‘Eight years of inaction and failure’

Thursday, July 15, 2010 – Globe and Mail

Few people would want Jeffrey Colwell’s job.

The 44-year-old Marine colonel, career officer and father of three boys was tapped earlier this year to lead the defence team for terrorism suspects being tried at the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals. That puts him in charge of the dozens of lawyers representing the most notorious prisoners in the world, in the most notorious and controversial prison in the world.

This week was Col. Colwell’s first taste of Omar Khadr’s case, at a truncated and chaotic pretrial hearing for the Canadian charged with murder and conspiracy to engage in terrorism.

And he loves the gig.

This was your first time sitting in on the Khadr case since becoming head of Guantanamo’s defence counsel. What did you think?

It’s reflective of just how difficult these cases are. … I know that he’s 23 now but he’s probably got the mentality of a young, scared kid. And obviously his treatment and all that for the last six years has had its toll on him. It’s pretty typical for what happens in Guantanamo Bay. You just can never predict what’s going to happen in these commissions. And I’m not trying to make light of it. That’s just the way it is. The system’s different, the clients are different, the rules are different.

You talked about the need to establish rapport with a detainee, to build trust. How do you do it?

It’s like a parent. The most important part of being a parent is just being there. Being there at dinner, being there for soccer games. It’s the same for a detainee – it’s just being there. There are a lot of detainees who refuse, refuse, refuse, for years, to meet with their attorneys. And [the lawyers] just kept on writing them letters, kept showing up at the door. … There’s already a built-in distrust. … I’m wearing the uniform of the enemy of these people, if you believe what they’re charged with. I’m definitely wearing the uniform of their detainers. And probably their captors. So there’s already that distrust.

What about Khadr’s case? What do you think would have to happen for him to have a legitimate defence?

I don’t know right now. I mean, Mr. Khadr has said, “I don’t want to represent myself. And I don’t want a lawyer. And I want to boycott.” And he didn’t really define what that meant to the judge when asked. I’m not sure he knows. But he might come to trial, he might not come to trial. The judge has said, “Well, you’re going to have a lawyer and it’s either going to be you or it’s going to be someone else. Pretty much if you like it or not.” So it’s a difficult situation.

Do you think Guantanamo is still registering on the world stage?

No. I don’t think anybody cares about Guantanamo. Because it’s taken six, eight years for decisions to be made. And bad decisions have been made all along.

Is that scary? Is that cause for concern?

I don’t think we have public engagement on the war in Iraq. Or in Afghanistan. As a service member, I mean, that causes me concern. We have a war which, fortunately, is on the tail end, I hope, in Iraq. We’re neck-deep in Afghanistan. I don’t think the American general public really cares much about it. I don’t think they’re invested in it, I don’t think they’re affected by it. And Gitmo is a piece of that. … That’s what happens when it languishes for eight years of inaction and failure. But our guys keep fighting.

So is it doomed to failure, do you think?

I don’t know if it’s doomed; history will tell us. I mean, it’s been eight years. How many cases have we tried, now? Three and a half? Three and a half, in eight years. Wow. Those stats don’t seem very successful.

What would make it, in the long term, not an embarrassment?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. … And that’s really not my concern. My concern is that these guys get the representation that they’re entitled to.

Do you think they are right now?

Absolutely. It’s a tough job. But are they getting good representation? Yeah. … I think they’re getting a fantastic defence, under the circumstances.

This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

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