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Truthdigger of the Week: Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift

Truthdig tips its hat to Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the Navy lawyer who on Dec. 11 won a major ACLU award for his successful defense in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the U.S. Supreme Court case that dashed Bush administration efforts to try terror suspects in special military courts.

Two weeks after his victory, Swift was passed over for promotion by the military, and he will leave the Navy in 2007. At its Bill of Rights Dinner, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California presented Lt. Cmdr. Swift with its prestigious Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award.

With permission from the ACLU of Southern California, Truthdig below reprints Swift’s remarks at the organization’s annual awards dinner.

ACLU of Southern California Bill of Rights Awards
December 11, 2006
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift prepared remarks
Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award

In December 2003, I was given the assignment of representing a 34-year-old Yemeni with a fourth-grade education named Salim Ahmed Hamdan for unspecified charges before a military commission. The rules for trial permitted Salim to be tried and convicted on evidence that he was unable to see, much less confront, and for that evidence to be the product of interrogations that used sleep deprivation, agonizing stress positions, physical and mental humiliation and even water-boarding to induce the sense of drowning. The commission in short bore a closer resemblance to an inquisition than it did to the military justice system that I was so very proud to be a part of.

For Salim, though, the option for even such a mockery of a trial did not exist. The prosecution’s letter requesting counsel for Salim made clear that my access to him was conditioned on the negotiation of a guilty plea. That’s right: Unless Salim agreed to plead guilty, he would not be able to continue to have access to a lawyer, much less a day in court. This was not the America I had sworn to defend. I discussed Salim’s situation with Professor Neal Katyal, and we decided that I could offer Salim another option. I could promise Salim that if he did not want to plead guilty I would take a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf to the federal courts seeking a regular trial affording all of the guarantees necessary to ensure justice.

When I met Salim, he had been sitting in solitary confinement for almost two months and because he exercised only at night had not seen the sun for almost two months. I told Salim what the government wanted from him and then of Neal and my plan to file suit on his behalf if he so desired. When I finished, Salim said simply, “The guards say there is no law here.” I replied, “I do not believe that. I think that there is law everywhere but we are going to have to fight for it. We are going to have to go to the Supreme Court of the United States and win.” Salim then asked, “Will this make me famous?” and I replied that it might. He responded, “I do not want to be famous. I want to go home.” I said it is the only way. Ultimately he agreed and so we began a journey.

That journey would not have been possible without the help of the law firm of Perkins Coie that agreed to assist before representing detainees became the cause of the hour, and in particular Harry Schneider, Ben Sharp, Kelly Cameron, Joe McCillan, and Charles Sipos. Special acknowledgement is due Joe and Charles, who poured their scholarship time and hearts into Salim’s case. Some day in the future, an American soldier captured in a foreign war will come home in one piece safely to his or her family because he was protected by the Geneva Conventions and that family will not know it, but they will owe a debt of gratitude to Joe, whose efforts and arguments ensured that America considers the Geneva Conventions more than a diplomatic agreement that can be ignored when it is inconvenient. The Geneva Conventions are the law.

Most of all, this award belongs to my co-counsel and friend, Neal Katyal, who shared a vision and gave two years of his life to this case. When I started this case, I understood the odds and the obstacles in front of me and that it could not be done without the aid of the finest mind in constitutional law today, the most tireless and steadfast attorney I have ever know and the best friend a man can have. I could not have done it without Neal Katyal.

In closing, I want to share with you a moment that for me came to represent the struggle we fought and fight still today. In July of 2004, I traveled to Yemen to meet with my client’s family. On this trip, along with my translator, I was accompanied by a female JAG attorney to assist with depositions. I had requested a female to serve as the depositions officer since she alone could move freely in between the female and male worlds of Yemen society, and Susan proved to be indispensable.

During my time in Yemen, I had met Salim’s daughters, Fatima, who was just 2 when he last saw her, and Selma, whom he has never seen. On the next to the last night that I was in Yemen, Salim’s mother-in-law, the oldest person in the household, called together Fatima and Selma along with all the other little girls living in the house and their friends and seated them at her feet. They were dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts. They had pigtails and smiles and looked like little girls the world over. When the grandmother had quieted them all down, she pointed to Susan and said, “She went to school and studied very, very hard and did very well and now she is a lawyer.” And then she looked into the faces of those little girls and said, “If you go to school and study very, very hard and get good grades — you can be anything.” The promise of those words is more dangerous to Al Qaeda then any smart bomb. The promise of those words is the victory we seek and to which I dedicate this award, for it is the promise of a world where the law, not men, is supreme. It is the promise that the Supreme Court upheld in Hamdan and the vision on which America was founded and the promise that can and will lead the world to a better place.

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