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Urban Morgan Institute To Award William J. Butler Medal of Human Rights to Three Attorneys Representing Guantanamo Bay Detainees

By: Marcia Gould

            On October 31, 2008, the Urban Morgan Institute will award the William J. Butler Medal of Human Rights to Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, Michael Ratner, and Tom Wilner, three attorneys who have zealously represented the legal and constitutional rights of detainees held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley            Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, an Air Force reservist from Pennsylvania, is appointed military counsel for Binyam Mohammed, an Ethiopian national and British resident, who has been held at Guantanamo Bay since September, 2004. Mr. Mohammed was arrested 2 ½ years earlier at the airport in Pakistan on his way back to London. After being picked up at the airport, he asserts that he was kept and tortured for two months by the Pakistani authorities; then rendered by the CIA from Pakistan to Morocco for 18 months where he was repeatedly tortured and threatened with physical and bodily harm.  He was next rendered by the CIA from Morocco to Afghanistan to Kabul where he spent five months in a prison known as the Dark Prison, where he was again subject to physical and psychological abuse.  He was next rendered to Bagram prison for three to four months and finally, in September 2004, sent to Guantanamo Bay. 

In defense of her client, Yvonne Bradley has challenged key provisions of the Military Commission Act 2006 (MCA) including the use of coercion to obtain statements to be used against an individual; the use of hearsay statements against an individual; and the denial of habeus corpus.  Prior to the passing of the MCA, Lt. Col. Bradley challenged the Office of Military Commission Defense on ethical grounds before a judge who was a superior ranking officer, requiring her to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights when ordered to proceed.  In response to warnings about representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, she has stated that as an attorney, “I know of only one way to represent a client and that is through full, fair, zealous representation.”

Michael Ratner            Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a nonprofit legal advocacy group  that has been at the forefront of litigation fighting for the legal rights of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and the first organization to challenge Bush administration policies on the treatment and detention of prisoners captured in the days after September 11, 2001. Mr. Ratner served as co-counsel in Rasul v. Bush (2004), the historic case in which the U.S. Supreme Court established precedent for U.S. courts’ jurisdiction over the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and affirmed detainees’ rights to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, i.e., habeus corpus review.  The Defense Department responded by creating “combatant status review tribunals,” (CSRT), military boards that would allow detainees to contest their status.  The military commissions were challenged in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2006), wherein the Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration’s plan to try detainees before military commissions.  In direct response to the Hamdi decision, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act 2006 (MCA).   The MCA addressed how foreign detainees suspected of terrorist activities and fighting could be tried and sentenced under U.S. military law.  Under the law, prisoners had a limited right to appeal any conviction, once again reducing the jurisdiction of federal courts. Michael Ratner and CCR played an integral role in challenging the MCA in the recent case of Boumediene v. Bush. Finding again in favor of the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court ruled in June, 2008 that Guantanamo Bay prisoners have habeus corpus rights in U.S. courts.

Thomas B. Wilner            Thomas B. Wilner is the managing partner of Shearman & Sterling’s International Trade and Global Relations Practice and represents a number of Kuwaiti detainees held at Guantanamo Bay (eight of 12 of his clients have been released without apologies or explanation).  He was contacted in 2002 by relatives of the Kuwaiti detainees and traveled to Kuwait where he learned of family claims that some of the detainees were actually in Afghanistan to perform charitable work when they were captured by bounty hunters.  He accepted the offer to represent the detainees and has been an outspoken critic of Guantanamo Bay ever since. 

He was one of the first attorneys in private practice to legally challenge the practices at Guantanamo Bay. Soon thereafter he began receiving hate mail, at one point reaching up to 100 emails a week.  However, his dedication to the detainees and the principles of U.S. law never wavered.  In an article published in the Washington Post (2007), Mr. Wilner stated: “If we observed this conduct by any other country we would be appalled.  We would say, rightly, that you can’t jail people without giving them a chance to defend themselves. There is and can be no acceptable legal excuse or explanation for denying people a fair hearing.  That would be so there, and is so here.”   He was counsel of record for Guantanamo detainees in Rasul v. Bush (2004), and Boumediene v. Bush (2008).

            The William J. Butler Medal of Human Rights was established in 1999 by the Urban Morgan Institute of Human Rights in honor of its creator and benefactor William J. Butler, Trustee of the Urban Morgan Education Fund.  Mr. Butler is a distinguished member of the New York Bar and has been a distinguished leader in human rights and civil liberties advocacy for over 50 years.  The Butler Award is awarded to human rights advocates who have made outstanding contributions in their field of human rights work.  It is with great honor that the Urban Morgan Institute awards the Butler Medal to Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley, Michael Ratner, and Tom Wilner.