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Just So We Don’t Forget

The latest issue of “Faith In Action”, the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society newsletter, has a riveting and heartbreaking account of one attorney’s attempt to help a Guantanamo detainee.  Angela Campbell is an assistant federal defender who volunteered to take on clients from Guantanamo after the federal courts determined that they were entitled to representation by legal counsel.  I’ve excerpted below, but read the whole thing.  It’s powerful.

…I went to Afghanistan in February of 2006 with four other U.S. lawyers. I went for one reason – to find my clients’ families.

Reports and rumors had filtered in about the horrible abuses that detainees had suffered in Guantanamo. One of the tactics that interrogators at Guantanamo had used was to pretend to be defense attorneys. The interrogator would go in and interview a detainee and tell them he was there to defend him and to get him out of custody, in an attempt to gain the detainee’s confidence.

Of course, these betrayals added an additional burden when real defense lawyers went to meet their clients for the first time. Not only was there a language barrier, a cultural barrier, an “I’m from the country that tortures you and I’m here to help you” barrier. There was now a “No, really, I’m a defense lawyer, unlike the last guy” barrier. So I decided I needed to meet family members. I wanted to find out as much as I could about my clients to try to make a connection with them when I met them for the first time.

We went to Afghanistan without an escort. We went without a guard. We went to a war-torn country in the midst of active conflict, against the advice of the State Department, on our personal travel documents, not government-issued. We went to try to find the family and friends of “the most dangerous, best-trained vicious killers on the face of the earth” (as the government claimed). And we were graciously received.

Family members traveled from around Afghanistan to meet with Ms. Campbell and other attorneys in Kabul.  She hoped to meet with her clients soon after that trip, but it wasn’t to be.  Even though the district court had ruled that the detainees had the right to counsel, the government threw up one roadblock after another to prevent the attorneys from traveling to Guantanamo to meet with their clients.  Ms. Campbell finally got to Cuba over a year after she was assigned her first clients.  There she met with Muhibullah, whose father had borrowed a year’s apy and traveled for two days to see her in Afghanistan.

He told me the first time he saw an American was when he woke up in the American hospital in Afghanistan. He had been hit by a bomb from an airplane that had exploded at night by his house. He was knocked unconscious and severely injured. His father took him to the Americans asking for help, asking for them to help his dying son. They took him in, and then they sent him to Guantanamo. He doesn’t know why. His father doesn’t know why. I don’t know why. The government’s response to the question of “why” is “why don’t you tell us why we arrested you?”

…I never met three of my clients who have been released, and returned to Afghanistan. One was released in February while I was there, one in August and one in October. Meanwhile, the courts and Congress constantly change the laws, and the government’s lawyers constantly throw up legal hurdles to getting our remaining clients fair trials. I know that Muhibullah sits there, thinking about the only American who has offered any hope. I know he hopes there is something I can do, something I can say, that will change someone’s mind about imprisoning him indefinitely..I think about him, too. I wonder why he trusts me when I’m the only American he has met who has treated him like a human being. I wonder what his fatherless son thinks about America.

I wonder if his religion teaches him to forgive. I know that mine does, but I can’t say if the roles were reversed I could forgive. I could pray that I would be able to forgive if I were in his shoes, but I don’t. Instead, I pray that the torture stops. I pray that Americans are stronger and kinder than our government. I pray that we can go back to doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. I hope that my client prays for peace and the ability to forgive.

“I pray that Americans are stronger and kinder than our government. I pray that we can go back to doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.”  From your mouth to God’s ear, Ms. Campbell.

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