How a Linden Hills lawyer came to defend an alleged terrorist – and have the FBI knocking on his own neighbors’ doors
Attorney John Lundquist of Linden Hills believes strongly enough in the U.S. legal system that he and his colleagues are volunteering hundreds of hours to defend a suspected terrorist the U.S. government is holding without charges in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"For 25 years, I have seen the system work," said Lundquist, who practices white-collar criminal defense. "It is a very large and powerful machine. It only works if there is someone willing to stand in the corner of the individual. If there isn’t someone performing that role, the machine will trample without any controls. It will run amok."
Lundquist, Jim Dorsey, Nicole Moen and Debra Schneider of the downtown firm of Fredrikson & Byron have taken the case of Algerian-born Ahcene Zemiri and traveled to Cuba to see him. The U.S. considers Zemiri an enemy combatant, seizing him in Afghanistan. Media reports link him to 1999’s abortive "Millennium Bomber" terrorist strike on Los Angeles (see sidebar, page 15).
In a U.S. District Court brief, Fredrikson lawyers said Zemiri has never been part of Al Queda or any other terrorist group and, "did not cause or attempt to cause any harm to American personnel or property prior to his detention."
The petition said the government agents have tortured Zemiri. Human Rights groups have criticized the U.S. government for holding prisoners without charges and for using abusive interrogation tactics. Meanwhile, Defense department Web sites point out significant intelligence gained from the detainees.
The Fredrikson firm already has spent approximately 1,000 hours on the case, and the end is nowhere in sight. It is one of many firms volunteering to help individual prisoners. Lawyers are trying to force the U.S. government to bring formal charges against their clients or release them.
Lundquist said it is a "virtual certainty" that, with 540 detainees, a "goodly number" don’t belong there.
"In any operation like this, mistakes are going to be made," he said. "That is why you can’t just rely on the Executive Branch. I think the travesty is that we are not using the due process that our country is renowned for."
In an interview at their firm, Lundquist and Moen described how Fredrikson & Byron got involved in such a volatile international issue. They discussed their trip to Cuba – including a long wait in the hot sun before getting to see their client – and the two-day interview with Zemiri shackled to the floor.
"I have been to a number of prisons over the years," said Lundquist. "I have never seen security quite like this before."
Their first meeting with Zemiri in March faced any number of hurdles, including basic trust and language barriers. Zemiri speaks French and Arabic. Moen is fluent in French and translated for Zemiri and the legal team.
"It is a very oppressive – mentally, emotionally – oppressive environment." Moen said of Guantanamo’s Camp Echo.
Discussing the two-day interview, she said: "I don’t normally lock eyes with someone and talk about very intense, very scary, very dangerous events for hours at a stretch, in any language."
A friend, an invitation and background checks
Lundquist traces his involvement in the case to Joe Margulies, who used to practice criminal law in the small Minneapolis firm Margulies & Richmond.
Margulies, now with the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School, was lead counsel in Shafiq Rasul v. George W. Bush, a case brought on behalf of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rasul June 28, 2004, saying, "federal courts have jurisdiction to determine the legality of the Executive [Branch]’s potentially indefinite detention of individuals who claim to be wholly innocent of wrongdoing."
The ruling opened the door to numerous other detainee petitions, Lundquist said.
He and Dorsey knew Margulies, and Margulies called to ask if they would help, Lundquist said. They discussed it with the firm, put together a team last summer and began researching the legal issues.
"On a more personal level, it has been professionally and personally rewarding," said Lundquist, who chairs the firm’s health care fraud and compliance group, as well as their white collar and regulatory defense group. "[We primarily] represent people with a lot of money and power, and corporate America. This is a nice opportunity to do something very different."
The firm has a larger team working on the case, but four key team members – Lundquist, Dorsey, Moen and Debra Schneider – each had to apply for "Secret" level national security clearance. Moen said they had to list every address and every job they had for the past 10 years and references to back them up.
FBI investigators interviewed each of them and more. The FBI called Moen’s law school friend in Texas, a professor in Boston – even City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Moen said. (She worked for Goodman as a college intern in 1998, answering phones and setting up the first "Lunch with Lisa" meetings.)
Lundquist listed references, "not thinking in a million years anyone would call them," he said. "I was mortified one day when a couple of these people called me and said, ‘Guess who came by – the FBI was asking about you!’"
Investigators walked around his Linden Hills neighborhood asking neighbors about him. They even talked to his fishing buddy Ken Matysik.
Matysik, a Fulton resident, said he has known Lundquist for at least 15 years, and they go to plays and fly fish together. He talked to the FBI agent for 30 to 45 minute.
"The guy wasn’t officious," he said. "It was low-key and straightforward."
The agent wanted to know about Lundquist’s life and character, he said. He asked about Lundquist’s hobbies, his political convictions, whether he went to church and if he had made any large purchases recently.
"I said, ‘to John, a big purchase was a new canoe’," Matysik said.
