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An Air Force lawyer fights to free a Guantanamo inmate

LONDON — A U.S. military lawyer blitzed London this week, calling for the immediate release of her client, who allegedly was trained in an al Qaida terrorist camp, from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Claiming that Binyam Mohamed, a former British resident who's on a hunger strike at Guantanamo, will leave prison "insane" or "in a coffin" if he's not released soon, Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Yvonne Bradley has made herself a thorn in the side of her military superiors, her commander-in-chief and other officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

All the charges against Mohamed have been dropped, and in a private meeting on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Bradley, and subsequently the news media, that the Obama administration had agreed to make reviewing Mohamed's case a "priority." A British delegation plans to visit Mohamed in prison "as soon as possible", and it will include a doctor who can assess his ability to travel, Miliband said.

Part of Bradley's reception in London stems from her "novelty," said Clive Stafford Smith, a member of Mohamed's legal team and the director of the human rights group Reprieve. She's an African-American woman and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve who doesn't flinch when she describes her client's treatment or criticizes her country's policies.

"I think this comes as quite a shock to a lot of people in England that a serving military officer would say the things she says," Stafford Smith said. "It illustrates the very best about America."

Bradley, 45, who calls herself "a lawyer and a soldier" and a "lifelong Republican," told McClatchy in an interview that she blames the Bush administration for Mohamed's arrest and for his treatment in captivity. Asked if she thinks her client is innocent, Bradley replied that he "was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"If 9/11 never happened, this whole series of events would never have happened," Bradley said. "This was an experiment that failed. It is a shame and a legacy that will follow (the United States) in its history."

Bradley, who grew up near Philadelphia, got her law degree at Notre Dame two decades ago and began practicing law in the Air Force. She joined the military, she said, because it would expose her to different types of law and give her a chance to travel. She spent six years on active duty, including a stint on a U.S. airbase in Saudi Arabia.

She then took a job in a federal public defender's office representing convicts on Death Row, where her most notorious client may have been Harrison "Marty" Graham, a convicted serial killer in Philadelphia. "I was glad there was a piece of glass between Marty and I," Bradley recalled.

She continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve, which normally involves a commitment of one weekend a month and two weeks a year, and after about six years in the federal public defender's office, she set up a solo law practice in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Swarthmore.

In 2005, Bradley, then a major, got a call from Col. Dwight Sullivan, the chief defense counsel for Guantanamo Bay inmates at the time.

"He said he had the perfect case for me," she recalled. Partly because of her work with inmates on Death Row, she said, Sullivan wanted to partner her with Stafford Smith, who also had defended Death Row inmates and was already working on Mohamed's case.

Stafford Smith, who has dual British and American citizenship, recalled that he initially was wary about working with a Republican military lawyer.

Now obviously fond of Bradley, who's spending this weekend at his home in southern England, Stafford Smith added: "That just goes to show you how wrong we were — almost every stereotype you can think of turns out to be wrong."

Her views have changed dramatically since she joined Mohamed's legal team in 2005. She said that when she was assigned to his case, she was "a true believer" in America's campaign against terrorism.

Bradley recalled that after she got a call to defend Mohamed at Guantanamo Bay in 2005, she was ready to shut down her law practice in suburban Philadelphia. "I knew these were war crimes," she said of the charges against her client.

Then she received orders that her assignment would last 90 days. "That should have been my first warning that something was wrong," she said. "I can't try a small possession of marijuana (case) in 90 days, let alone a major war crime."

When Bradley first visited Mohamed at Guantanamo Bay, she recalled, she was "scared," although as a federal public defender she'd represented a serial killer and other murderers on Death Row. "I believed my government when they told me he was a terrorist," she said.

She flew to Cuba and met with Stafford Smith. She let him do most of the talking and wore civilian clothes rather than a military uniform to avoid frightening her client. She remembers meeting a "baby-faced" young man who seemed quiet and shy.

"I was thinking, 'This guy's supposed to be the worst of the worst; we're going to try him as one of the first 10 cases? What the hell are we doing down here in Guantanamo?' "

She left Mohamed's cell feeling "upset and confused," she said.

A review of Mohamed's charge sheet raised more questions. "I was waiting for the blood on his hands, the trigger finger, links to the dirty-bomb plot," she said. Instead, over time, she came to believe that "his story was all spun out by the CIA" after Mohamed was held in several countries, including Afghanistan and Morocco — and, he alleges, tortured.

Bradley's defense of Mohamed has ruffled feathers and nearly landed her in trouble.

Stafford Smith and Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University who also was on Mohamed's defense team when Bradley joined it, recall an incident early in the case when she was nearly held in contempt of court.

Under the rules that governed military commissions at the time, a client's defense was "reduced to a script relegating counsel to being a potted plant, but Yvonne was not going to put up with that," Margulies said.

Bradley had a "heated exchange" with the judge, Margulies recalled. "He ordered her, and she wouldn't back down." As a superior military officer, the judge could've held Bradley in contempt. "We thought she was going to be taken into custody right then and there," Margulies said.

At the next break in the proceedings, Margulies said, he and Stafford Smith huddled with Bradley. "She was completely unruffled," he recalled.

To avoid trouble with the judge, though, they urged her to plead the Fifth Amendment.

"That's not something I've had to do for a fellow lawyer before," said Stafford Smith. "I don't think Binyam (Mohamed) could ask for a more dogged advocate."

"She didn't win any Miss Congeniality awards that day," Margulies said, "but at that moment her client understood that he had a lawyer there."

Asked what her relationship is with Mohamed now, Bradley paused. "Uncertain trust," she said. "I trust him, but I'm not sure he trusts me." A turning point came about a year ago, when Mohamed wrote her a thank you note. "I thought 'Yes, Binyam.' He had finally realized."

Late in the week, Bradley told McClatchy that she was hopeful, based on what Foreign Secretary Miliband had told her, that Mohamed might be released soon. She's due to leave London on Monday, but was trying to extend her stay in case he's flown back to London.

Still, her optimism remains guarded.

"I've been lied to so many times, deceived so many times, until Mr. Mohamed is in the UK," she said, her voiced trailing off. "It's not over until he's here."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


Binyam Mohamed was born in Ethiopia 30 years ago and moved as a young man to Britain, where he converted to Islam. He traveled to Pakistan in 2001, Bradley said, because he was "enthusiastic about his new religion" and wanted to escape "the drug culture" in London.

In 2002, Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan while he was trying to board a flight to London. U.S. officials said they suspected that he'd trained with al Qaida and was involved in plotting to attack America with a radioactive "dirty" bomb.

He was arrested and subsequently sent to Morocco, where he claims he was tortured and interrogated with the involvement of the FBI, the CIA and MI5, Britain's international intelligence agency.

He was sent to Guantanamo in 2004, where he was interrogated further. All charges against him have since been dropped. He's been on a hunger strike since late December, and is one of many detainees who're being force-fed by prison authorities.


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