Third-year Emory University law student Carlissa Carson walked down to the beach for a casual game of volleyball in the sand. She relaxed under the hot sun, enjoying Cuba's tropical weather, and picked up a few seashells from the shore.
But when Carson looked across the beach, an odd feeling interrupted her brief bit of leisure. Seeing the barbed wire and harsh fencing only 100 meters away, she was reminded of the proximity of the Guantanamo Bay detainee camps.
While her peers at the law school were in class, Carson and fellow third-year law student Lara Aryani were living in trailers at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, assisting in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who was captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Most of their days were filled to the brim with legal work and trials. Leisure days came about only when the restricted availability of government-sponsored flights left days between the end of the trial and the next trip back to the states.
Carson, who is also a military intelligence officer in the army, remarked that the base and the detainee camps were like "two different civilizations standing side by side."
Carson and Aryani ventured to the naval base in December and again in February to assist in arguing motions on behalf of Hamdan under the direction of Visiting Associate Professor of Law Charles Swift. Swift, voted one of the most influential lawyers in America by the National Law Journal, served as Hamdan's attorney in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's former driver and bodyguard but claimed no involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was charged with conspiracy and providing support for terrorism. He petitioned for a writ of habeus corpus in 2004, challenging the legality of the military commission trial procedures, and the 2006 Supreme Court ruling determined these procedures to be unlawful.
The Military Commissions Act of 2006, which established a new military commission process to try "unlawful" enemy combatants, led to new charges against Hamdan that were eventually dismissed after the Combatant Status Review Tribunals found him to be an enemy combatant but did not brand him as unlawful.
During the eight-day December trip that ended only one day before finals, Carson and Aryani assisted Swift and other attorneys working on the case in arguing that Hamdan was indeed not an illegal enemy combatant. In February, they drafted motions to exclude information from the trial that was obtained from Hamdan through allegedly coerced confessions.
"We would get up around 6:30 or 7 and sometimes work until 10:30 or 11 at night," Carson said. "I read documents about the interrogations and made a timeline. We used the timeline to help determine when the coercion began."
Aryani, who speaks fluent Arabic, worked with a forensic psychologist to review video footage of Hamdan and monitored the interpretation of the trial proceedings to decide whether the defendent could adequately understand what was being said through the interpreter.
"I also translated letters from the client's family -- letters from his daughter, wife, brother-in-law, nephews, nieces," she said. "He can't see them until there's been a translation, and the letters are reviewed. I helped translate to expedite the whole process, although sometimes it would still take a very long time."
Aryani said that the stark differences between life on the base and the conditions in the camps were unsettling, adding that the highly regulated and insular base was hard to get used to for a civilian.
"Twenty meters away in the camps, there are people in there who are being tortured, and here we are playing volleyball," she said. "On the other hand, what can you do? It's not a criticism of wha people there are doing, just an observation of something surreal."
Aryani compared life on the base to a scene from the 1950s, where "everyone walked around smiling and everything was clean."
"No one talked about what was wrong, or the problems below the surface," she said.
The opportunity to examine these problems and participate in a cutting-edge legal process, Aryani said, has been a valuable experience.
"We get to see American history being played out," she said. "It's a great honor."
Swift said the clinic, which was created last summer, offers students practical experience that will allow them to "hit the ground running" once they graduate.
"Student interests are incorporated into the curriculum, and I think that's the secret to Emory's success," he said.
Swift will return to the base in April to continue his work on the case.
© 2008 Emory Wheel via U-WIRE