Defenders take detainee's plea to cyberspace

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

With legal challenges by Guantanamo detainees now frozen in the federal courts, what's a creative civil liberties lawyer to do?

Court public opinion.

A team of Oregon federal public defenders has made a video arguing that Sudanese captive Adel Hamad is unlawfully held at the remote U.S. Navy Base in southeast Cuba - and posted it on YouTube.

In 10 days, the video has been viewed 20,000 times. The video is set in such locations as Guantanamo, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Hamad, 48, born in Sudan, was handed over to U.S. troops after his arrest in Peshawar, Pakistan. The Pentagon says he is an unlawful ``enemy combatant'' in league with al Qaeda.

He denies this. He says he was a humanitarian relief worker when Pakistan police took him from his home in July 2002 and handed him off to U.S. forces, across the border, in Afghanistan.

``I have been punished in prison ... without committing a crime and I have lost my noble job through which I was earning a living,'' Hamad told a U.S. military panel at Guantanamo on Aug. 1, 2005, according to a Pentagon transcript.

The nearly 10-minute video, called Guantanamo Unclassified, is the first known online effort to focus world opinion on a current captive's case since Congress stripped the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., of the power to hear enemy combatant habeas corpus cases.

Says Patrick Ehlers, a federal public defender who has twice visited Hamad in the U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba: ``In terms of someone presenting the case of a client on YouTube, it's the first one - ever.''

He said the Portland, Ore., law team went global ``somewhat out of frustration'' and out of a perhaps naive belief:

``If more people knew about this case, maybe the Department of Defense would release this guy. Nobody could justify this detention; he's completely innocent, hasn't done anything.''

Ehlers' office originally produced a longer video and filed it as a DVD to persuade U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, assigned to the case, that their client's detention was unlawful.

But once Congress passed a law stripping Guantanamo captives of recourse to that particular court, stopping Bates' review, they posted a shorter version online on Jan. 5.

``It eats me up that I am unable to help him in the way I would normally help someone - by gathering the evidence and presenting it in court,'' said William Teesdale, a British-born barrister who years ago emigrated to the United States and is now an attorney at the Federal Public Defenders Office in Portland, Ore.

``We had to find a way to try to present this terrible story to as many people as possible,'' he said. ``We cannot get anybody to review the case.''

Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey D. Gordon, the Pentagon's spokesman for Guantanamo policy, said in response to a Miami Herald inquiry that he never heard of Hamad. Nor was he aware of the lawyers' global public-relations campaign.

``We generally don't discuss individual detainees at Guantanamo,'' Gordon replied by e-mail. ``Notable exceptions include those charged for trial by military commission or notorious public figures, like KSM.''

The Portland team's point exactly. The lawyers say they sought to shift the spotlight from more well known captives at Guantanamo, such as Osama bin Laden's driver or ``KSM,'' CIA shorthand for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who the Bush administration claims was mastermind of the 9-11 attacks.

According to Hamad's federal case file, he admits to working with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, but says he never espoused violence and never joined al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Moreover, he is classified as an ``enemy combatant'' at Guantanamo after a split decision by a panel of three U.S. military officers. While two upheld his indefinite detention, a U.S. Army major said Hamad had done nothing.

By March 2005, Hamad was frustrated with his incarceration and wrote a federal court in Washington a three-sentence letter from behind the razor wire at Camp Delta.

The court ultimately transformed the letter into a habeas corpus petition, and asked the Federal Public Defenders Office to represent him.

Now, two years and four visits later by three public defenders, his legal team is getting attention on the Web.

A 55-year-old antiwar protester in Tallahassee, Fla., named Lydia Vickers saw the video.

Six days after it was posted, she drove to Miami, donned chains, a black hood and orange jumpsuit - with Hamad's name and prisoner number on it, ``as if he was my uncle or somebody'' - and protested on a street corner near the Pentagon's Southern Command.

Vickers, a grandmother of two, says she has been an antiwar protester since 1968 and was moved by the story of Hamad.

``He's a father and a grandfather; laughs, tells jokes - a real family man and evidently got caught up in the sweep,'' she said, citing his video.

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