us to object to his transfer to a country where he would likely be tortured or persecuted. In Ghanim's case, the government has informed us that he is being released to his home country of Saudi Arabia.
It is a typical day in Guantánamo — hot and humid. Two iguanas stare at us from the other side of the barbed-wire fence. We anxiously watch the guards search our belongings as we pass through security to meet Ghanim. Unlike previous meetings, we bring very little with us. Doug holds a copy of the 30-day notice order. I have a notepad, but I doubt I will be taking notes in this meeting. The baby kicks once softly — he or she is probably protesting the heat, I think to myself.
Finally, we are led into a makeshift interrogation room where Ghanim is seated in a plastic lawn chair. There is no fan in the room, and the lack of air circulation makes it feel even hotter than it is outside. Ghanim rises and smiles. Doug and Ghanim shake hands and embrace. Remembering my first meeting, I do not extend my hand — I smile and nod, and Ghanim does the same. He says to both of us, "So good to see you again." We sit down, and finally, Doug is able to deliver the news that Ghanim has so desperately wanted to hear for the last five-and-a-half years. He says slowly, "I have good news. You have been cleared for release and will be going home to Saudi Arabia." Ghanim's look is one of disbelief as he responds, "Is it true? I am going to be released?" Doug responds, "Yes." He is clearly exhilarated as he says these words to his client — a man he has met only four times, but for whom he has undoubtedly developed a deep fondness. Ghanim gazes up with his eyes closed. He then levels his eyes and looks directly at Doug and repeats, this time without any question, "I am going to be released." Ghanim turns to me and I smile through the tears that have formed in my eyes. "You are finally going home," I say. Ghanim gazes upward again and starts laughing quietly. For five precious years, this man was detained in a remote island prison — labeled an enemy combatant and a threat to the United States. Now, without any explanation, he is being sent home. His happiness and gratitude fill every corner of the sterile interrogation room.
Our time with Ghanim is limited. We must discuss the 30-day notice order. Ghanim agrees that we should waive notice so that perhaps, he will be sent home sooner than 30 days from today. He asks when we think he will be sent home. We tell him that we suspect it will be within the next few days. This is later confirmed when we leave the meeting and see a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross waiting to conduct an "exit interview" with our client.
The rest of the hour is spent discussing what we had previously only timidly dared to address — what Ghanim will do upon release. He is well informed about the Saudi repatriation program — the Saudi delegation met with him last time they visited Guantánamo. He was told that the Saudi government will help him find a wife, a job, and a home after he successfully completes the program. As always, there is not even a hint of hostility, anger, or recrimination for the physical abuse and psychological anguish that had been inflicted on him. Ghanim's focus is simply on regaining the normalcy of life.
Before we leave, Ghanim presents us with four beautifully decorated notes — there is one for Doug, Bernie, me, and another attorney on our team. Each note is bordered with intricately drawn vines and flowers that Ghanim has carefully colored. In preparing the notes of gratitude, it seems that Ghanim may have suspected his release was imminent.
Only a few days after our meeting with him, Ghanim al-Harbi returned home to Saudi Arabia and was reunited with his family.
Eleven months before his release, we wrote in an Administrative Review Board submission, "It is clear that Mr. al-Harbi does not pose a continuing threat to the United States or its allies. If he were released, he would do one thing — go home, try to pick up the pieces of his life after five long grueling years in custody, and simply live in peace."
After Ghanim was released, we refrained from contacting him because we heard rumors that the Saudi government told the repatriated detainees to cut off communication with their American attorneys; however, we eventually learn that other attorneys have spoken to their released Saudi clients. Six months after his release, we send an e-mail to Ghanim's brother Mohammed. Mohammed responds and within days, a telephone call is arranged. With Mahmoud's assistance, we are able to speak with Ghanim. He tells us that he is now married and his life is returning to normal. He has a mobile phone and an e-mail address and we can contact him whenever we want. After the call, I send an e-mail to Ghanim telling him that I recently became a mother. I attach a picture of my new son. To my delight, Ghanim responds within hours congratulating me on the birth of my son. He sends three pictures — one of himself dressed in a long dark robe with his brother standing beside him — both men smiling and proud. The next photograph is of the feast his mother prepared for the party she threw in honor of his return. The last photo shows five beaming relatives seated on a couch in a comfortable living room — attendees at the welcome home party. He wishes me and my husband and the new baby "a happy and quiet life" and he signs off, "Faithful, Ghanim al Harbi."
The intricately decorated note from Ghanim is now framed and hanging above my desk. After eight years of law practice, I am most proud of my work on the Guantánamo Bay habeas litigation. Ghanim's note of gratitude serves as a succinct inspiration to continue working for the release of our other two clients. Admittedly, it is not at all clear that anything we did directly resulted in Ghanim's release from Guantánamo. A more probable explanation is that the Saudis are gradually working to get their citizens returned home and that Ghanim's name was next on their list. Despite his ordeal, Ghanim truly believes that America will find its way back to justice and that the ideals we purport to hold dear will be restored. As I prepare for my next trip to Guantánamo to meet with our remaining two clients, I pray that Ghanim al-Harbi is right.
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