Alibi V.19 No.16 • April 22-28, 2010 

Talking Points

“A Terrorist Lawyer”

Local attorney represents Guantánamo prisoners in a changing political climate

Nancy Hollander
Nancy Hollander
Eric Williams

Mohamedou Ould Salahi has been a Guantánamo prisoner since August 2002, but he's never been charged with a crime. Salahi was arrested in his home country, Mauritania, on suspicion of having ties to al Qaeda. He was deprived of sleep for more than 60 days, according to a report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and one of his lawyers, Nancy Hollander, says he was subjected to torturous interrogation tactics.

In late March, Federal District Judge James Robertson ordered his release. After years of "brutal physical and psychological torture" the government “couldn't justify his detention," Hollander was quoted as saying in a news release. “It is well past time for him to go home.”

The order was a relief, she says. "I did not know that was what was going to happen. I believed we were right on the law and the facts." But this is not the end of Salahi's detainment—the Department of Justice has appealed. Still, at minimum, months of imprisonment stretch before Hollander's client as legal proceedings continue. But portions of Judge Robertson’s opinion could benefit other Guantánamo Bay prisoners, she adds. "They can argue it," she says, though it doesn't set a legal precedent.

She is lead counsel on a team of lawyers that includes Theresa Duncan, a partner at the Albuquerque firm where Hollander works, attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and others. She makes the commute from Albuquerque to Guantánamo Bay on a regular basis [“The Most Important Cases in America,” Aug. 6-12, 2009].

Jailed there are two clients whose names appear in international headlines: Salahi and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The latter is a Saudi Arabian suspected of orchestrating the USS Cole bombing. He is considered one of 16 high-value detainees, according to the New York Times. In Feb. 2008, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden confirmed al-Nashiri had been subject to waterboarding. Charges were dropped against al-Nashiri in early 2009, though he is still locked up. "We anticipate that he will be re-charged shortly," Hollander says. A CIA document released Thursday, April 15, indicates tapes of al-Nashiri's 2002 interrogations in Thailand were destroyed to avoid giving the CIA a black eye.

Hollander gave the Alibi a glimpse of what it's like to be involved in these high-profile cases and what it means to represent clients suspected of terrorism in America today.

How have your Guantánamo cases changed with the new administration?

I'm not sure they've changed at all. Frankly, I haven't seen any change for the better in the Guantánamo cases.

Were you hopeful after the election of President Obama?

I was hopeful, yeah.

Do you believe the president will close down Guantánamo Bay?

I think eventually it will close, but it's not going to happen anytime soon.

What is preventing it?

Well, they first have to buy the prison that they claim they're going to buy, Thomson [Correctional Center], from the state of Illinois. Remember your Constitution—Congress has to give the president the money to buy it. The purse strings of the country are in Congress' control. So he has to get the money to buy it, and then it has to be retrofitted to become a federal prison. That will probably take another year after it's bought, if it's ever bought.

What should be done with Guantánamo?

It should have never opened, and it should certainly be closed now. But we shouldn't just transfer it to Thomson or some other prison and have another Guantánamo. We shouldn't hold people unless we're going to charge them with crimes. We shouldn't detain people and imprison people without following the American justice system, regardless of where they're held.

Are you going to take on any more cases like these?

No. This will be it. I'm not finished with either of these. They're time-consuming, they're hard. Salahi, we get no money. We pay every bit of that here in this law firm [Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Ives & Duncan P.A.]. Al-Nashiri I've received some funds for.

You penned a column for the International Herald Tribune called "A Terrorist Lawyer, and Proud of It" [March 26]. Was there a particular incident that caused you to write that?

What really prompted that op-ed piece were the remarks of Liz Cheney that lawyers in the Department of Justice who represented Guantánamo prisoners shouldn't be doing that—that it was wrong to represent people who she considered had no right to representation. She started calling the Department of Justice the Department of Jihad and complaining about it.

If the day comes that Liz Cheney's father is charged with war crimes that he may have committed, he's going to turn to a lawyer. And will there still be lawyers who would represent him, or anyone else, if we're going to accuse lawyers who represent people we don't like of basically becoming like their clients?

That's why I said, "Proud to be a terrorist lawyer." I was thinking when I represent child abusers, nobody calls me on the phone and says, You love child abusers. But I represent someone accused of terrorism, and I'm accused of agreeing with their practices or their philosophy. It shows a bias and a prejudice in the country that is not conducive to a good system of justice.

How have these cases affected you?

They're very interesting cases. They're difficult cases. The way they've affected me is not so much professionally but in having to read about how the American military, American CIA, doctors and health professionals tortured people. It has been very difficult for me to read, to know about, to contemplate—that my government would do something like that.

Did you get to read documents the rest of us haven't had access to?

Yes, I have. But I've also read all the documents we do have access to; all the torture memos are very difficult reading.

Do you have any fear if your clients are released they might commit some act of terrorism?

That's not really an issue that I'm concerned with—with any client. I've represented people who have been released afterward. People go to jail, they get out of jail, they've committed crimes. They may go back and commit more crimes, but I can't read the future. I don't know that there isn't somebody on the street right now that's going to go run his plane into the IRS building or shoot up an abortion clinic or be some other kind of terrorist or commit some crime. That cannot be my concern as a criminal defense lawyer. My concern is to make sure that our system of justice runs correctly; that it's honest, that it's fair, that everybody gets the rights to which they're entitled.