GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — I first visited Obaidullah at Guantanamo Bay in the spring of 2009. Before that first meeting, all I knew were the disturbing accusations against him, that he had fired his last habeas attorney and that I wasn’t sure why.
Prior to the visit, my family and colleagues were supportive. When I confessed to a close friend that I was nervous, he said, “Time to get out of your comfort zone.” That was an understatement. My law partner gave me the pep talk about everyone being entitled to representation, but I wasn’t even a criminal defense attorney. Hardly any of us in the “Gitmo Bar” were.
According to what had been scared up through a Freedom of Information Act request, Obaidullah was accused of being part of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell that was preparing roadside bombs against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. Official reports said he confessed while in custody in Afghanistan. Later, at Guantanamo, he’d recanted, saying he’d been tortured and the confession coerced. Was my client guilty of terrorism? There had never been any test of guilt or innocence, just six years of reported interrogations and torture.
My first day on the base, after being thoroughly patted down and every piece of paper removed of its staples, I met Obaidullah in a small concrete bunker. He wore a simple tan smock and trousers, and his ankles were shackled to the floor. He was about five-feet-seven and 150 pounds. He seemed young. Captured at age 22 or so (he doesn’t know exactly what year he was born), he had grown into a man in this prison. He told me he was not guilty of the claims made against him. He was polite but skeptical that I or anyone else could help him. He spoke his native Pashto in a soft voice with an occasional strain that would end in a note of incredulity. “Tell your government that all I want is to go back to my family,” he said through an interpreter. “Why do they keep us here, without giving us a chance to prove we are not guilty?”
I wasn’t even a criminal defense attorney. Hardly any of us in the 'Gitmo Bar' were.
In those days, most of the Americans he met were military or intelligence personnel. His first attorney had failed to gain his confidence. So many lawyers were fired by their clients at Gitmo that it was a running joke among the attorneys. Just stay hired, I told myself. That’s the first step.
For me, this journey to Gitmo had started with a simple request. My law firm was asked by the Center for Constitutional Rights to represent a single detainee in Guantanamo Bay in his habeas proceedings. CCR had filed the first lawsuit on behalf of the roughly 780 men detained there as enemy combatants and was co-counsel in the 2008 Supreme Court decision securing their right to judicial review. But a large number of these men, who had been detained for up to six years, still did not have attorneys who were willing, pro bono, to contest their imprisonment. CCR was reaching out to law firms nationwide, building a “Gitmo bar” to take these cases. Would our small firm be willing to handle one?
Obaidullah (like many Afghans, he has only one name) had been arrested at his home, during a raid in the middle of the night. No charges were leveled against him until 2008 (after six years of detention). They included conspiracy and material support for terrorism. Later, in 2011, a military lawyer assigned to his defense team found evidence to support Obaidullah’s claims of innocence, including substantiating his family’s claims that the seemingly incriminating mines had actually been left there during the Soviet occupation, while he and his family were in Pakistan. Although his military lawyers sought a speedy trial, the U.S. government simply dropped the charges. The government didn’t need them. They could rely on indefinite detention instead, as they did with most of the other Guantanamo detainees ― detention without charge.
How do you establish rapport with someone without any shared cultural reference points? Obaidullah had been living on a small farm and working in a general store in rural Afghanistan outside of Khost, a 4-hour drive from Kabul. His family had no love for the Taliban. He had an 11th grade education and had learned a little English in school.
Once captured, he had no access to any outside information about his fate; he relied on what other detainees, guards or interrogators told him. He also had no way to find out anything about me. It wasn’t until after our habeas hearing ― in which he had been allowed to listen remotely to my public opening statement (the rest was classified and not even he was allowed to hear it), and saw how hard we had worked for him ― that I think he let himself believe in me.
For my part, meeting Obaidullah face-to-face removed any doubt about what I was doing. At the time of his capture he was recently married — his daughter had been born just days before U.S. forces took him from his home. My own son had been born the same month.
Obaidullah told me he was tortured at Bagram Air Base and that the abuse continued in interrogations at Guantanamo. Not until later, after we’d known each other for several years, did he tell me what happened. He signed a statement that we filed in court describing what the judge called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” International law calls it torture. Obaidullah described being beaten on the head with a gun and threatened with death by a guard who was sharpening a long knife. He was forced to carry sandbags all night and not allowed to sleep. He was kept in a small barbed-wire cage. His hands were tied above his head for hours. He was subjected to extreme heat and cold over many months.
Obaidullah told me he was tortured at Bagram Air Base and that the abuse continued in interrogations at Guantanamo.
Obaidullah asked me why I was trying to help him. I told him that I believed that everyone should have the right to present his or her evidence in court, that I understood he had little hope that my government would do the right thing but that I was committed to doing everything I could to allow him to have a hearing. It sounded pretty pie-in-the-sky, even to me. We talked about President Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay, which had been delivered just months before my first visit. We talked about the political battles that made it hard for Obama to fulfill that promise.
Over the next seven years, I went to Guantanamo Bay a dozen times to meet with Obaidullah. For his habeas hearing we coordinated multiple attorneys and expert witnesses and pulled together a brief that was over a hundred pages long with more than a hundred exhibits. But we still lost.
My colleagues and I were the only ones allowed to meet with Obaidullah. We talked about movies, children, pets, family, books. He liked “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise. He was a fan of “How I Met Your Mother.” Over the years, we had shared with tales of honeymoons, camping trips and trekking tours around the world, and in one of our last conversations before his release, he told me that he liked our habit of taking vacations with our families. Family travel, he told me, was not something he had heard of. He looked forward to trying it with his.
We lawyers were sometimes allowed to bring in food, and we tried to anticipate what he might like — mocha ice cream was a favorite (though it nearly melted by the time we got it to him). Nutella spread onto a biscuit with a military-issue spork was also a hit. Sometimes we talked about having a proper meal together outside the prison, after he was free.
What amazed me the most was Obaidullah’s compassion, his ability to express empathy and appreciation, even humor. He began our visits with inquiries into the wellbeing of our families, and recalled what we’d told him about their interests in soccer and science. When one of our lawyers dropped her cell phone into the bay he found that a rich vein for relentless teasing, as he did if we were late to a meeting. He loved it when my dog barked when we were talking on the phone. It was a small but vivid reminder of the real world.
Since 2002, nine detainees have died at Guantanamo. In 2013, with the situation looking hopeless, with transfers out at a complete standstill, the prisoners felt that refusing to eat was the one means they had to register their protest. The majority of the men in the camp began a hunger strike. In part as a result of those desperate hunger strikes — my client withered to about 120 pounds — Obama instituted “periodic review board” hearings that would assess whether each detainee currently constituted a threat, regardless of what he may or may not have done in the past.
In December of 2015, Obaidullah was informed that he was scheduled for a hearing. In April 2016, I went down for 10 days to prepare for and participate in the hearing as his private counsel. In May, we were notified that he had been cleared for transfer. This past August, he was finally released from Guantanamo Bay to the United Arab Emirates. He has been placed in a government rehabilitation program there.
I won’t be able to hear from him for months. It will not be easy for him to readjust to the world after suffering what he has been through, or to live as an Afghan immigrant in the UAE. His future is unclear — after a few years he should be able to return to Afghanistan.
But one thing is clear. The minute I am given the go-ahead, I plan to take my son and husband, go meet his family and share that meal outside the prison walls.