Vermont lawyer seeks fair hearings at Guantanamo

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(Host) The legal world of Guantanamo is a far cry from the Vermont courtrooms where Robert Rachlin has spent much of his career. But when the call came for lawyers to help defend detainees at Guantanamo, Rachlin volunteered. He’s one of three Vermont lawyers who represent detainees that the government suspects of terrorist activities.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Ever since the detention center was established at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to house terror suspects it’s been the focus of controversy over both the physical treatment and their legal rights.

After a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave the detainees the right to legal counsel and the ability to challenge their incarceration, the non-profit Center For Constitutional Rights went looking for lawyers to represent the prisoners. Burlington Lawyer Robert Rachlin volunteered.

(Rachlin) “The simple answer is that somebody’s got to do it. I’m troubled when there’s a class of people however unpopular they may be who are deemed exempt from our normal institutions of justice.”

(Zind) Rachlin is one of three Vermont lawyers who are representing Guantanamo detainees. So far, he’s the only one who’s received the necessary security clearance to meet with prisoners. He’s made four trips to Guantanamo.

Rachlin is representing two detainees. One is a Saudi Arabian man. Of the roughly 500 people being held at Guantanemo, only a few have actually been charged. The Saudi man is among them. Because the man refuses legal council, Rachlin hasn’t been able to meet with him. But he’s been asked by the man’s father to help in his defense.

The man’s case is being heard by a military commission set up to try the detainees. Rachlin says the commission’s rules are vague and stacked against the defense.

(Rachlin) “With the military commissions we’re dealing totally in terra incognita because there really are no rules.”

(Zind) The constitutionality of the commission has been challenged and Rachlin hopes a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected this summer will clarify what legal rules they must observe.

Rachlin’s second client is an Algerian man who’s been held at Guantanamo for more than four years. A one-time resident of Montreal, the man named Djamel was captured as he traveled from Afghanistan to Pakistan after 9/11. He hasn’t been charged. Rachlin says he’s read the government’s file on his client

(Rachlin) “The contents of this dossier are classified, so I can’t lawfully tell you what was in it, but I can certainly tell you what was not in it. I can tell you that as far as I can recall, not a shred of evidence to indicate that Djamel ever so much as held a gun in his hand or participated in any hostile act whatsoever. Djamel like many others in my view was simply swept up at a time when anybody running through the Tora Bora mountains was deemed to be an enemy combatant.”

(Zind) Rachlin has high praise for military lawyers who represent the Guantanamo detainees. He says they’re zealous about their work and not afraid to challenge presiding officers. He says his role is to help in the complex cases and to be a non-military advisor to the prisoners.

Rachlin says his goal is to help his clients get the fairest hearing possible in spite of the controversy that surrounds Guantanamo. There have been allegations of prisoner abuse – and critics say it’s conceivable that some detainees could remain in legal limbo for the rest of their lives. Rachin is hopeful that won’t be the case.

(Rachlin) “We’re talking theoretically about holding them forever. Is that really going to happen? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think it will and the reason is that a great deal of international pressure is building on the United States now and fortunately our own people are beginning to wake up.”

(Zind) Rachlin and the other two Vermont lawyers who are representing detainees at Guantanamo aren’t being paid for their services. Rachlin pays for most of his travel and living expenses when he visits Guantanamo.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

You can hear Steve Zind’s extended interview with Robert Rachlin on Wednesday during Vermont Edition.

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