Just months after U.S. troops stormed Afghanistan, attorney Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights began fighting for Guantánamo Bay detainees’ human rights. She went straight to the federal court system, where countless cases of hers are still caught up in a tangle where politics seems to be triumphing over law.
More than four years since the first Gitmo lawsuit, Olshansky’s frustration is mounting. The one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on the Guantánamo Bay detainee-rights case Rasul vs. Bush recently passed. Despite a win by the detainees, which seemed to grant them access to the U.S. legal system, the government continues to strong-arm prisoners and their attorneys and endanger the entire legal system, Olshansky says.
When you started representing detainees or their interests, Bush had said the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply and you say you didn’t even know if the rule of law applied to Guantánamo Bay. But you’ve had what seems like a lot of legal success [at least six of Olshansky’s clients have been released from Guantánamo Bay] since then. What changed? Once we had a Supreme Court case on our hands, people—retired military officers, former diplomats, assistant secretaries of state, and even Fred Korematsu, who challenged Japanese internment during World War II—came out as being appalled at the government’s treatment of detainees.
So the Supreme Court took up Rasul v. Bush and you won. The day after the ruling, I met with the judge of the district court, where the case had been before, and the judge asked the justice department when I’d get to go down to Guantánamo Bay. The justice department said, “I don’t think she gets to go, I don’t think the decision means they get lawyers.” I was shocked.
But that’s not exactly the case today, is it? No, they’ve loosened up a bit. The government treats it as if it wasn’t a ruling, but that they’re letting lawyers in only on their grace. We can’t see anything, our client doesn’t see anything, we’re perpetually in the dark, and they consistently make it difficult to get down there.
There’s been a disinformation campaign where the government tells the detainees that their lawyers are all Jews, all Zionists, and hate Arabs. In addition, they hood and shackle your client, and put them in solitary in Camp Echo before and after you meet with them. It makes it so difficult.
Tell me more about what Gitmo is like. What doesn’t the media see? I still have not been permitted to go. We’re still in a battle because, according to the government, I represent so many people that I don’t have a “singular” case. So I’m filing a “singular” case just so I can fit their standard (laughs). Obviously I don’t make the government happy.
What do they have against lawyers, anyway? These law firms are very aggressive for their clients. I’ve watched a visit to Guantánamo change even the most staunchly conservative person to, well, somewhere even to the left of me. Maybe that’s tipping off the edge of the earth. But over the span of a past few years, I’ve really watched it change people. I’d say 30 or so have gone down there, but that’s out of about 70 law firms and more than 400 lawyers involved. It’s an amazing powerhouse group.
And the powerhouse group is following your lead, and clogging your voicemail every day. Why did you choose this professional, and life, path? This sounds cheesy, but I saw the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. I wanted to be Atticus Finch and see that people are treated justly. But I never thought I could tell a bunch of lawyers to, say, simultaneously file for injunctions to stop transportation of detainees abroad for questioning and torture, and that they would, and we’d win a dozen cases at once. It’s great to be able to poke Uncle Sam in the eye once in a while. What a horrifying time we live in.