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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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He also worried about Dossari's mental health. Dossari, he says, tried to commit suicide at least a dozen times in Guantánamo. Once, Colangelo-Bryan discovered him hanging by his neck and bleeding from a gash he'd cut in his arm.

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"This wasn't just an academic exercise where principles were being violated with indefinite detention," he says. "This was happening to someone who I became friends with, whose family I came to know."

Baher Azmy also found his first Guantánamo case – Murat Kurnaz, a German 19-year-old picked up in Pakistan in 2001 and released from Guantánamo in 2006 – increasingly personal.

Today, Mr. Azmy – director of Seton Hall University's Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation Clinic, in New Jersey – is on the legal team for Abu Zubaydah, the Al Qaeda suspect waterboarded by CIA interrogators and now held at Guantánamo. He takes detainee cases "because I'm quite romantic about constitutional ideas," he says. "I perceived that what the government was doing was novel and extraconstitutional…. In the absence of law, it was just pure discretion and power and will. And I think I found that morally offensive."

That abstract commitment "turned into an all-consuming personal commitment," Azmy says, as he got to know Mr. Kurnaz and his family.

Azmy made five trips to Guantánamo. And once, when he was told his client refused to see him, he says, "I was completely devastated. I thought maybe something bad had happened to him, that he had lost his mind, that maybe a hyper-religious imam had gotten to him, or maybe he had given up, or maybe he was mad at me, or I'd messed up."

Because so much about the legal proceedings is secret, the media have been the court of best alternative for lawyers to get their clients a public hearing. But media appearances also incur some backlash.

"I have my name in the paper every now and again as someone associated with the representation of Abu Zubaydah, and when it does, I get angry e-mails. It happens as sure as night follows day," says Joe Margulies, another lawyer representing Mr. Zubaydah. "Some of them say very uncharitable things about me and my family. A lot of them say I'm a bad Jew. OK, fine. I don't lose any sleep over that."

Colangelo-Bryan says the difficulty is judging the severity of messages such as those urging him to "watch your back" or calling him a traitor. (Once someone told him that they "lived in a place where people know how to deal with traitors.")

"I remember seeing someone in an [Internet] chat room … talking about … how sorry they were that my client's suicide attempt didn't succeed … [and that] 'we should throw the lawyer in with him.' It's certainly disconcerting when you don't know where they are. You don't know to what extent they're just doing an Internet rant or to what extent there's something more substantive to it."

Guantánamo lawyers have also found supporters. Some aren't so helpful – lawyers' phones are convenient hot lines for conspiracy theorists. Others simply want to express appreciation for their work. And some even help the clients.

"I remember one time getting an e-mail from someone who said she was a nun," Colangelo-Bryan says. She'd read about Dossari's suicide attempts and subsequent hunger strike and said she was so moved by his plight that she'd fast in solidarity with him. "This was a story I told him, and that, to this day, he remembers as if I just described the e-mail to him."