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Trapped at Guantanamo

Boston Globe
By Melissa Hoffer
January 11, 2007


WHEN I LAST saw my client, Saber Lahmar, in his cell at Guantanamo Bay, he told me a story. He said that a soldier entered his cell one day and inadvertently left the door ajar a few inches. An iguana darted in and went behind the door. The soldier left, leaving the iguana inside.

At first, Saber said, the iguana appeared relaxed. It tried to crawl through a hole under a partition, but it could not squeeze through. After realizing it was trapped, it panicked and flew to the narrow opaque window next to the door, banging its head against the glass. "This," Saber said, "is an animal after five minutes. I have been here five years."

No matter how hard one wishes, the bars of a steel cage do not stop time. No one is more aware of this fact than Lakhdar Boumediene, Mohammed Nechla, Mustafa Ait Idir, Hadj Boudella, Belkacem Bensayah, and Saber Lahmar -- six Bosnian Algerian men imprisoned at Guantanamo whom my colleagues and I have represented since July 2004, in a habeas corpus case, Boumediene v. Bush, challenging their detention . Today marks the fifth anniversary of the date the United States first began to fly plane loads of prisoners to Guantanamo. Our clients arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

This time last year, Hadj's 6 -year-old daughter, Saaima, died of congenital heart failure. He had not seen her since the fall of 2001, when he and the other five men were arrested by Bosnian authorities under pressure from the United States, which asserted that they were involved in planning terrorist activities in Bosnia. After a three-month investigation, the Bosnian federal prosecutor recommended to the Bosnian Supreme Court that all six be released. But again under heavy pressure from the United States, the Bosnians caved, and as the men were released from a jail in Sarajevo, the Bosnians turned them over to the United States. Hooded, shackled, and packed into waiting cars while their horrified families watched, they began the sickening odyssey that continues today.

Saber's wife was pregnant when he was taken to Guantanamo. He has never met his daughter Sara, whose shiny face framed in pink plastic sunglasses peers out from the photographs we send to him. Mustafa, a former karate champion who suffered months of facial paralysis from a brutal beating inflicted by Guantanamo camp soldiers, worries about his ailing mother in Algeria. With each passing day, it becomes more likely that he will never see her again.

Not one of these men has been charged with a crime. All they seek is a fair hearing before a judge in a court of law to prove they are not so-called "enemy combatants." Yet the Bush administration insists that they have no rights under any source of law and maintains that it may hold them indefinitely -- a potential life sentence -- without charge, until the war on terror ends. And no one in the administration has been able to answer the question of how and when we will know if the war on terror is over.

In the summer of 2004, 2 1/2 years after the administration repurposed Guantanamo as a prison beyond the law and after the Supreme Court held that Guantanamo prisoners are indeed able to challenge their detention in federal courts, the administration finally instituted a process -- the Combatant Status Review Tribunal -- with the stated goal of determining whether the men at Guantanamo it deemed enemy combatants were truly enemy combatants. Not surprisingly, the tribunal rubber-stamped nearly 100 percent of the Defense Department's prior enemy combatant status determinations, on the basis of secret evidence and evidence obtained by torture and while excluding evidence requested by the prisoners. Naturally, several of our clients asked the tribunal to consider the Bosnian Supreme Court's order releasing them. It refused.

Boumediene was argued before the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2005. No decision has been issued. Congress attempted to strip the courts of jurisdiction to hear the habeas cases in the fall of 2005, and last summer, the Supreme Court rejected that effort. Congress again passed legislation to strip jurisdiction in the fall of 2006 -- more briefs have been filed, more months have passed.

So they wait. When we last saw Saber in November, he was in his sixth month of solitary confinement. Since August, he has seen us, his legal team, twice and a psychiatrist on three brief occasions. For a few minutes each day, he sees the camp guards who bring his meals. He has had no other human contact. The glaring lights in his cell are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When we left the cell, we could hear Saber shouting -- brief, truncated cries. We could not understand what he was saying.

Five years of freedom can never be reclaimed. Congress should right the Guantanamo wrong now.

Melissa Hoffer is an attorney practicing in Boston.

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