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2 local lawyers offer aid to Guantanamo detainees

By Connie Paige,

Like many attorneys, Newton lawyers Doris Tennant and Ellen Lubell handle the more routine work of the legal system, representing spouses wanting a divorce and nonprofits needing legal help.

But on Feb. 1, Tennant and Lubell met in Cuba for a face-to-face interview with a client unlike any other: Abdul Aziz Naji, an Algerian Muslim incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for more than five years as a terrorist.

The meeting took place in a 4-foot-by-5-foot windowless room, bare except for four chairs and a table. The clanging of heavy metal doors outside the room set up a constant din during the five-hour interview. Naji was seated in a chair, shackled hand and foot, his ankles chained to the floor. He says he has been tortured. They say he needs a lawyer.

"I don't feel like I can be a lawyer without doing what we're doing," Tennant told a Boston Bar Association forum yesterday. "When you really see that the rule of law is being so disdained, it's hard to live with yourself and the oath you take as a lawyer, not to mention a responsible citizen, without saying, 'This is the least of what we can do.' "

Tennant and Lubell are part of a nationwide network of lawyers who represent Guantanamo prisoners, organized by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. The group is coordinating the defense of about 300 detainees. Tennant and Lubell are among 34 lawyers in Massachusetts assigned to clients.

About 750 prisoners have passed through Guanatanamo since January 2002, and about 395 have been released, a center spokesman said. The best-known detainee is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, said last week to have confessed to masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack and to beheading Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

In an interview this week, the two Newton lawyers said they do not know whether Naji and other Guantanamo prisoners are terrorists, but that whether they are should be determined in court.

"Let's find that out," Lubell said. "What are we waiting for? If there's reason to believe that, let's get them into a court. We've created a process in this country that we think is good enough for all of us to ferret out the truth."

She added that if any prisoner is implicated in terrorist activity, "we should be punishing that person."

Formerly a bankruptcy specialist at two prestigious Boston law firms, Tennant, 56, now practices family law. Lubell, 47, exchanged jobs working at another top-flight Boston firm and at the University of Massachusetts to represent nonprofits. They set up their law firm last April.

Tennant and Lubell spend half their time now on Naji's defense. They are representing Naji pro bono, which is likely to cost them about $20,000 per year for travel, language interpretation, and legal services. They have raised about $16,000. They have also received phone calls and e-mails accusing them of supporting terrorists.

They say they were drawn to represent alleged terrorists by several recent events and by their own religious faiths.

In December 2005, Tennant played a role in "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," a play constructed from Guantanamo prisoners' correspondence. The program gave her more of a sense of intimacy with their plight, she said.

Tennant also learned that a colleague was representing one of the Guantanamo detainees. Then, three other detainees hanged themselves last June, alarming both Tennant and Lubell.

Tennant grew up in Georgia, raised as a fundamentalist Methodist, and said she still lives by Christian teachings.

"I do take the words of Jesus seriously," she said. "God's law is love."

Lubell, a Jew whose father fled Belgium just weeks before it was overrun by the Nazis, said her religion teaches tolerance, respect for others, and defense of their rights. "I always wanted to make the world a better place," said Lubell, a native of New York City.

While no charges have been filed against Naji, Tennant and Lubell discovered through a Freedom of Information Act request that the federal government views him as a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Muslim terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Tennant and Lubell said Naji told them he was doing humanitarian work for the organization. They said they independently confirmed that it had a social service arm.

Tennant and Lubell said Naji told them through an Arabic interpreter that in January 2002 he was flown to Guantanamo, where he said he was held in solitary confinement for about 20 days and interrogated several times for six or seven hours at a stretch.

Last October, they said, Naji was moved to Camp 6 and placed alone in a windowless cell. He is allowed out of the cell daily for two hours of solo exercise in a wire-mesh cage.

Erik Ablin, a US Department of Justice spokesman, declined to comment last week about Naji.

With the other lawyers for the Guantanamo prisoners, Tennant and Lubell have petitioned the US District Court, challenging the legality of the detention. A series of federal laws and judicial rulings have denied the prisoners a day in court so far. The cases are now on appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Tennant and Lubell returned to the United States on Feb. 2.

"We couldn't tell him for sure when we'd be back," Tennant said. " We don't know what state he'll be in."

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