In the latest twist in the Guantánamo Bay legal struggle, 16 war-on-terror prisoners ranging from a self-described nomadic shepherd to a disabled 78-year-old Afghan man are suing the U.S. government -- acting as their own attorneys from behind the razor wire at Camp Delta in Cuba.
The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., docketed the cases on May 3 after a series of single-paragraph pleas from captives arrived in the court's mail.
The latest suits are extraordinary because the 16 captives wrote to the court directly, without benefit of a lawyer, from their prison camp 1,300 miles away. Further, some of the prisoners suing on their own are illiterate.
''My wish from you is please inquire about my sad story. I've been detained here unlawfully and sinlessly,'' writes Sharbat Khan, age unknown, the self-described shepherd who said he lost 300 sheep and 10 camels when he was captured in Afghanistan and sent to the base in Cuba.
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The military is holding about 500 men and teens from at least 42 nations as ''enemy combatants'' at the Navy base in Cuba, alleging they are al Qaeda or Taliban members or sympathizers. About 150 already have filed suit, through lawyers lined up by family members from the Persian Gulf to Europe.
The 16 captives dictated their pleas to military payroll linguists at Guantánamo, according to military sources, who translated them and submitted them to military censorship.
Officers then sent them to the court by certified U.S. mail, along with 16 others, still unfiled, that arrived this week.
ALLOWED TO SUE
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that detainees can sue for their freedom. The Defense Department began giving captives the court's mailing address in December.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ordered the first 16 letters be filed as habeas corpus petitions, or writs, and waived the routine $5 filing fee. The petitions name President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and two Army officers as defendants.
''My imprisonment is unjustified,'' self-described blacksmith Alif Mohammed says in a 61-word statement. ``I'm a poor person and am feeding 10 children of my own. Now I want justice and freedom to return to my country and . . . be reunited with my family.''
Each statement bears a stamp ''APPROVED BY US FORCES'' from the prison camp's intelligence unit, showing each was cleared by military censors before being sent to the court on Constitution Avenue. They are dated in late February and early March, and arrived the last week of April.
Attorney Eugene R. Fidell of the National Institute for Military Justice predicted that federal judges would appoint lawyers to help the 16 captives, rather than leave them to manage their cases by mail from Camp Delta.
'WHEELS OF JUSTICE'
State and federal prosecutors often file informal, sometimes handwritten, legal papers on their own. But Fidell said the latest development showed the strength of the U.S. legal system: A single paragraph from a prisoner in Cuba, translated and subjected to military censorship there, emerged as a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court.
‘‘What you’re seeing is the first turning of the wheels of justice on their cases — against considerable odds,’’ he said.
Fidell, who has chaired the Advisory Committee on Pro Se Litigation at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said the judges can assign the captives lawyers from a pro bono list maintained by the court.
Or, he said, the court could seek lawyers with expertise on the Guantánamo cases, for example from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is coordinating a habeas corpus project.
Attorney Barbara Olshansky of the New York Center for Constitutional Rights cast the suits as tragic because the captives are likely incapable of representing themselves in the courts.
‘‘It breaks your heart,’’ she said, because the Pentagon has spurned defense lawyers’ requests to offer their services in the cellblocks to prisoners who may not know how to acquire an attorney.
Moreover, she said, it is unclear how the prisoners — who speak little or no English and likely don’t know about U.S. law — can represent themselves in the court.
She said she was is troubled that the military transmitted the documents to the court without an affidavit explaining who helped the captives create them, or who translated them.
The single-paragraph pleas give little information about the 16 men among the war-onterror captives, some of whom have been held at the U.S. detention and interrogation camp in Cuba for more than three years.
But they arrive as the Bush administration argues before a federal appeals court that the military’s review processes at Guantánamo should be sufficient to derail any civilian intervention authorized by the Supreme Court.
A court spokesman said Wednesday that more prisoner letters arrived this week from Guantánamo and were being reviewed.
Twenty-four of the 32 prisoners who wrote the court are illiterate, said Air Force Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman. They dictated their statements to U.S. military linguists, who then translated them and submitted them to a security review.
From some of Guantánamo captives’ letters to the federal court in Washington, D.C.:
I have been here over two years for no reason. . . . I did not hurt any Americans and I did not have any weapons with me. . . . If the United States is accusing me of something they should prove it . . . I was walking to the market and the Americans arrested me for no reason. I am innocent.
I have done no crimes against the U.S., nor did the U.S. charge me with any crimes, thus I am filing for my immediate release. For further details about my case, I’ll be happy for any future hearing. Best regards,
With all respect I am asking the civilian judge of American to listen to my petition . . . If I am detained legally please tell me what is my crime. But if I am detained illegally please explain to me why I have been kept away from my family for the past three and half years. You claim that you are humanitarians and helpers of poor people, so I am requesting that you review my case.
I am a poor man and have been detained here unlawfully and without a reason. I am not against America nor against Mr. Karzai’s government. I ran away from the Taliban and left my country and became a refugee. I have not committed a sin, so I would like to present the writ of habeas corpus to you.
I am the prisoner Yasin Muhammed Basardah, detained in Guantánamo. Please look at my case, and also send a lawyer to look at my request for asylum because my life has been threatened by Saudis and Yemenis.