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Local Attorney and Guantanamo Expert Speaks at Columbia College

Gary Isaac, one of the lead attorneys working to free Guantanamo Bay detainees, says he’s dedicated to the cause because he believes it is “fundamental to our Constitution.”

“People are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “They’re entitled to a day in court before they go to prison.”

Isaac has been working on behalf of detainees since the Bush administration began transferring inmates to Guantanamo in early 2002. He has lobbied Congress and urged lawmakers to vote in favor of closing the Guantanamo prison. Isaac talked about these experiences and more when he spoke to a Columbia College Chicago journalism class last week.

Isaac explained the habeas corpus rule, which is written in the body of the U.S. Constitution. Under the rule, which literally means “produce the body” in Latin, a defendant has the right to test the legality of his or her detention before a neutral judge. This is fundamental to the concept of civil rights in the United States, Isaac said.

“All of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights really rest on the notion that the police can’t throw you in jail,” said Isaac. “Or the president can’t lock you up on his own say-so without having an independent judge review it.”

These rights weren’t automatically granted to America’s enemies in the war on terror. In fact, when prisoners were first transferred to Guantanamo Bay by the Bush administration in 2002, the detainees weren’t even allowed access to attorneys. It wasn’t until 2004 that the Supreme Court ruled that detainees did have a right to file petitions of habeas corpus in federal court, Isaac said.

And even then the fight wasn’t over. Shortly after habeas corpus rights were granted, Republicans in Congress tried to change the law to take away the jurisdiction of the court to hear these cases in an attempt to overrule the Supreme Court and circumvent the Constitution.

Working closely with President Barack Obama, who was then a U.S. senator, Isaac and colleagues started lobbying Congress. Isaac and other attorneys walked the halls of the U.S. Senate office buildings, talking to anyone who would listen. Isaac said they worked out of Obama’s office, and Obama took a lead role in the fight on Capitol Hill. While he was campaigning for president, Obama frequently brought up the plight of the jailed prisoners in Guantanamo. When Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized him for “protecting terrorists,” Obama called on her not to “mock the Constitution,” Isaac recalled.

“Part of what we had been dealing with all along was that the detainees’ cause is not a popular cause, or at least it hasn’t been perceived as a popular cause,” Isaac said.

But in many of the Guantanamo Bay cases, there was no basis for imprisonment at all, Isaac added.

“Most of them had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. They had nothing to do with the Taliban,” Isaac said.

Many detainees were also imprisoned based on “suspect intelligence,” Isaac said, and some prisoners were tortured to force them to offer up information that implicated others. Other prisoners were turned in for money, he added.

“The U.S. was offering bounties in Afghanistan,” Isaac said. “Literally $5,000, $10,000 – dropping fliers from planes basically saying you could become rich beyond your wildest dreams if you turn people in.”

Between 600 to 700 lawyers are working on Guantanamo cases, Isaac said. In about 75 percent of the cases that have been reviewed in courts, judges have ruled there was no evidence implicating the individuals. Soon after he became president, Obama signed an executive order to shut down the prison. That has not happened because of Congressional opposition, Isaac said. Some prisoners have had no connection with terrorist attacks on the United States, and they should be released, Isaac said.

“Each of these men, they’re individuals. They have wives and children and people who love them, and they’re entitled to have a day in court,” Isaac said. “And most of them turned out not to be who the government said they were.”

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