Sequester Has 'Eviscerated' Ability To Visit Guantanamo Detainees, Federal Public Defender Says

WASHINGTON -- Add the detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay to the list of those feeling the negative impacts of sequestration.

A public defender representing several of the detainees said Monday that the sequester has already hampered his ability to visit his clients in Guantanamo, where detainees are currently engaged in a hunger strike.

“The sequester has completely eviscerated my ability to represent these individuals,” Carlos Warner, a federal public defender in the Northern District of Ohio, told HuffPost. “Our budget for representing Guantanamo has been basically shifted over to paying salaries. For me, as a federal defender who works for the government, that’s an issue.”

Warner's comments come amid the growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay's prison facilities, which President Barack Obama pledged to close when he took office back in 2009.

“Under these circumstances, we need to be there for our clients on a bi-weekly basis, basically,” Warner said.

The Pentagon runs weekly flights to Guantanamo, and commercial flights to the Navy base in Cuba are currently available (at least for the next few months). The U.S. federal court system, which manages the federal public defender system, has typically paid either the Pentagon or commercial airlines to allow lawyers to visit clients in Guantanamo. The sequester has brought that to an end, Warner said.

“There’s no budget in our office, and I understand that may be true across the board. Every federal defender office is dealing with it differently, but I’m right now trying to figure out how I can get back down there and how I can do my job for these clients,” Warner said.

“We have no money for experts going forward and no money for travel, which makes visiting Guantanamo impossible,” he said. “I can’t hire an interpreter, even if there was money to get me down to the island.”

Dennis Terez, the top federal public defender for the Northern District of Ohio, told HuffPost that the sequester has “hit the defender program very hard.”

“It affects not only our Guantanamo work, but it affects all the other work we do where travel is required,” Terez said. “We’re not going to be able to visit clients like we need to, like we have in the past. It’s a very, very serious problem.”

Federal public defenders represent only a portion of the detainees in Guantanamo. Other captives are represented by Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers who work with the Pentagon’s Office of the Chief Defense Counsel, by civilian lawyers being paid by the Pentagon, or by lawyers working on a pro-bono basis. The sequester may cause delays in the pre-trial motions for the small number of Guantanamo detainees who are actually facing charges.

In addition to problems with physically getting to clients, non-military lawyers being paid by the Pentagon to represent the small number of Guantanamo detainees who have actually been charged in connection with crimes may also be facing furlough notices in the near future, defenders said.

Jay Connell, a lawyer for Sept. 11 defendant Ammar al Baluchi, said he expects some of the defenders to face furlough notices as part of sequestration. Other experts echoed this concern.

Connell told HuffPost he plans to bring the sequester issue before the judge during a military commission hearing in Guantanamo later this month.

“The concern is that a furlough would have a negative impact on two of the teams, as opposed to the other three defense teams. So all five defense teams are not in the same position in terms of the sequester,” Connell said. The furloughs will not be in place by the hearings scheduled for April 22, but Connell said forced leaves of absence could delay the June hearings.



Inside Guantanamo Bay