‘The package has arrived’
Lundquist, Dorsey and Moen flew to Cuba in March.
Guantanamo Bay bisects the base, Moen said. On one side is the Combined Bachelors’ Quarters, where the visiting media and attorneys stay, along with other military personnel. It has a little bar and restaurant called the Clipper Club. You can get pizza there if you miss mealtime at the galley.
It was hot during the day. The scenery includes cactus; iguanas; and banana rats, large, opossum-like marsupials that come out and night, Moen said. "Most of the base is pretty laid back," she said. "Most people were very nice to us and friendly."
On the other side of the bay is Camp Delta, the prisoners’ camp, and Camp Echo, where military personnel interrogate detainees and attorneys interview clients.
In the morning, the lawyers took a ferry across the bay. Escorts met them and took them to breakfast, and then to Camp Echo.
They went through a series of checkpoints, past personnel with mirrored sunglasses and foreboding faces, Moen said. The camp itself has a high fence with an opaque green covering so you can’t see through it. Razor wire rings the top.
"To get in, you have to go through three or four gates," Moen said. "It takes a really long time. It is irritating because time is precious when you want to interview your client. And even though they knew we were coming down well in advance, it took them a long time to get us in."
Inside Camp Echo, Lundquist said the ground is covered in crushed white rock. Someone had taken a stick and drawn lines to mark the walking path – and you had to stay inside the lines.
"We asked them why they had all this crushed rock and they said it was to be like a Japanese rock garden," Lundquist said.
Moen said it was hard to walk on the rocks and called the environment "very stark."
"There is no shade. There are no trees. There is no vegetation. The sun just beats down and hits the white rock and it reflects back up," she said.
They stood in the sun, waiting to meet their client. The first detainee guards brought was not Zemiri. They took him away and went back to try again. Moen said they didn’t start the interview until 11 a.m., or as she saw it, after two hours of interviewing time were lost.
The guards finally returned with Zemiri, telling the attorneys: "The package has arrived."
Inside the shack
Small shacks line the perimeter of Camp Echo, the attorneys said. A guardhouse that looks something like a tollbooth with mirrored windows sits in the middle.
The interview took place inside one of the shacks, approximately 8 by10 feet, they said. It had air conditioning but no windows, just narrow Plexiglas-covered slits.
A mesh grate divided the room. On one side was a cot and toilet. The interview would span two days, and Zemiri would stay in the shack overnight rather than return to Camp Delta. The other side of the grate had a card table and four chairs.
When the attorneys entered the room, Zemiri was in an orange jump suit, seated and shackled to the floor. "He was sitting back; his arms were folded," Moen said. "He was looking at us, but he was pretty impassive. We were 4 feet away. But there could have been a wall between us."
Lundquist said part of the time the attorneys spent with Zemiri was just trying to build some trust. Detainees are highly skeptical of anyone coming to the camp saying they are there to help.
To ease that transition, Zemiri’s wife had sent him a package as a sort of introduction, Lundquist said. It included a letter she had written, some pictures and items from the law firm.
When the attorneys arrived, Zemiri hadn’t received the package, he said. The attorneys talked to their escorts, who looked into it. On the second day, they hand-delivered the package. "It had to be cleared through their screening process," Lundquist said.
The interviews lasted from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. the first day, and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. the second day, with some breaks. During the two-day interview, something as minor as a bathroom break became an ordeal, Lundquist said. The guards would come in and shackle Zemiri’s hands.
By the end, Lundquist said he felt the attorneys "were fairly successful" at bridging the gulf of mistrust.
The attorneys never saw Camp Delta. They did not discuss what, if anything, they learned from Zemiri about camp conditions or his treatment, other than to refer to information contained in the court filing. (See sidebar.)
Moen, Dorsey and Schneider traveled to Cuba again in mid-June for a second visit. Moen called the interview productive and Zemiri was doing very well, under the circumstances.
War on terror
Volunteer attorneys have filed a number of similar petitions for other detainees, Lundquist said. It is impossible to say how long the case will go on.
As Lundquist explained it, the U.S. government now argues that the Supreme Court ruling gave detainees the right to file their petitions, but only to file – it doesn’t mean they can assert any rights.
A lower court sided with the detainees. The U.S. government appealed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case now sits.
What would the Fredrikson & Byron attorneys say to those who argue Guantanamo Bay has provided critical intelligence to keep troops safe?
"There is a better way of doing this," Lundquist said. "I think we all recognize the need to deal with terrorism. That is not an issue. That doesn’t mean we have to throw the Constitution out of the window, and it does not mean that the enemy has to be abused by us.
"It doesn’t mean that the Geneva Convention – that we are signatory to – should be ignored," he said. "I think we would all be better served if it [were] done with full due process because I think the government would find that the rest of the world would be more sympathetic and would be more likely to want to cooperate, instead of being appalled by what we are doing."