Federal public defender of Oregon waits to see if Obama closes prison
By Peter Wong • Statesman Journal
When Barack Obama becomes president Jan. 20, he may put Steven T. Wax and others out of the business of defending detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba or change their work dramatically.
Wax is the federal public defender for Oregon, and his office has represented seven detainees there — including one who was freed a year ago without having been charged with any crime.
In a talk this past week sponsored by the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University, Wax discussed his experiences representing one of the detainees, as described in his recent book, "Kafka Comes to America."
But Wax also spoke of how Obama has set himself apart from President Bush's detention policies.
"The new president was at one point in his life a constitutional law professor, so in theory, he should know something about the Constitution," Wax said.
"As a senator for the past three years, he has had the opportunity on a number of occasions to say some things about Guantanamo and the writ of habeas corpus — and he has said that Guantanamo should be closed. But McCain said that, and Bush said that, as well. So there may be some gap between his statements and reality. So we wait."
As the Democratic presidential nominee, Obama promised to close the prison at the U.S. naval base, as did Republican rival John McCain.
The U.S. Supreme Court, over the administration's objections, ruled June 12 that detainees had a right to go to federal courts to contest their imprisonment and seek their release through habeas corpus lawsuits.
The day after Wax spoke last week, a federal judge ruled that five of the detainees were held unlawfully for nearly seven years and ordered their release, saying the government's secret evidence had been weak.
Wax has had his job for 25 years. His appointment is by the federal courts, not the president or the attorney general. His office was one of several assigned to defend detainees.
Wax said Bush could have chosen to prosecute terrorist suspects in federal courts or military tribunals with full or limited constitutional guarantees for the defendants. He said Bush, asserting executive power over the courts and Congress, chose neither.
"The administration has created a mess by opting out of a system that has worked well in the past or could have worked," he said. "It made a system that was so antithetical to any sense of fairness that the Supreme Court said the system may not be used."
Wax said there are some "bad guys" among the detainees, but the Bush administration cast too wide a net in its counterterrorism efforts.
One of those detained was Adel Hassan Hamad, a Sudanese hospital administrator who worked in Pakistan, first at a camp for refugees from Afghanistan during its war in the 1980s with the former Soviet Union, and then at a Saudi-funded charity.
But on the morning of July 18, 2002, Pakistani intelligence police seized Hamad in his apartment in Peshawar and led by an unidentified "blond American," took him to a prison in the capital of Islamabad. Several months later, he was whisked to Afghanistan's Bagram air base, which is operated by the United States.
"He was kicked, punched, beaten and dragged," Wax said. "He was given a number and a uniform of some sort, and then put into a cell, where he was to stand for three days and nights. Every time he would nod off or start to slump or snore, a guard would wake him up."
He was questioned constantly but collapsed after two weeks and went to the hospital.
"He is a man with a remarkably strong constitution and a strong spirit," Wax said.
pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745