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UNM students help pave the path to freedom for Guantanamo inmate

Four UNM students helped a pair of local lawyers secure a release recommendation for a Guantanamo Bay detainee, getting some work in for class in the process.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was detained in 2002 for his alleged association with al-Qaeda in the early ‘90s, authored the bestselling memoir “Guantanamo Diary.” Despite his almost 14-year detainment, he was never charged.

In the spring Nancy Hollander and Theresa Duncan, Slahi’s lawyers, were preparing for his Periodic Review Board hearing, at which it would be recommended that Slahi be released or remain at Guantanamo.

Duncan, a UNM law professor, had a conversation with UNM professor Dawinder Sidhu, who teaches a course on national security. Duncan said the two of them realized students could help with research for Slahi’s hearing.

It turned out to be fortunate timing for graduate law student Alan Heinz, one of several in Sidhu’s course who needed an extra project to work on.

“Students were expected to research and write a legal paper of publishable quality. Four of us had already fulfilled this requirement through other classes and were taking the course because of an interest in national security,” Heinz said.

Close to three dozen PRB cases had already been heard and Duncan and Hollander wanted analysis of those cases to help them build a strong case for Slahi’s release, Sidhu said.

Four students immediately volunteered: Sarah Mahoney, Daniel Enriquez, Jason Patton, and Heinz.

The law school itself has a strong connection to Guantanamo, Sidhu said.

UNM is one of 19 educational organizations that can send legal observers to military commissions held at the detention facility, Sidhu said. Roughly a dozen UNM students have made the journey.

“Guantanamo is such a controversial space, and I think when you say the word ‘Guantanamo’ a lot of impressions may come to mind,” Sidhu said. “But to actually see what the base is like, to engage with the prosecution and defense counsel, to see the hearings live is an opportunity for students to make up their own minds.”

Heinz said he volunteered because he was curious about the PRB process and was interested in doing work that would have a real world impact.

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“All the academic work I’ve done so far is in the hopes of one day getting to apply it,” Heinz said. “While the law school does a pretty good job of grounding discussions in reality, even the best hypothetical remains exactly that. There’s a key qualitative difference in motivation when you know your research may directly help someone.”

The students reviewed published documents for detainees who have already had determinations made on their PRB cases, in order to find common threads, Heinz said.

Sidhu said law students are not typically excited about their academic work, but this project’s real world impact — as well as its sense of urgency — changed that.

“The hearing was just a matter of weeks away so I think they really had a sense of the quick turnaround, the import of what they were doing,” he said. “They all brought great passion and a heightened sense of responsibility to this project. They discharged their duties extremely ably.”

Heinz said the collaboration involved was similar to his normal academic work.

“The closest we came to having any problems was in divvying up the work. As law students, we are all at least minor workaholics. When divvying up the work, we all tried to round in favor of doing more cases ourselves,” he said.

It is important for law students to understand how their work can impact people’s lives, Sidhu said.

“For Mohamedou, for example, effective representation can mean the difference between being in Guantanamo indefinitely or potentially going home or at least being released from Guantanamo. There’s serious stakes involved with real cases,” he said.

The research project finished in April, and Slahi’s June 2 hearing resulted in a recommendation that he be released.

Sidhu said both Hollander and Duncan were pleased with the work that was provided and with the outcome for Slahi, but acknowledged that it wasn’t solely the student team’s doing.

“I am proud of the work we did and am glad the PRB recommended Mr. Slahi be released,” Heinz said “That said, if we earned a pat on the back, Ms. Hollander and Ms. Duncan deserve a standing ovation.”

Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily. 

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