Today is the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in CCR’s case Rasul v. Bush, in which the Court held that men held in Guantánamo had a right to challenge the legality of their detention. Rasul changed the game in the fight to release men from the prison and close it for good. The Court unequivocally rejected the Bush administration’s argument that Guantánamo was essentially a lawless, legal black hole where they could stash and hide people from the prying eyes of human rights lawyers and the public.
Rasul was originally filed in February 2002, when the ashes were still practically smoldering on ground zero after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Fifteen years later, as human rights organizations, many journalists, and large portions of the public have rallied around the cause of closing Guantánamo, it seems hard to remember a time when CCR stood essentially alone. We struggled to find local lawyers who were even willing to do the exceedingly minimal procedural task of filing the papers for us. We didn’t know whether donors would stick by us—we worried filing a case on behalf of the men at Guantánamo might actually shut our doors for good. (And we are heartened to know now that our donors did stick by us when we risked it all and went forward with Rasul on principle, and that you have stuck around supporting our efforts to close Guantánamo ever since.)
The decision to file Rasul despite the extreme unpopularity of doing so was the guiding vision of CCR’s late President Emeritus Michael Ratner. Having previously challenged unlawful detentions at Guantánamo, Michael knew immediately that the Bush administration was attempting to use Guantánamo as a lawless land—and that, despite the odds, CCR had to challenge it. As former CCR Board member David Cole recounted in the New York Times, when Cole asked Michael “several years later, what he thought his chances were in filing [Rasul],” Michael answered, “‘None whatsoever. We filed 100 percent on principle.’”
But we did win. And Rasul opened Guantánamo to the world. Attorneys were allowed to visit the prison, to learn who was held there and the circumstances of their capture, and to challenge the U.S.’s ability to detain people there. In the wake of Rasul, CCR organized hundreds of lawyers across the country to represent the detainees—the largest mass defense effort in U.S. history. From this, the world learned that most of the men detained in Guantánamo were utterly innocent, that they had been captured and sold to the U.S. for bounties, that they had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also learned that most of the men had been degraded and tortured—in Afghanistan and in the secret cells in Guantánamo—and that, contrary to the mythology propagated by the Bush Administration that these people were the “worst of the worst,” in fact they are living and loving human beings – brothers, sons, fathers, and friends – too many of whom still long for home after 15 years of detention without charge or trial.
Rasul also spurred Congress into action, passing laws that limited the rights of men held in Guantánamo to access federal courts. This attempt to undermine Rasul led to a second landmark CCR case, Boumediene v. Bush, and another Supreme Court ruling confirming that men at Guantánamo had the right to access federal courts to challenge their detention.
Rasul and Boumediene were definitive legal victories – but they have not always led to victory on the ground. Though the men detained in Guantánamo have gotten into court to challenge their detention, the conservative D.C. Appeals Court has routinely declined to order their release.
Rasul and Boumediene capture all of the complexities of using the law as a tool for social change, and of CCR’s ongoing efforts to ensure that success in the courts does not supersede real changes in the lives of our clients. Rasul and Boumediene were vital decisions for preserving the rule of law, ensuring that Bush excesses were not enshrined in principle. But, ultimately, it has been the stories—the stories, the stories, the stories, the stories—of men detained at Guantánamo that have fueled the fight to close the prison.
Those stories would never have been told had it not been for Rasul.
Or for you, CCR’s loyal supporters and donors. You stood by us when no one else would when we filed Rasul, and have continued to stand by us through 14 years and counting of litigation and advocacy efforts.