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Indian lawyer scores one for Guantanamo detainees

July 08, 2008 22:44 IST

For Shayana (Shane) Kadidal, a senior managing attorney of the Guantánamo project at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of the detainees is yet another reminder that the fight for ethical and fair treatment of all prisoners held by the United States has to continue.

Six-and-a-half years ago, the Centre brought the first case in federal court on behalf of detainees held at Guantanamo. "The administration was successful in arguing for long that the detainees were in a legal black hole, without any right of access to the federal courts to challenge whether they were lawfully held," Kadidal says.

The latest Supreme Court ruling has upset leading lights of the Republican Party, including its Presidential nominee Senator John McCain, greatly, but Kadilal is aware that it is just a baby step, in that it merely allows prisoners to request a reason for their incarceration.

There is no quick fix, and the fight for a just society should go on, says Kadilal, who is among a dozen or two Indian Americans, including Jayashri Srikantiah, currently a professor at Stanford, who were attracted by public interest law.

"For every case that we have been involved with and have won, there are many more we have lost," says Kadidal, "But we also remember even as we lose a case that we have succeeded in arousing public interest in the case, that we have started a discussion.

 "The last six years are not just a failure of our system of laws," he said. "They are a national moral failure, one that may require generations to set right."

Kadidal, one of the most quoted public interest lawyers in America, has been interviewed by many leading liberal publications including Mother Jones.

He says part of the inspiration to serve in the public arena came from his father Narendra Kadidal, a physician who migrated to America from Karnataka over four decades ago. "He comes from the freedom-fighting generation," says Kadidal. "Some of that idealism and fighting spirit, he brought along with him to America. I must have gotten something of it."

 The Centre for Constitutional Rights was founded in 1966 in New York City. Apart from being its highly visible member, Kadidal has also co-authored Articles of Impeachment Against George W Bush, published two years ago. In addition to supervising the Guantánamo litigation, he has also worked on the Centre's case against the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance programme, and has testified before Congress on the material witness statute.

Though Kadidal took up pre-med courses at Duke in the hope that he could make a difference as a physician, he soon found out he was not interested in medicine. "I did not know where exactly I was going," he says. "But I found myself at Yale."

He clerked for a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit soon after graduating, and worked as a corporate transactional lawyer for hedge funds. "But I needed to do something different, and I was looking for avenues," he recalls. It was during a visit to Chennai over six years ago, to attend a wedding, that he met Jaykumar Menon, a lawyer working for CCR, who asked him if he was interested in joining the organisation.

"I got out just in time," he says, referring to 9/11 and the sudden and arbitrary abridgement of civil liberties and the concomitant decision to deny traditional legal protection to suspects held by the US outside American soil.

"Within a week of my arrival, President Bush issued his first military commissions order, and we started dusting off all the old jurisdictional research," he says. "And sure enough, in January 2002, Guantánamo began filling up with prisoners."

Kadidal, who has also been involved in reviewing civil rights infringement cases involving Sikhs, says he is glad to see an increase in the number of Indian Americans who are volunteering, or working for, organisations such as CCR. Among the more prominent of these is Gitanjali Gutierrez, whose client Mohammed al Qahtani made news a few months ago when he attempted suicide on learning that death penalty charges were referred by the government to the Military Commissions at Guantanamo.

When Kadidal accepted an award recently, he said: "The government knows lawyers who won't shut up, even in the face of risk to their careers and very personal intimidation…. who've been fighting these issues with us — are the biggest threat it faces. That's why it is fighting so hard to keep the detainees out of the reach of the law…"

Alongside his activism, he is a prolific commentator, whose opinions have been published in highly regarded publications like The Nation.

When the film Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay, the long-awaited sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, was released, he reminded readers of The Nation that the CCR represents several hundred detainees held in the prison at Guantánamo — a place so distant from the rule of law that, as one of the government officials in the film says, "They haven't even heard of rights".

"The movie is very funny," he wrote. "Nothing about the real place is."

Arthur J Pais