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U.S. interrogators accused of trying to divide detainees, attorneys

WASHINGTON—American interrogators at the Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba told two Kuwaiti prisoners not to trust their lawyers because they are Jewish and would "betray Muslims," one of their lawyers charged in an affidavit filed in federal court.

The allegations, which the government flatly denied, include an account that an interrogator told one of the prisoners that the law firm handling his case is Jewish and represents Israel, said lawyer Tom Wilner, who is Jewish.

Wilner noted that his Washington firm, Shearman & Sterling, has a "diverse membership" and represented Israel in a trade dispute 15 years ago. The firm was founded in 1873 and has 1,000 lawyers worldwide.

The fact that Israel is a past client of Shearman's isn't widely known—Wilner described the case as "very small"—and the alleged reference to it raises questions about how anyone at Guantanamo would have known about it.

Justice Department lawyers said the account wasn't true and that the two Kuwaitis' interrogators never made disparaging comments about the lawyers.

Government lawyers submitted a statement to the court Monday from the Defense Department's supervisor of interrogations, Esteban Rodriguez, who said the interrogators told him the Kuwaitis' allegations are false.

The dispute is before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who's overseeing some of the 140-plus habeas corpus petitions that detainees at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba have filed challenging their captivity.

Wilner has asked the judge to intercede and order the government not to undermine lawyers' efforts to represent detainees. Government lawyers said they weren't interfering and were complying with the complex set of rules, set by judges, that allowed the lawyers restricted access to their clients.

The allegations of using religion to divide prisoners and their lawyers come after a series of reports that interrogators used sexual and religious humiliation in efforts to break down some of the 520 prisoners at Guantanamo. In one case, according to e-mails from an FBI agent, interrogators wrapped a detainee in the Israeli flag.

Demonstrations and riots broke out in Afghanistan this week over a Newsweek report that interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated a Quran in a toilet during one session with a detainee.

In his eight-page statement, filed in late April, Wilner recounted two incidents with two of the 11 Kuwaitis he and his firm represent:

On Feb. 15, Fayiz al-Kandari told him that a female interrogator he knew as "Megan" had taken away the one book he had after Wilner had complained about the lack of books for his clients.

She allegedly said: "Don't trust your lawyers—did you know your lawyers are Jews?"

When Wilner returned March 16, al-Kandari said the interrogator was angry at him for what he'd told Wilner. A New York Times article on March 7 mentioned the incident, without naming al-Kandari.

During that same visit, Fouad al-Rabiah told Wilner that his interrogator, a man, told him, "Don't trust these lawyers," adding that "if I signed the form to be represented by you, I would be kept here forever."

Then al-Rabiah "politely asked" Wilner his religion, and the lawyer replied that he is Jewish.

Al-Rabiah said his interrogator told him: "Your lawyers are Jews. How could you trust Jews? Throughout history, Jews have betrayed Muslims. Don't you think your lawyers, who are Jews, will betray you?"

During another session, al-Rabiah said, the interrogator told him that Wilner's firm represents Israel and asked, "What will other Arabs and Muslims think of you Kuwaitis when the only help you can get is from Jews?"

Wilner said the government had "deliberately sought to undermine the trust and confidence the detainees have placed in their counsel."

In his response, Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler said the defense attorneys' "fantastic conspiracy theories had absolutely no legitimate basis."

Most of the Kuwaitis have been held in Guantanamo without legal charges for more than three years since they were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their families hired Wilner's firm, which has been in the thick of many legal battles over the detainees.

Last October, Kollar-Kotelly rejected the government's bid to eavesdrop on the meetings of Wilner, other lawyers and three other Kuwaiti clients and review the lawyers' notes of the meetings. She called lawyer-client privacy a "bedrock principle."

According to their families' Web site, al-Kandari is a 27-year-old student and al-Rabiah, 45, is an aviation engineer who led humanitarian missions to Kosovo and Bangladesh before taking aid to Afghanistan.

At a hearing on his status as an enemy combatant last year, al-Rabiah admitted that he met Osama bin Laden four times in group meetings. In a summary of classified data, investigators said they thought al-Rabiah was trying to deliver money to bin Laden.


(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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