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Defending due process for Guantánamo detainees

Defense attorneys for Guantánamo detainees stand up for due process despite hate mail, threats, and Dick Cheney's daughter.

By Jina Moore/ Correspondent / March 27, 2010

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan (l.) and Baher Azmy (standing at back), with other attorneys who defend due process for Guantánamo detainees.

Jeff Riedel/Art Department

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New York

At first, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan didn't know whether his client was a terrorist. Jumah al-Dossari had been rumored to work with Al Qaeda and to have fought for Islamic causes around the world. His name was familiar to anyone following the news after 9/11.

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But Mr. Colangelo-Bryan, a Manhattan corporate litigator doing pro bono work for Mr. Dossari, needed more: "Certainly I'm not going to conclude that someone is a terrorist on the basis of Google," he said. He'd faced accused war criminals before, working with the United Nations on the prosecution of war crimes in Kosovo. But Guantánamo, the US naval station in Cuba where detainees in the war on terror are held, was new territory.

"This kind of offshore penal colony is not something that we do very often," he says. He was drawn initially to the legal challenge – "the novelty and cutting-edge aspect of it. There was also what seemed like the fundamentally unfair notion that the government was holding people just because it said they should be held, without any form of due process … so there were important principles at stake."

Still, the first time he flew to Cuba to meet his client, he didn't know what to expect: "I walked into this little room for my first-ever meeting with a Guantánamo Bay detainee, worrying maybe I was going to have some lunatic jump across the table and try to choke me. Instead, there's this slight, smiling, shackled man sitting there who introduces himself as Jumah, and within 10 minutes, we're talking about the fact that his favorite movie is 'Jumanji.' "

Colangelo-Bryan was one of roughly 500 lawyers, many of them private attorneys working for no fee on the cases of Guantánamo detainees. They may be the most unpopular defense lawyers in America. They're harassed on the phone, get hate mail and e-mail, and some get death threats.

They've also come under fire from Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose political action committee recently released a Web ad implying that Department of Justice lawyers with prior experience defending detainees sympathized with terrorists. The ad calls them "the Al Qaeda-7" and questions the loyalty of the entire department, asking, "DOJ: Department of Jihad?"

Prominent conservatives have criticized the ad, saying in an open letter, "The American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams's representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre."