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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.

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Indeed, the right to due process implies that someone has to defend the "bad guys." The Rosenbergs, executed as traitors in 1953, had lawyers. In 1977, the neo-Nazis of Skokie, Ill., had Aryeh Neier, a Jew who saw himself as defending free speech.

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While some conservatives debate whether detainees deserve due process, the Supreme Court, in two rulings, established that detainees have the right to hear the accusations against them, to a lawyer, and to a trial. The Obama administration is expected to decide shortly whether those trials will be held by military commissions or in criminal court.

Due process admits something that the court of public opinion, in the heat of the moment, may not: The "bad guys" may not be who everyone thinks they are. That's possible even in Guantánamo Bay: Of the 779 imprisoned there since 2000, 705 have been released or cleared for release. Of those remaining, 30 are scheduled to be prosecuted.

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When Colangelo-Bryan opened the files, he didn't see much to prosecute. "There were no transcripts of phone calls that had been intercepted involving [Dossari]. There were no photographs of him with [Al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden. There were no fingerprints on incriminating materials. There was really nothing that any judge would consider reliable evidence," he says.

The young Saudi father and office worker had been arrested while traveling through Pakistan and was turned over to the US military on vague allegations about participating in the "war on terror." Colangelo-Bryan set out to prove Dossari hadn't – but in the end, he didn't need to. Dossari would not face trial.

"It happened almost immediately," Colangelo-Bryan remembers. He and his client, one of the men Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described as "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth," became friends.

Early on, they met in a hut; Dossari was shackled and chained to a bolt in the floor. They told jokes, talked about women, shared childhood stories. Colangelo-Bryan brought news from Dossari's family, with whom the lawyer communicated often about the case. Sometimes they spoke through a translator, and sometimes in English, one-on-one.

Once, Colangelo-Bryan brought cheesecake from Junior's, the famous New York bakery. Dossari teased his lawyer about being too serious, about being single, about being cheap. When Dossari learned how little Colangelo-Bryan wanted to spend on an apartment, he called him a "tightwad."

As the friendship grew, the lawyer's life became more difficult. "It was the first thing I thought about in the morning and it was the last thing I thought about at night. And I certainly thought about it for much of the day," he says of his preoccupation with legal tactics, media strategy, and diplomacy.