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The Minutes of the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association

Manhattan corporate attorneys like Josh Colangelo-Bryan went to Gitmo to defend an abstract principle: due process. But what Colangelo-Bryan found were men—sometimes innocent ones— moving closer and closer to suicide.

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Clockwise around table from left, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, Douglas Cox, Jennifer Ching, Baher Azmy, Marc Falkoff, Sarah Havens, Scott Sullivan, Robert Knowles, Neha Singh Gohil.   

The Charter Terminal at the Fort Lauderdale airport is usually full of women in sundresses and men in Hawaiian shirts on their way to Caribbean vacation destinations, so it’s easy to pick out the soldiers, military contractors, and lawyers on their way to Guantánamo, the American naval base and prison on the east coast of Cuba, where the United States has locked 460 terror suspects.

On May 10, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a 35-year-old associate at the Manhattan office of Dorsey & Whitney, a corporate-law firm, sat in the terminal’s lounge, wondering what to expect when he got to the base. It was his seventh trip in the past year and a half. Two weeks before, he had received a handwritten suicide note from one of his clients, a 32-year-old joint Bahraini-Saudi national named Jumah Al Dossari. (It would be another few weeks before the successful suicides of early June, but attempts were already politically charged.) Colangelo-Bryan had watched the man’s hope slip away over the past few months. Now the military wouldn’t tell him anything about his client’s condition, or even if he was still alive.

Colangelo-Bryan is one of the attorneys in what has become known as the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association. In the summer of 2004, after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees could challenge their confinement in U.S. courts, a loose confederation of lawyers jump-started by the Center for Constitutional Rights, including many working pro bono from white-shoe Manhattan firms like Paul, Weiss, began preparing for a long struggle. For a certain kind of attorney, it was a Freedom Rider kind of thing.

Before taking a corporate job, Colangelo-Bryan worked for two years in Kosovo, first for an aid organization and later for the United Nations, prosecuting war-crimes and terrorism suspects. “I believe in the rule of law,” he says. “That’s what I was doing in Kosovo. If it’s proven through a fair hearing that you have violated the laws of war, then you should go to prison. But a state shouldn’t be able to lock someone up for the rest of his life without a fair hearing.”

Most of his Guantánamo Bay Bar Association colleagues began with similar motives. “We were going to meet what the world was told were a bunch of terrorists who might have been involved in the September 11 attacks,” says Mark Sullivan, a 48-year-old partner at Dorsey & Whitney who’d been with Colangelo-Bryan on his first trip down. “We had this abstraction—this intellectual abstraction—that what was being done at Guantánamo was legally and morally wrong, but we really didn’t know what to expect.”

The flight to Guantánamo takes three hours—the charter companies have to take a roundabout path to avoid Cuban airspace. The first time Colangelo-Bryan arrived there, in October 2004, he found himself in a different world—a weird mirror held up to the country he’d just left. Guantánamo is a craggy 45-square-mile strip of land on Cuba’s southeastern tip. There are townhouse subdivisions, a shopping mall, a golf course, batting cages, and a high school, as well as a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut, and a bar called the Windjammer that has karaoke on Wednesday nights. In the base’s stores, there are souvenir T-shirts that read TALIBAN TOWERS—GUANTÁNAMO’S FIRST FIVE STAR RESORT and JOINT TASK FORCE GTMO BEHAVIORAL MODIFICATION SPECIALIST. Baby outfits in pink and blue read FUTURE BEHAVIORAL MODIFICATION SPECIALIST.

On Colangelo-Bryan’s first trip, he was scheduled to meet Detainee No. 261. Camp guards escorted the lawyer and two colleagues past a couple of fifteen-foot-high gates into a surveillance booth. Inside, on a TV, was a grainy image of one of the cells. Detainee No. 261—it was Jumah Al Dossari—would be shackled to the floor, the guards explained, but they’d monitor the meeting onscreen just in case, for “everyone’s protection.”

Colangelo-Bryan had read everything he could find about his new client. At first glance, Detainee No. 261 seemed to have a classic terrorist’s CV. The government alleged that he’d been to Afghanistan in 1989 and had weapons training there. He’d traveled to Bosnia in 1995 and Azerbaijan in 1996, allegedly because he wanted to fight in Chechnya. He’d been detained by Saudi authorities following the bombing of the Khobar Towers. And the government claimed that he’d been “present at Tora Bora.”

Colangelo-Bryan also Googled Al Dossari and discovered news reports that he’d been in Lackawanna, New York, several months before 9/11, allegedly trying to recruit volunteers to attend training camps. Filling in the blanks on Al Dossari’s itinerary with speculation, anyone could make a case—what George Tenet might call a slam dunk—that Al Dossari was somehow involved with terrorists. Colangelo-Bryan, however, saw the government’s case as an act of imagination rather than one of legal fact. “I can see why someone might find it tempting to read into the allegations facts that aren’t there, but when the government compiles a document listing the reasons it can detain someone forever, the document has to be taken at face value,” Colangelo-Bryan says.


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