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Forum examines terror treatments

Steven Wax has “feelings of hope” even when getting angry about the government’s interrogation techniques in the war on terror.

“In the midst of this anger, I step back and reflect that I am a government employee,” Wax told the audience at the Binghamton University Forum breakfast on May 1. “What a marvelous thing it is in this country that the government will pay people such as me to fight on the most fundamental issues of the day. That doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

“These thoughts give me true pride to be an American and be able to speak about some of the problems this country has and the tremendous values and strengths we can carry forward.”

Wax, a federal public defender for the District of Oregon, represented several men held as “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay. The former head of the Broome County Public Defender’s Office in the early 1980s returned to the area to discuss “Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror from Portland to Peshawar.”

In 2008, Wax wrote a book about his experiences representing two accused men called Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror. The book recently won the American Bar Association’s 2009 Silver Gavel Award, which recognizes efforts to foster public understanding of the law.

For his Binghamton talk, Wax focused on his relationship with one Guantanamo prisoner: a Sudanese hospital administrator named Adel Hamad.

Wax’s office received a call in 2005 from the District Court of D.C., asking if its members would volunteer their services to represent Guantanamo Bay prisoners who had filed petitions with the court. Wax and others arrived at the base in Cuba in March 2006. Wax knew nothing about Hamad and admitted that he was surprised to see a black man “literally chained to the floor” in front of him.

“I was potentially the first friendly face he had seen in three years,” Wax said. “… And I had the handicap of saying ‘I work with the U.S. government.’”

Hamad told Wax his story: Born in 1958, the Sudanese-born Hamad received an engineering degree from an Egyptian university. He eventually married, raised four children and took a job as a hospital administrator in Afghanistan. Hamad moved to Pakistan after 9/11.

In July 2002, Hamad was taken from his apartment in Pakistan, even after showing his passport and work permit, to an old prison in Islamabad. In January 2003, he was flown to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

“That’s where the torture began,” Wax said. “They were not pleasant interrogations.”

Besides beatings, Hamad was forced to stand awake for three days, Wax said. In March, Hamad was blindfolded, chained and muzzled for the more than 30-hour flight to Guantanamo Bay. It would take until December 2007, 21 months after meeting with Wax, for Hamad to be released and reunited with his family. He is pushing forward with his habeas corpus case, Wax said.

“Every time we speak, he says to me, ‘Steven, I want justice. I want my name cleared.’”

Wax said there has been a “significant shift” toward justice for the Guantanamo prisoners since the Obama administration took office, but not a “complete shift.”

“The Obama administration is trying to find its way,” he said. “What does it do with these men in Guantanamo? Which men committed war crimes? Which men can be tried? I would expect in the next several months we will see a number of men at Guantanamo indicted and tried for war crimes.”

While President Obama put an end to the Bush-era interrogation techniques, much work remains, Wax said. For example, one central file must be created for each prisoner and the administration needs help from European countries in housing some of the prisoners.

Wax takes pride in the “human bond” he shared with Hamad and believes such bonds can only help others.

“The black, Muslim desert man from Sudan and the white, Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn looked past the stereotypes that each of our governments and cultures puts out,” he said. “We were able to touch as human beings.

“It seems to me that if Adel and I were able to do that in a prison cell, then we all have the capability of doing it far more often in our daily lives.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08