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The Guantanamo Lawyers: Shipwrecked
Posted on Nov 22, 2009
By Baher Azmy
Editor’s note: This important new book tells the story of the world’s most famous prison from the perspective of the lawyers who toiled under notoriously difficult conditions on behalf of the detainees. In this excerpt, Baher Azmy tells the story of his client, who was held for years despite having been found by his captors to have no connection with terrorism.
I first saw him on a TV screen. Before my initial meeting with Murat Kurnaz in October 2004, the U.S. military police escorted me—the third civilian lawyer to enter the inner sanctum of Guantánamo’s Camp Echo— through several fifteen-foot-high locked gates and into the guard booth of the world’s most notorious military prison. On my way to the booth, walking across gravel made bright white by the blazing Caribbean sun, my status as a civilian—clean shaven, dressed in a tie and formal shoes—was punctuated by the loud sounds of practice machine-gun fire in the distance.
The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law
Edited by Mark Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz
NYU Press, 448 pages
The military showed me the surveillance they would employ during my otherwise private meeting with my client: he was on a video screen, waiting for me. The image was blurry, like the grainy picture on a store security camera or a late-night news broadcast’s depiction of a wanted menace, and it was unsettling: here was a man with a beard and hair seemingly befitting a prehistoric warrior. Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Rasul v. Bush, which first opened up the camp to law, lawyers, and therefore a minimal amount of scrutiny, Bush administration officials had claimed that all the detainees in Guantánamo were a sort of maniacally diabolical lot—not only were they “trained killers,” but they had nearly superhuman ability to, for example, “gnaw the hydraulic wires of a C-17 transport plane.” I was naturally distrustful of these claims, but this first image obviously did not advance my skepticism. Another military guard carried out what appeared to be his somber duty, instructing me to push away from the table in case the man lunged for my throat.
Leaving the guard booth, we walked toward the hutlike structure in Camp Echo that housed the detainees’ cells, mindful to stay within the gravel walking lanes manicured by the lowest level military personnel. An impossibly young soldier who had been “preparing” my client for the visit told me, “He says he doesn’t want a translator.” I exchanged concerned looks with Belinda, the German translator I brought all this way to translate our interviews. “You sure you’re talking about Murat Kurnaz?” I asked. “He doesn’t speak English.” The guard replied, “No he speaks it good enough. And he’s pretty adamant—he doesn’t want a translator.” “Since when does he speak English?” I persisted. The guard didn’t know, and obviously neither did Murat’s family, who hadn’t communicated with him in the three years since his U.S. detention began.
I regretfully sent the translator back to the civilian side of Guantánamo and prepared to meet Murat alone. When the door to our meeting room opened, he was seated, squinting at the incoming sunlight. He was dressed in a short, tan shirt and cotton pants—the color designating him neither cooperative nor uncooperative. With a flowing beard and red-brown mane of hair, he looked like someone who had been shipwrecked on a desert island, which, in a sense, he was. He shook my hand and motioned for me to sit across from him on the flimsy plastic chair, as if he were welcoming me to tea in his home. I tried to sound confident. “Murat, my name is Baher Azmy. I am a lawyer. I do not work for the U.S. government. Your family in Germany asked me to help you.” I handed him a handwritten note from his worried mother to help convince him that I was on his side. The simple honesty and loving reassurance of her message still moves me: “My dear son Murat, You will be visited by an American lawyer whom you can trust. Murat, your brothers go to school and we have been for vacation in Turkey. We were shopping with [your wife] and she is loving you.” As I watched his pained expression while reading his first message from home—his first taste of humanity in three years—I felt as though I was delivering a crumb of bread to Robinson Crusoe.
I explained that his mother and German lawyer had been fighting for years for him, that Guantánamo had become an international embarrassment, and that millions of people in the United States were opposed to it. Because he had been held incommunicado for almost three years, he had no idea anyone even knew of Guantánamo’s existence, or his existence. I also told him that I was born in Egypt, a Muslim, and was a law professor with great faith in the American legal system. “You have sued President Bush?” he asked. “Yes, you and I have sued him. And I will do everything I can to help you,” I answered. To my relief, he said with a heavy German accent, “This is goot.”
The second day of my visit, I brought him McDonald’s coffee and a half-dozen packets of sugar to satisfy what I knew about the Turkish coffee culture, as well as an apple pie; he ate with wondrous nostalgia for his mother’s version. On subsequent visits, I became more adventurous in what I would bring to our meetings: dolmas, baklava, cheese, pita bread, Turkish figs, fresh garlic (his request), subs, pizza, Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, fries, hot peppers (also his request), Jolly Ranchers, cookies, fresh fruit, canned fruit, dried fruit, melting McFlurries, and even a packaged shrimp cocktail. I was shopping for a starving man. I also brought him Starbucks, but, to my surprise, he preferred McDonald’s coffee.
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